Swedish cooking – pushing the limits
It’s a very special dinner at Restaurant Frantzén in Stockholm, a late autumn evening. Björn Frantzén called in two weeks earlier, well aware that I turn down anything remotely reminiscent of a freebie (I even decline friend invites at Facebook from anyone in the industry):
“This is a private dinner and we would appreciate if you would join us”.
We/us happens to be four of Scandinavia’s two star chefs plus the odd man out, Magnus Nilsson at Fäviken Magasinet, the Yeti of Jämtland and the living proof that worldwide stardom in gastronomy has nothing to do with a red book.
“We just like to get together and do some cooking…”
In addition to Frantzén and Nilsson the others are René Redzepi (Noma, Copenhagen), ,Rasmus Kofoed (Geranium, Copenhagen) and Esben Holmoe Bang (Maaemo, Oslo) and their executive chefs and sommeliers.
There are calls to which no is not an option. I do realize this when we all meet up, some twenty guests including Ms Leading Daily and Mr Red Book, at whose side I’m being comfortably seated. Indeed very private and cosy.
I have already eaten most of the twenty servings that follow, but not in the context they are forming here this evening, I doubt anyone has. To me this is New Nordic reflecting upon itself.
Any mountain climber would recognize the situation: It took some really hard work to get this far, and there are quite a few nasty bruises to illustrate the hardships endured along the way; directions tried, obstacles surpassed, dead ends escaped. Now there are some really tricky new decisions to make. Should we pause here, perhaps even stop at this agreeable niche – to just breath and enjoy the crisp air along with the applause.
Or move on?
A dedicated mountain climber would also know the answer. A niche is a trap. There is no way down, the only way out is….up. The question is which direction to take.
I would say that Nordic gastronomy is at this very point right now. Where next?
To understand today’s Swedish gastronomy it’s important to figure out what is common Nordic ground, and what is uniquely Swedish.
The most prominent feature of the New Nordic movement is its focus on indigenous produce, including forgotten and until recently unexplored flora and fauna – making it an interesting and rather exotic alternative to the Mediterranean cuisine that was dominant in Europe ten years ago, when the New Nordic Manifesto was founded. Foraging grounds and waters for odd edibles is an old Nordic tradition, driven by its short seasons and rather scanty soils. In this respect Sweden is worse off than Denmark – or better off, if you look at the wide foraging spectrum and traditions of nutrition adventurism.
Sweden has a vast geographical reach – roughly covering the same distance as continental Europe from Denmark to the Mediterranean. This means a large number of various climatic zones to be ransacked for edibles – and a potentially rich larder of interesting foodstuff. Before the 20th century Sweden was a rather poor country and in bad years starvation was not uncommon, at least not out in the sticks. So the sticks themselves ended up on the stove. Magnus Nilsson at Fäviken Magasinet, located almost at the Polar Circle, has been particularly masterful in expanding our perception of what can be enjoyed for dinner. Everything served here is farmed here, or picked, hunted or fished from forests, mountains, lakes and fjords nearby. This is where you will munch on fieldfare birds, lichen with salty duck egg yolk, salmon roe in dried pig’s blood, marrow from moose bone with chopped raw heart and swedes and the occasional juniper branch or drops of fir oil here and there. It’s yesterday’s hardship feed turned into today’s foodie delicacies.
Because of the long, cold and dark winters, Swedes all over the country have put much effort into making the brief cornucopia of summer last throughout the year, and many old methods of preserving food are being rediscovered.
With refined farming technology and affluence rising most of the old emergency fodder was substituted with energy-rich staples and imported food, and the old survival fare and many preservation traditions sunk into oblivion. We simply lost much of the old local folk gastronomy, characterised by selfsufficiency and thrift.
The New Nordic wave brought all this back into focus. If you’re not looking for nourishment, but for taste, this was paradise lost. Today foraging is not a driver for sustenance – but for flavor and texture. The same motive applies to reapplying old preservation techniques. Sure, crispbread, pickled herring, gravlax, uncooked preserved lingonberries and many other wellloved Swedish classics have survived, but much has been forgotten. Most Swedes know how to quickcure salmon, but how many know how to “inter” fish – or even vegetables? Burying your salmon in the ground for months – a method to keep this protein source useful into the dark months – was the original recipe for gravlax. Now it’s done in a day or merely hours, and is considered a cornerstone in traditional Swedish gastronomy. The original flavor, texture and odor profile of fermented fish has survived in another delicacy, surströmming (“sour” Baltic herring), with a limited but enthusiastic following, especially in the Northern part of Sweden. The opening of the swelling, almost exploding tin cans, traditionally in late August, is regarded a barbaric ritual by appalled Southeners and the smell is definitely not for the faint-hearted. This is an outdoor sport and for once: “don’t try this at home”, is a very clever advice.
