Scandinavia is known for its fresh, locally sourced and often foraged foods and now the principles they’ve been practising for more than 20 years are quickly becoming ultra-trendy throughout Europe and beyond. Our writer Holly Daffurn travelled to Sweden to the Culinary Academy – a gastronomic exploration of Småland and Öland (in the South of Sweden) to find out what all the fuss was about…
To be honest, my previous experience of anything that remotely resembled Swedish cooking was a quick lunch in Ikea, but I’d heard whispers that Sweden was on the cusp of a culinary revolution and was very eager to explore the notion for myself. So what is really going on in the kitchens of Sweden? And how are locally sourced seasonal produce and a passion for exploring new tastes going to revolutionise the future of food? I went to the Culinary Academy of Sweden to discover the answers for myself.
Our first stop was Huskvarna Stadshotell, an elegant boutique hotel with individually styled rooms. I stayed in the spacious Golden Room which had a very decadent bath on a pedestal with a glimmering golden reindeer statue to one side, as well as burnished marble walls, a pair of bejewelled armchairs, and I was completely taken with the quirky bowler hat bedside lights.
We spent our first evening in Småland at Lake Vättern where we were welcomed by some local producers who offered us exquisite cheeses, home-baked breads, delicately spiced reindeer meat salami and fragrant Applemust, a deliciously refreshing apple beverage.
I was entranced by the demonstration for Äkta Gränna Polkagrisar, the peppermint flavoured candy sticks with their vivid red and white stripes. We watched the molten sugar be manipulated, flavoured and rolled, slowly taking on a porcelain whiteness as it hardened.
We dined at Sjön, the restaurant of Silver medal Bocuse d’Or and Swedish Chef of the Year winner Tommy Myllymäki. Sjön overlooks the tranquil waters of Lake Vättern which not only serves as a gorgeous backdrop for diners to gaze upon but also provides the fish for the restaurant. Tommy also sources much of the fruit and vegetables locally, being a real ambassador for locally sourced, seasonal produce.
He is a warm and gentle man and his food is deliciously fresh and clean tasting. I loved the simplicity of it all, every flavour had space to breathe and the presentation was minimalist but beautiful. I particularly enjoyed the carrots with the taste of sweet water crayfish, dill, onion and beer. The easy baked trout with hot pea juice, pea cream, mint and coriander was another a stand out dish.
The next morning we visited Eksjö, a town that is famous for its well-preserved wooden buildings dating back to the 17th century. We stopped in at Krusagården, a traditional old log building in a beautifully Scandinavian shade of rich red. Krusagården is a voluntary-led cultural centre that hosts a variety of activities, as well as selling handicrafts and delicious Fika, a Swedish tradition which involves coffee and seven specific types of handmade cake.
Fika is usually taken around 11 o’clock, and the cakes range from buttery biscuits with rich red indents of jam, crumbly oat cookies speckled with juicy raisins and sticky spiral buns with a subtle hint of caraway. Fika is definitely a tradition that I am taking back to Britain with me.
We then went on to the scenic home of dairy farmers Stella and Thomas Nilsson and learnt how to prepare isterband and ostkaka. Both are traditional regional dishes. Isterband is a coarsely ground smoked sausage which has a slightly sour taste to it amidst the nuttiness and ostkaka is a sort of cheesecake which is steeped in ancient tradition. It was invented prior to the days of refrigeration as a means for using up excess milk and interband was also created initially as a method of using up waste products, but both dishes have outlived their practical origins and gone on to be regional favourites.
We were lucky to dine that evening at the restaurant of Per Bengtssin of PM & Vänner restaurant group. We met Per in a herb garden with his gardener Bibi and head chef Johannes. They served us warm quail broth and let us explore the beautifully tended gardens, to choose our own selection of herbs to infuse in the broth. Per is a charismatic man who is passionate about foraging, sourcing local products and working with the seasons. He is pleased yet amused that people are finally talking about the new Nordic food revolution because he has been applying those principles to his food for twenty years.
