With its raw coastal scenery and burgeoning food scene, the Västsverige region of southwest Sweden is ready for the spotlight.
“Langoustines, wild shrimp, native oysters, and vendace roe from Lake Vänern. It’s our claim to fishy fame,” my old friend and Swedish food writer Per Styregård told me recently about the bounty of Västsverige, or West Sweden. “As the late, great food critic A.A. Gill once said, if you think Swedish women are spectacular, wait till you see the fish.”
But there’s a lot more to West Sweden than seafood, as I discover on a food-centric road trip with my husband around this swath of land that encompasses Gothenburg, the rugged Bohuslän Coast, and farming plains that wrap around the southern shores of the aforementioned Lake Vänern, Western Europe’s largest lake. From farmers to foragers, cooks to craft brewers, the region is emerging as one of Scandinavia’s culinary hot spots.
Our first stop after checking out of hipster-filled Hotel Pigalle in Gothenburg is Smögen, a pretty seaside town some 90 minutes up the coast. There, I soon find myself ankle-deep in mud as I trail Thomas Sjögren- named Sweden’s Chef of the Year in 2015 by the Swedish Gastronomic Academy- along a windy shoreline in search of wild ingredients for tonight’s dinner. Originally from Umeå in the north, 24-year-old Sjögren moved to Smögen two years ago to cook at Skärets Krog, a waterfront café and restaurant with a spot on the White Guide, Sweden’s homegrown answer to Michelin. “Fish from the market, vegetables and rapeseed oil from a nearby farm, chive flowers foraged from the coast. If you’ve got great raw ingredients, it is easy to make great food,” he says as we chance upon a patch of candy-sweet white strawberries nestled under a juniper shrub. “Here, great produce is all around.”
Over lunch, Sjögren introduces us to Skärets Krog’s legendary räkmacka, an open-face sandwich of wild shrimp and pickled onion that was invented here back in 1931. It’s a far cry from the refined fare served in the upstairs dining room—things like hake with apple-cider foam and foraged oyster leaf- but it’s rustic and messy and entirely satisfying.
From Smögen it’s a short hop north to the fishing village of Hamburgsund, where we catch a ferry out to Väderöarna, or the Weather Islands. Located 30 minutes offshore in the Skagerrak strait, this cluster of barren, windswept rocks once served as a pilot station for mainland-bound ships; today, the old mariners’ houses are part of Väderöarnas Värdshus, an inn with simple but comfortable rooms set up for weekending groups and families. While clambering over the islands’ boulders or watching the resident colony of seals at play is worth the trip alone, an even better reason to come here is to fish for the Bohuslän Coast’s famous langoustines, a relative of the lobster.
The sun has made a rare appearance the next morning, when, clad in Michelin Man–style thermal suits and clinging to the sides of a rocking boat, we venture out with the inn’s resident fishermen to pull up nets wriggling with the pale pink crustaceans. A flock of squawking gulls follows our every move, hungry for a free nibble on a baby crab or a piece of the fermented mackerel they use as langoustine bait. Back at the jetty, we boil our catch over a gas fire and devour them as fast as we can peel the shells off. The meat is sweet, succulent, and as fresh as can be.
The sun is still shining that afternoon when, after returning to the mainland, we pull into Havstenssund to meet kelp foragers Linnéa Sjögren and Jonas Pettersson. The longtime advocates of umami-rich seaweeds, which are full of omega-3 fatty acids and fucoidans, were working as librarians when chef Tommy Myllymäki won the prestigious Bocuse d’Or cooking competition with dishes featuring seaweed they had harvested. The resulting attention enabled them to turn their hobby into a full-time business called Catxalot (pronounced “catch-a-lot”), supplying restaurants and delis with seaweed products and taking tourists like us out on “seaweed safaris.”
We walk for 20 minutes to the nearby Tjurpannan Nature Reserve where, donning a thick wetsuit and snorkel, Pettersson jumps into the icy water, emerging a few minutes later with an assortment of thick kombu-style kelps and colorful sea grasses. Sjögren fries some up on a camping stove with a little olive oil, and we eat the resulting crisps with homemade seaweed bread and coffee. “This is real Viking food!” she laughs.
