Season premier for Swedish produce
When spring’s first arrivals start appearing at farm stands and restaurants, Swedes give a resounding communal shout for joy. “Garlic is the first to come up,” says Chef Jacob Holmström of the ingredient-driven Stockholm restaurant, Gastrologik. “It’s the first green thing we see,” says the chef, grabbing a stock.
“Martin and Hilda at Skilleby Trädgård plant cloves before the winter, so they are already blooming in April. We cook them sous-vide, and then grill them, wrap them in a sheath of cured pork fat and sprinkle them with herbs.” Potatoes are the next “premier” ingredient to make an appearance on Gastrologik’s menu.
The first Swedish potatoes of the year, the “primörpotatis,” come from southern Sweden where they have been growing under plastic or cloth to make sure they are ready for harvest in early spring. Because premier potatoes have not reached full maturity, they have thin skins and therefore cannot tolerate storage or even much handling.
This year’s first potatoes were plucked from the soil near Förslöv in the region of Skåne. The harvest draws so much attention that a total of 30 kilos sold for 63,000 SEK. (Half of that amount was donated to the children’s cancer fund, Barncancerfonden.
Thanks to its location in southern Sweden the region of Skåne has a long growing season, and with its rich soil, most of the country’s produce is grown there. For those who want to see Swedish farming up close, some farms even offer travelers a chance to stay with them over night.
At Ängavallen, just ouside Malmö, you can stay overnight at their boutique hotel, see their organic farming and cheese-making operation, buy produce at their farm store and eat at their restaurant where everything on the menu but the wine comes from their operation.
The essence of primörer
In Gastrologik’s kitchen, one cook slices asparagus on the bias, while another gently parboils tendrils of fiddlehead ferns.
Since Holmström and fellow chef Anton Bjuhr started Gastrologik, their concept has remained the same: to work with whatever ingredients the producers supplied them with on any given day. According to Holmström, “This was most challenging in the beginning when we weren’t sure what they would bring us, but five years in, we have a pretty good idea of what’s coming and we can look back at past menus for inspiration and plan ahead.”
Until last week, Holmström says they were using ingredients they had preserved a year ago. “In addition to the fresh stocks of garlic the guests will eat tonight, 700 are undergoing lactic fermentation in the kitchen right now.” Even amidst the abundance of spring, the chefs must be thinking about the winter to come.
Gotland is first
Gotland, with its unique microclimate, is the source of many primörer, like the white asparagus currently on Gastrologik’s menu. This year the island is even hosting a three-day festival called Primörpremiären, from May 22-24. Visitors can stop at roughly 20 farms around the island to taste and buy the first fruits of spring.
Lilla Bjers is one of the farms taking part in the festival. On their land just outside Visby Margareta Hoas and her husband Göran have been growing organic produce for twenty years. “On Gotland the wild leeks (kajp) are the first thing to sprout, and we make a soup out of them that is said to cure ladingsdinglu, which in old Gotlandic means, ‘spring tiredness.’ So the first vegetables of the year are both a sign that the winter is over and an actual source of vitamins,” says Margareta.
Throughout the weekend Gotland’s restaurants will be serving primör menus. At Lilla Bjer’s farm restaurant (which was named “the year’s most sustainable restaurant of 2015” by the White Guide), Chef Luqaz Ottosson’s menu won’t be public until the day before. “Because of the weather, we aren’t certain which vegetables will be best at that time,” says Margareta, “But I’m sure there will be a lot of asparagus, garlic, wild leeks and ramps.”
The festival was originally a celebration of only asparagus, which is the next vegetable to make an appearance after potatoes. The asparagus festival is still celebrated throughout the country, from Falun to Malmö between May 5-27th. Then comes rhubarb, also with festivities, like Sörmland’s 13th annual Rabarberfestival from May 16th through May 24th with competitions, farm tours, plenty of pie and ice cream, and whole menus based around this plant. This is also a chance to try unique new products, like Rhuby, a distilled rhubarb spirit that’s won international acclaim.
Bringing the farm a little closer
From the beginning Gastrologik forged a strong relationship with Rosendals Trädgård, a small farm on the island of Djurgården in central Stockholm. This biodynamic farm and educational center for gardening provides the restaurant with vegetables, herbs and flowers. Jacob and Anton and their cooks often spend time gardening and foraging, and this year they have built a greenhouse and potted garden on their back roof terrace.
Most internationally recognized Swedish restaurants nowadays have similar relationships with local farms and also tend their own gardens, from Fäviken in the north to Daniel Berlin’s restaurant in Skåne Tranås. The trend has also spread to cafes, like like Slottsträdgårdens kafé in Malmö, where most of the vegetables and herbs come from the adjacent city garden, or at Gunnebo Slott outside Gothenburg, where many of the ingredients come from the castle’s gardens and greenhouses.
Right now the first vegetables are trickling in at farm stands throughout the country, but by June kitchens will be overflowing with green. Then comes the first sign of summer, that most anticipated of object of Swedish affection: the strawberry. While Swedes used to have to wait until midsummer for the first strawberries, they are now grown in greenhouses.
Strawberries made their premier on April 21st this year and, like potatoes, drew a record price at auction of 894 SEK a box. Lars Jacobsen of Hjälmshult in Skåne raised the temperature in his greenhouses early this year, on February 1st, in order to wake the plants up from their winter sleep.
But if you have the chance to visit Sweden in the summer, you’ll want to seek out Bergman’s elusive wild strawberries, called smultron. If you are unsuccessful at prying the location of a wild strawberry patch from your host, several producers have captured their essence for you in jams that can be purchased throughout the country.
Fortunately for tourists and locals alike, Sweden stretches through nine climate zones. You could start in Skåne and follow the season premiers of new potatoes and strawberries all the way to the Arctic Circle. And because berries in the north spend the long summer days turning sunlight into sugar, once you got there your reward would be sweet.
“We’re spoiled in the summer time,” says Chef Holmström. Typically, this is a time when Sweden’s restaurants, like the rest of the population, take off for their summerhouses. In spite of the abundance of fresh produce throughout the countryside, the summer dining scene in Sweden’s cities can feel dead – but not this summer. “This summer we’re going to stay open,” says Holmström, to which Stockholmers and tourists alike can give another resounding, joyous shout.