We are in the attic of an old wooden barn in Jämtland, midway up the length of Sweden, staring quizzically at the food on our plates: two scallop shells nestled on a bed of smoldering juniper branches amid a litter of autumn leaves, twigs, and bits of moss and lichen. It looks like something scooped off the forest floor.
Two sharp claps sound and the chef, a wild-haired Jämtlander named Magnus Nilsson, appears in the middle of the room, whose rough-sawn timbers are hung with sheepskins, air-dried legs of ham, and bunches of wild herbs. Haunting swedish folk music swirls around us. A fireplace crackles in one corner. After a quick look at his perplexed guests- there’s only space for a dozen diners around his six birchwood tables- Nilsson instructs us to pick up the scallops with our hands and devour them straight from the shell. But this is nothing compared to the next course, which sees a pair of his kitchen staff cut a moose’s thigh bone in two with a hacksaw. They then pour the oily bone marrow onto diced cow’s heart, raw and so fresh it’s still warm, and serve it with a sprinkle of sage salt and tiny pink and white forest flowers.
Welcome to Fäviken, a 12-seat restaurant that, despite its back-of-beyond setting, is at the vanguard of Sweden’s culinary revolution- and one of the hottest kitchens in Europe. Credit for this goes to the 29-year-old Nilsson, who arrived here five years ago to organize the owner’s private wine cellar. Set on an 8,400-hectare forested estate at the foot of Mount Åreskutan, Fäviken back then catered to skiers with its moose fondue- a hearty dish, but hardly groundbreaking. Nilsson, who had trained as a chef (including a stint at Pascal Barbot’s Astrance in Paris) before giving up cooking to write about wine, decided to return to the kitchen.
What intrigued him most was the potential of ingredients gathered or grown on the estate or by local farmers: lime-green lichen, pine bark, sorrel leaves, duck, reindeer. In summers he dried, brined, pickled, and even buried ingredients for the long winters, when the sun barely makes it over the horizon for a few hours each day. Nilsson’s cuisine was raw and primordial, with a devotion to purity that verged on the fanatic. It rocked the Nordic culinary world right down to its fur-lined boots.
‘When a friend told me about this extraordinary meal he had had in a tiny restaurant in the wilds of Jämtland, i thought he was joking,’ Per Styregård, editor-in-chief of the White Guide, Sweden’s culinary bible, tells me two days later over a meal in Stockholm. Styregård has made three trips to Fäviken. On his latest visit, he was treated to something he could never have imagined- a ‘bird menu’ that required him to suck the birds’ brains out from their beaks. ‘It was,’ he says, ‘mind-blowing.’
Styregård and I are dining at Volt, a stylish but unfussy downtown restaurant that, like Fäviken 600 kilometers to the north, is helping to reinvent the Swedish kitchen. Leavening local, seasonal produce with what their menu describes as ‘grandma flavors,’ Volt’s four young tattooed owners roll out dishes like langoustine served warm with radish, dill, and mayonnaise; duck breast with tart yellow sea buckthorn berries; and slabs of rare venison teamed with juniper berries that give the meat a peppery, tangy edge.
Faced with short summers and long, grim winters, Swedes developed a rich culinary tradition of pickling, salting, and curing. But their food was generally something that was eaten at home, not in a restaurant. ‘Ten years ago,’ Styregård says, ‘dining out usually meant eating French or Italian.’
Then everything changed. Perhaps spurred on by the success of what has been dubbed ‘new Nordic cuisine’ and the trailblazing kitchen of René Redzepi and his Copenhagen restaurant Noma, Swedish chefs have recently turned their focus inward, rediscovering the bounty of their own gastronomic heritage. The movement has gained so much momentum that tourism authorities have made a campaign of it- ‘Sweden: The New Culinary Nation.’
High on their list of star chefs is Mathias Dahlgren. Autumn means mushroom season in Sweden, and Dahlgren has fashioned a menu around fungi found in the forests outside Stockholm. Matsalen, his two-Michelin-starred dining room on the ground floor of Stockholm’s Grand Hôtel, is a lot more formal than most new Swedish restaurants. Its arched windows overlook the Royal Palace on Stadsholmen Island; inside, a palette of beige and charcoal blue is matched by a team of polite, black-kilted staff. Dishes- black trumpet mushrooms baked with farm eggs; truffle with beef and oyster- are plated with artistry and precision.
Mushrooms are also on the menu at Ekstedt, albeit served in quite a different manner. Tired of laboratory-style kitchens and high-tech gadgetry, former TV chef Niklas Ekstedt has gone back to basics, using an open fire pit and wood-burning stove in his electricity-free ‘stone age’ kitchen. The restaurant is bustling and industrial, with exposed ceiling ducts, bare wooden tables, and a window that looks into the soot-blackened kitchen, where chefs in thick leather aprons look like blacksmiths. But the results of their labors are anything but medieval: gorgeous, full-flavored dishes such as smoked lobster claws cooked with tomatoes, almonds, and sour cream; and beef tartare with tart lingonberries and earthy chanterelles.
Provenance has become the byword among Sweden’s top chefs, whose locavore leanings embrace not only an ingredient’s origin, but also the hands that cultivated it. This passion reaches almost fever pitch at 30-year old Daniel Berlin’s eponymous 10-seat restaurant in Skåne Tranås, a tiny village found an hour’s drive from the southern city of Malmö. What the small vegetable patch and tangle of wild berry bushes behind the restaurant don’t supply, Berlin sources from within a 30 kilometer radius. There is Vilhelmsdal goat’s cheese, free-range pork from nearby Olinge Farm, and cod fresh in from friends who fish the Öresund, the stretch of water between Sweden and the Danish island of Sjælland.