Next, we head to Everts Sjöbod, a 19th-century boathouse in the tiny fishing village of Grönemad, just outside Grebbestad, where brothers Per and Lars Karlsson operate a small hotel and a vintage wooden sailboat for fishing and lobster excursions. There’s no time left in the day for a boat trip, but there is time to harvest some oysters, which proves easier than I would have expected: as the boathouse is stilted above an oyster bed, Per has merely to poke about with his long-handled rake in order to bring up some bivalves. And not just any bivalves: Grebbestad oysters are hailed as some of the best in the world, thanks to the clean, bracing waters in which they grow. We slurp down ours with squeezes of lemon and swigs of locally brewed porter. Straight from the sea, they’re delicious.
Then comes dinner- a prodigious smorgasbord of saffron-tinged wild prawns, mussels, crab claws, langoustines, a block of local Hushållsost cheese, seaweed bread and crackers, oyster and berry beers, and a bottle of schnapps. It’s all fantastically fresh and tasty, and we manage to polish most of it off. Afterward, we perch ourselves on the patio to watch the setting sun shimmer on the ocean’s surface. This being May, it doesn’t get dark until after 10 p.m., by which time we’re already blissfully asleep.
The road to Spiken takes us through countryside dotted with pretty villages of red houses and thick birch forests. Perched on the edge of Lake Vänern, Spiken is perhaps best known for the production of vendace roe, eggs harvested from a small whitefish known as siklöja in Swedish. We sample the so-called “red gold” atop a cheese tart at Restaurang Sjöboden, a fine-dining establishment owned by Petter Nordgren, a pioneer (even by Nordic standards) of local, sustainable eating. The roe lives up to its reputation—salty and a bit smoky, each orb bursting with a satisfying pop when I bite down.
From Spiken, it’s just a few kilometers around the lake to Läckö Slott, a baroque castle whose foundations were laid in 1298. But while the stronghold’s snow-white turrets and towers are impressive enough, it is the gardens we’ve come to see. Overseen for the past 27 years by British-born horticulturalist Simon Irvine, they are both ornamental and edible, with multiple plots given over to manicured rows of heirloom lettuces, beetroots, and herbs that are put to good use at Hvita Hjorten (“White Hart”), the restaurant at the nearby Naturum Vänerskärgården hotel and visitors’ center.
Irvine has also been working with local craft brewery Qvänum Mat & Malt on an angelica beer, a refreshingly tart but seriously astringent brew that he deems “the best beer in the world.” We sample it before dinner that night at Hvita Hjorten. A storm is brewing over the lake, which suits the menu perfectly: Irvine’s sunchokes and sweet tender spears of asparagus from a nearby farm with roasted pork belly, thick crunchy crackling, and a rich red-wine gravy.
Only one meal beats our road-trip eats, and that’s back in Gothenburg at Bifångst, a tiny (there are only two seats) restaurant-within-a-restaurant inside an already compact Japanese omakase joint called Hoze. The menu at Bifångst is distinctly Nordic, and owners Pia Holmberg and José Cerdá follow a zero-waste philosophy, using vegetable and meat offcuts rather than cherry-picking prime pieces.
Holmberg, a former chemical engineer, takes the kitchen stage, turning out two dozen morsels from a marble-topped bench facing the dining table. They include sweet, earthy, and tender torched baby leek covered in leek char; and smoky dried and fried sourdough bread with leek puree and ham from a native Linderöd pig, a breed that dates back to the Stone Age. In one standout dish, a potato is diced to the size of rice grains, cooked in white wine, and matched with green asparagus and blackcurrant leaves.
Not everything works; a dish of mackerel with pine shoots lacks seasoning, while the hand-carved birchwood cutlery is clunky and impractical. Yet there’s an ambience of elegance and warmth that simply cannot be manufactured. It’s like a snapshot of West Sweden’s culinary offerings: wholesome, original, and entirely authentic.
Gothenburg is Sweden’s second-largest city, with a well-connected airport to match. From Singapore, Bangkok, and Hong Kong, Finnair provides the fastest routes, via Helsinki.
Where to Eat and Stay
Gothenburg; reservations by email only.
Gothenburg; 46-31/802-521; doubles from US$122.
Väderöarna; 46-525/ 32001; doubles from US$250, including meals and ferry.
Grebbestad; 46-525/ 14242; doubles from US$176.
Läckö Slott, Lidköping; 46-510/484-660; doubles from US$200.
Visit the West Sweden Tourism Board website for a listing of hotels and tour operators in the region.