You do not risk running into this oddball delight at Swedish restaurants, but you will probably be offered fermented fish in one form or another. As you´re not likely to order it yourself it will be sneaked into your tasting menu at the best restaurants, such as the much-hyped Fäviken Magasinet in Northern Sweden, Mathias Dahlgren Matsalen with one of the Nordic Manifesto’s original underwriters at the helm or the recently opened–and eagerly awaited–Oaxen Krog, which has relocated from its remote island outpost to the inner Stockholm archipelago.
Magnus Ek at Oaxen is one of Scandinavia’s pioneering foragers, enchanting epicureans with tasty foliage, fern, moss and lichen long before The New Nordic Manifesto was conceived. In the new Oaxen these ingredients will also go into some of the remarkable alcohol-free beverages that are prepared at the restaurant under supervision of Ek’s wife and chef sommelier Agneta Green.
When it comes to beverage Sweden is seeing a flood of development, some of it tapping into old traditions. Again, fermentation is key. Almost anything can be brewed or fermented. Ever tried “birch champagne”? SAV Sparkling is a dry, quite elegant bubbly, made from birch sap with a distinct sap flavour and notes of almond and honey. And honey itself is the base for mjöd, mead, another fermented Swedish classic which has ben reinvented to fit contemporary tastes. Fäviken Magasinet serves its own mead brewed from honey and hops.
Magnus Nilsson at Fäviken is not only Sweden’s most famed chef today, but also one of its foremost food scientists. His lavish restaurant-lodge at the historical Jämtland farm actually hides a laboratory behind its picturesque stage setting. Based on the philosophy of the old self-subsistent household, where everything was sourced from the farm or its immediate surroundings, his research has contributed to understanding how taste profiles develop when foodstuff – meat, fish, fowl and veggies – is aged and preserved under various conditions, such as being “graved”: put back into the dirt and ground in the earth cellar. This is mostly about sorting friends from foes in the super active world of bacteria and other microorganisms, who assist in “maturing” our food, at its very best promoting a deep umami sonority and a delicate balance of salty, sweet and sour. Today, all over Sweden, leading chefs are pushing our limits to appreciate what is beyond the come by palatable.
For some years now local ingredients have been celebrated – all over the world, and perhaps in Sweden in particular. This reflects some basically sound values: among them authenticity and environmental concern. Of course all ingredients cannot be produced everywhere and at any time of the year, but where local cultivation and breeding are possible they are preferable for reasons of quality and flavor as well as sustainability. Leading restaurants today want complete control over ingredients, from field to fork. For chefs, that means involving themselves in cultivation, hunting, fishing and breeding. Among those who romanticize the notion of cultivating their own garden is restaurant Frantzén in Stockholm, disposing of two vegetable gardens, even if they don’t personally tend them. Growers and breeders are the heroes of the day. They often turn into established brands at the top restaurants. At Gastrologik, another leading Stockholm restaurant, they offer one menu: The Producers’ Selection. Your Selection is not an option. If frustrated at first, you will be increasingly happy when navigating through the servings.
At Daniel Berlin in Skåne-Tranås in the Toscana of Sweden, Österlen in Skåne, everything is grown in the inn’s own garden, or sourced from farms across the road or from nearby forests, meadows and coves. Österlen has the advantage of some of Sweden’s richest soils, so the gastronomy down here is radically different from what is performed up North – and should be. Daniel Berlin is a true genius loci, turning simple ingredients into pure poetry and his fame has grown exponentially. The little restaurant inn has now become destinational, with gourmets from all over the world making their pilgrimage to enjoy the legendary charcoaled celeriac, and perhaps popping into Noma or Geranium while in the vicinity.
So where is Swedish gastronomy heading? In one direction or many? The best will continue to expand the limits, keep on climbing: contribute to evolving and redefining gastronomy.
The journey “home” to old Sweden is not over yet: there is more to rediscover, more to explore. But Sweden is also one of the world’s most open societies. For one thing we receive more political refugees per capita than any other country, and we have for a long time. Sweden will increasingly become multi-cultural also when it comes to our gastronomy as it’s offered at restaurants. We can see that as a parallel development already today.
The most important trend right now is how top establishments are extending their business and translating their gastronomy into simpler dining establishments – some even switching fully into the bistronomy format. Sweden is one the world’s most egalitarian societies. Increasingly we realize that great food also belongs to the people. It has to be accessible. That is why Sweden’s restaurant scene will keep on booming.
Text by Lars Peder Hedberg, founding partner of White Guide, published in Sweden and Denmark. He is also the Nordic Chairman of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. He’s participating in testing restaurants himself, always booking in a false name. He finally realized that anonymity was a thing of the past, when he visited Fäviken Magasinet and found a blue wig on his bed with a note saying: ”If you insist on testing anonymously”.