Why gamble on such obscure location? ‘I simply couldn’t afford to open in Stockholm,’ says the soft-spoken Berlin. There are only two other cooks in the kitchen; his parents even left their jobs to help him run the place: his father, Per-Andres, pours the wine and makes coffee; his mother, Iréne, replenishes water glasses and clears plates. The result is a homey, intimate, and incredibly well thought-out experience that is worth every inch of the detour.
My meal starts with wafer-thin crisps of onion and mushroom sitting on a bed of moss and twigs; quail eggs, their sun-yellow yolks still runny, are served with watercress and tomato, and followed by a vivid mushroom soup. A fillet of cod is perfectly balanced with apples and beach plants. But it is the spelt with burnt butter and cauliflower that exemplifies this young chef’s skill and originality.
I see the trickle-down effects of Sweden’s new culinary scene a short drive away at the Vilhelmsdal goat’s cheese factory, a white stone farmhouse set amid gently rolling hills peppered with pockets of forest and distinctive red houses. Owner Lars Anderberg used to work for Ikea, and confesses that he knew nothing about cheese or goats before he and his wife decided to leave their jobs and open Vilhelmsdal. ‘I was tired of making things that people didn’t need,’ Anderberg says. ‘Now, we make things they do need.’
Producing 75 kilos of goat’s cheese a day, Vilhelmsdal is one of only 200 small cheese makers in Sweden. (France, by comparison, has thousands). Recently, it received a coveted award from the Swedish Gastronomy society, an accolade garnered by only two other cheese makers since the 1950s. ‘It’s thanks to the new Swedish restaurants that small suppliers like ours can survive,’ Anderberg says.
Back in Stockholm, chefs Anton Bjuhr and Jacob Holmström of restaurant Gastrologik are so smitten by the farmers whom they buy from that they made a book about them. ‘A close relationship with producers is vital for quality,’ says Holmström, who has done away with menus to give him the freedom to cook whatever comes in fresh that day (one recent example: wild salmon with onion flowers and spruce shoots in aquavit). And at Frantzén/Lindeberg, a 17-seat restaurant on Stadsholmen Island owned by chefs Björn Frantzén and Daniel Lindeberg, you’ll find photographs of farmers on the wall.
Among them is Jan Andersson, a onetime preschool teacher who now owns four hothouses near Malmköping, 70 kilometers south of Stockholm. I drive there with Frantzén to see what is destined for that night’s dinner plate: candy-striped Chioggia beetroots, curly kale, sea aster, and kohlrabi, which all come together in the Satio Tempesta (‘satisfaction of the season’), an extravagant salad starring 40 different types of fruits and vegetables, most from Andersson’s garden.
Frantzén/Lindeberg is renowned for its wild pairings, and dinner there is certainly an experience. I partake of a buttery langoustine served with pork fat, celery, and apple foam, and bone marrow with smoked parsley and caviar. Then comes the salad. After that, it gets a little strange. A glutinous cockscomb with monkfish and hazelnuts combines too many textures for my liking, while a succulent lamb steak is overpowered by anchovies. But it’s the dried pig’s blood with blackberries and chocolate served 22 courses in to this 27-course tasting menu that throws me the most.
Despite- or perhaps because of- such oddities, Frantzén/Lindeberg is by far the most applauded restaurant in Sweden at the moment, with two Michelin stars and a coterie of devotees. Together with Magnus Nilsson, its owners are influencing a whole new generation of chefs, which we are likely to hear a lot about in years to come.
‘There is a lot of energy in the restaurant scene in Sweden now,’ says Holmström. ‘It’s a really great moment to be a chef.’
Where to stay
Stockholm hotels have long been on the pricey side, and Ett Hem (2 Sköldungagatan; 46-8/200-590; etthemstockholm.se; doubles from US$569), a newly renovated 12-room guesthouse designed by Ilse Crawford, is no exception. Easier on the wallet is Hotel Skeppsholmen (1 Gröna Gången; 46-8/407-2300; hotelskeppsholmen.com; doubles from US$269), which inhabits a 1699 building on an island in the center of the city.
Ekstedt: 17 Humlegårdsgatan; 46-8/611-1210; ekstedt.nu
Frantzén/Lindeberg: 21 Lilla Nygatan; 46-8/208-580; frantzen-lindeberg.com
Gastrologik: 14 Artillerigatan; 46-8/662-3060; gastrologik.se
Mathias Dahlgren Matsalen: Grand Hôtel, 6 Södra Blasieholmshamnen; 46-8/679-3584; mathiasdahlgren.com
Volt: 16 Kommendörsgatan; 46-8/662-3400; restaurangvolt.se
For a taste of some of Sweden’s most exciting cuisine, head south to Malmö by plane or train for the 45-minute drive to Daniel Berlin Krog (21 Diligensvägen, Skåne Tranås, 46-417/20300; danielberlin.se); the best bet for local lodgings is the Logi Gamlegård (46-417/31000; logigamlegard.se; doubles from US$200), a farmhouse-turned-inn outside Tomelilla.
Remoter still is Fäviken Magasinet (216 Fäviken, Järpen; 46-647/ 40177; favikenmagasinet.se), which from Stockholm requires a flight north to Östersund followed by an hour’s drive to Järpen. Book ahead for one of the estate’s six guest rooms, which go for about US$300 a night, including breakfast.