He served us an exquisite menu including perch with juniper and crayfish mayonnaise. The perch is a local lake fish, with the cold water keeping it fresh and tasty. He also served us onions from his garden and spring musseron (the national mushroom of Öland) with pikeperch cheek, elder and flowers of kajp onions. The menu was ambitious, sophisticated, creative and flamboyant, rather like Per himself.
The emphasis on fresh seasonal produce and nurturing foods was emphasised further by a trip to Körro Nature Reserve on a Småland Health & Gourmet Walk. The landscape was beautiful with luscious green meadows studded with wild harebells and sweet alpine strawberries, tranquil lakes and dense majestic trees. A small cluster of typical wooden buildings painted in the quaint shades of berry-red and cream greeted us as we arrived, there was also a delightful mill overlooking a bubbling stream that glistened as it tumbled past. We picked wild strawberries, tasted meats from Tingsryd, cheeses from Hjortsjö dairy with bark bread and birch sap and Körro herring and trout with trimmings.
We travelled on to Öland, passing through dense verdant forests, more of the beautiful red and cream wooden houses and some stark neglected windmills that lurked against the brooding skies. We dined at Hotell Borgholm, which is centered around the culinary expertise of chef Karin Fransson, a humble lady who has written a bounty of cookbooks and mentored many of the young chefs such as Tommy Myllymäki.
Karin’s food was simple and unpretentious, focused on combining good flavours that work beautifully together. The standout pieces were a cabbage roll with king crab and dill, delicate shavings of black truffle and a creamy artichoke sauce. The sweetbread was also exceptional, described on the menu as glazed and crispy veal sweetbreads with all those lovely summer beans, spicy tomato coulis and tangy and sweet wine gravy. It had such strong, intense and firm flavours. There was nothing was too fussy, and the presentation was stunning.
We then stopped at Ninni’s Kroppkake Cottage in Långerum where Eva Petersson makes Kroppkakor – dumplings made of potato dough around a hearty core of baked pork and onions, delicately flavoured with all spice. She makes the delicious dumplings from her home and sells them to passers-by who can enjoy them in her well-kept garden or conservatory area. The recipe she uses has been passed down her family through the generations for hundreds of years. She served the sticky stodgy balls with smooth cool cream and lingonberry jam.
Our final evening was spent at the Öland Museum at Himmelsberga Village. The museum displays beautiful traditional artefacts, costumes and textiles and offers an accurate glimpse of the rich cultural landscape of the island.
We engaged in some traditional Swedish Midsummer celebrations; listened to traditional folk songs, forged our own flower garlands and danced around a vine-entwined Midsummer pole. We were also joined by Klas Lindberg, Swedish Chef of the Year 2012 and his beer expert wife Sanna Blomquist. They set us on the path to create our own Midsummer feast which included onion tartlets, charred lamb, pickled herring and cake decorated with fresh strawberries and cream.
Preparing traditional foods outdoors and drinking Schnapps that we had flavoured ourselves with elderflowers, dill and fresh spices, while singing Swedish drinking songs with slightly wilting flower garlands in our hair is definitely not an experience I’m going to forget in a hurry.
Reflecting back on the experience, I was left with a greater sense of the inquisitive about where my food is sourced from. Following the seasons, buying from local producers and growing your own where possible makes sense in so many ways. Not only does the food taste better, richer, more flavoursome but it also makes better environmental and economic sense too.
I loved how passionate the people I met were about the ingredients they foraged for, and how much care and attention was put into the dishes they created. I loved the proud swell of tradition at the heart of each dish, yet the inventiveness and creativity that is constantly bringing new life into the culture. The experience has certainly changed my view on food, and reinforced those little whispers that Sweden is well on the way to becoming the new culinary nation.
All words and photos by regular contributor Holly Daffurn. Holly was a guest of Visit Sweden but all her views are her own.