Flying into Gothenburg at dusk is a sight to behold: the sky blazing crimson red lights up thousands of islands peppered across a sea of silvery blue.
In daytime on the ground, the archipelago crowding Sweden’s west coast takes on a different palette. Hamlets of small burgundy-coloured gingerbread cottages crowd at the water’s edge. There are no trees, only weathered tufts of burnt orange and auburn grasses growing in cracks of boulders.
But colour isn’t this coastline’s greatest drawcard. Rather, it’s the food.
At least that’s the conclusion I come to after gorging shamelessly on a lunch of saffron-tinged wild prawns, slightly tougher than their farmed counterparts, but much sweeter and far more flavoursome; a huge bowl of flabby mussels just out of the steamer; and two dozen small pink lobsters with short, fat bodies and challengingly vicious claws. There are no dressings, no dips and all the food comes from within a few kilometres of where I sit on the second floor of Everts Sjobod’s 19th-century boathouse, the quaint headquarters of brothers Per and Lars Karlsson’s tour company, which organises oyster safaris around the archipelago. This locally sourced food includes the generous slab of local Hushallsost cheese that seems born for the seaweed crackers accompanying it and a tart wild blueberry juice to break up the fishy feast. And that was just half of the indulgence. Earlier this morning I helped shuck and then polish off a couple of dozen oysters on one of Everts Sjobod’s safaris, which involved climbing into a Michelin Man-style survival suit – the sky may be blue, but the temperature out on the water is well below zero – and cruising through the archipelago Kago on a pretty wooden boat called Tena.
Costing €6 ($8.40) each from the market, wild Swedish oysters are known in certain chef circles to be the best in the world. Not quite as plump as the Pacific oyster, but far more intense, with a deep mineral flavour that rounds into a salty sweetness, I conclude that they team perfectly with Ostron Porter, a local brew with a hint of mollusc on the palate.
Food isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when imagining Sweden’s rugged but beautiful west coast. But ever since Sweden hit the international fooderati’s radar with innovative restaurants and Viking-looking chefs concerned with provenance and heritage, the country appears to have been bitten by the culinary bug.
Digging deep into their history and traditions, cooks everywhere in Sweden are rediscovering the delights of pickling, brining and salting and indulging in their home-grown pantry. For the Karlsson brothers, this meant looking no further than the bountiful sea on their doorstep.
Pia and Mikael Hansson, who own a small guesthouse and restaurant on the Weather Islands, a tiny outcrop of rocks and Sweden’s most westerly islands, also serve what they can find in their backyard. On the Weather Islands, this isn’t much. Known locally as Vaderoarna, these windswept islands are manned by a clutch of wooden houses, hidden from the North Sea winds by towering boulders. They were built as a pilot station to help guide boats through the labyrinth of outcrops and islands en route to the town of Fjallbacka.
Fifty years ago, the station held 35 people who lived on what water they could catch from the roof and the coal they could carry back from Fjallbacka on the occasional journey there. They would bury root vegetables in the caves to keep them fresh through the long winter and survive on a diet of mainly herring and porridge.
The Hanssons purchased the eerily remote outpost in 2005 and have been slowly converting it into a guesthouse and small restaurant ever since. There are 11 simple rooms, two hot tubs, a sleek sauna and nothing else but rock, sea and sky. “There is nothing to do here except eat and take a sauna,” Hansson says, “and that is exactly the point.”
The food has certainly improved since the ship pilot’s days, I discover, as I sit down to a rich fish chowder made from monk fish, lobster and chunks of root vegetables by the resident chef, Mathis Thorrisen, a Norwegian who spent years in the kitchen of Danish star-diner Noma before seeking quieter and simpler waters in the Weather Islands.
Boating back to Fjallbacka later that afternoon in a four-man craft, purpose-built to withstand the storms that thunder through the archipelago, we spot a colony of seals sunning themselves on nearby rocks. They don’t let us get too close before diving into the water, bobbing their glossy heads up and down and watching our every move.
The islands are peppered with cute-as-a-button cottages that can only be accessed by boat and are built so close to the water they seem as if they are ready to jump into it. We pass the house where Ingrid Bergman retired, a simple, wooden maroon cottage and boat pier tucked in between boulders on a lone island.
In Fjallbacka, a picturesque seaside village of mustard- and orange-roofed houses tucked beneath towering church spires, best known as the setting for author Camilla Lackberg’s crime novels, I walk along the blustery seashore to build up an appetite for one last meal: fish roe, mounds of orange-tinged fish eggs that burst with a salty sweetness, which I scoop onto dry crisp bread with lashings of creme fraiche, sliced fennel, flecks of chopped chive and a squeeze of lemon at Stora Hotellet’s restaurant overlooking the sea. It’s as appetising as it is colourful. The writer was a guest of Visit Sweden.
When to go
Everts Sjobod offers year-round oyster, crab and mackerel fishing trips but the colder months, from late September to late May, yield tastier oysters. See evertssjobod.se
The Weather Islands can be visited on day trips from Fjallbacka, or overnight, sleeping in one of the 11 simple guest rooms with shared bathrooms. See vaderoarna.com
Alternatively, bunk down on the water’s edge in Fjallbacka at Stora Hotellet Bryggan, a charming mini hotel with some stunning views. See storahotelletbryggan.se