Sweden's Food Culture

Expect dishes like rabbit with carrots and dandelion.

The enduring modern fascination with Scandinavian cultures has provided substantial exposure for some of Sweden’s best exports, especially when it comes to fashion and design. Yet, there is another stylish draw to the country’s innovative and chic culture: the food. The Swedish moment consuming gourmets and food tragics has a steady and highly anticipated momentum. 

The Swedes have an insatiable desire to be the new culinary destination of Europe. With alluring and daring chefs reinventing Swedish classics, Europe remains envious, curious and wanting more. But where exactly do you go to eat in one of the most expensive countries on the continent? 

Demanding more than just a guidebook tour of their finest establishments, some of Sweden’s best food producers, restaurateurs and chefs are sharing their secrets. With the country spread out across a giant puzzle of islands, hopping from one island to another becomes the only way to properly taste the wares of this country of nine million. But with more than 30,000 islands to sink your teeth into, Sweden’s geographical layout can be difficult to navigate. 

“Sweden is just one big body of land with small islands scattered across the coastline,” says Totte Steneby of Stockholm restaurant Bakfickan Djuret. “Each region [showcases] different chefs with different cuisines.” The good news is, information is hardly scarce in a country that boasts a wealth of celebrated bloggers. Sweden also has a rich cafe culture, affectionately known as Fika (“coffee break”)—so I am thankful to venture into a country with coffee and cake on its mind. 

Stockholm

The Swedes have a physical reputation the envy of most Europeans. Gorgeous model-like men and women parade around trendy and up-market shopping strips, such as Stockholm’s Biblioteksgatan, making life seem unfair for mere brunettes who can’t pull off tweed jackets and fluoro knitwear.

Stockholm sets the bar high, with design, innovation and creativity filling the air thanks to brands such as Absolut Vodka and fashion houses Sandqvist and Acne. Travellers flock to the capital with similarly high expectations, given the talk about the new Nordic cuisine. “We are well worth our good reputation; we have many talented chefs—ambitious and renowned,” says chef Henrik Norström of Lux restaurant. “The draw of Sweden is it provides good food and world-class experiences with rural roots,” he adds. 

Stockholm’s jigsaw of 14 islands is a true gourmet’s destination. Surrounded by freshwater lakes leading to the archipelago  as well as parkland and forests within a boat ride  island-hopping is encouraged for those wanting to experience the city’s culinary diversity. However, if time isn’t on your side, staying in Stockholm and picking just one island to explore can be equally rewarding. To start, enjoy cocktails and regional classics in the hip Scandic Grand Central hotel  its traditional Restaurant Teaterbrasseriet and hearty serves puts other hotel eateries to shame  and chef Niclas Fogelberg leads the charge. 

You won’t find classics such as rollmops at Restaurant Jonas. Instead, old Nordic cooking techniques are used to create progressive dishes that are unmistakably Swedish; think rhubarb braised in brown butter, and finished with vanilla foam and marshmallows. A 10-minute drive south-west is the aforementioned Lux, where Norström and his team smoke, salt and demand the best of their ingredients. “Our guests take part in the whole dining experience, making the most of seasonal produce,” he says.

Moving east to Stockholm’s residential side, veteran chef Jürgen Grossman’s  GQ is where locals go for French classics with a fresh, Swedish spin, like sour-cream ice-cream with raspberrys, profiteroles and chocolate sauce. Just a couple of blocks away awaits a different, more contemporary dining experience. At Volt, three young chefs—Peter Andersson, Fredrik Johnsson and Simon Carlsson make “small-scale and locally produced” dishes inspired by their grandmothers’ cooking. Expect dishes like rabbit with carrots and dandelion.

Are & Jamtland

If Stockholm is paradise for shoppers, then the historical central provinces of Jämtland and Härjedalen are Sweden’s playground for thrill-seekers and nature enthusiasts. Just a 45-minute flight north-west of the capital will see you at one of Europe’s premier alpine treasures. 

Stretch your legs with friends on a dog-sledding safari in Duved, rub shoulders in Are with the Olympic snowboarding medallists, or simply throw yourself down an off-piste slope  keeping an eye on the wild animals. Hiking trails, sailing and golf dictate the warmer months  but, for something totally different, definitely try your hand at timber rafting in Jämtland.

Inside scoop, foodies: stay ahead of the game and book yourself a table at Fäviken Magasinet. For the “world’s most daring restaurant”, Fäviken is a little unassuming, to say the least. An 18th-century hunting estate on 100 square kilometres is where you will find head chef Magnus Nilsson. The restaurant, like its pragmatic chef, is raw and real. “We build up our stores ahead of the dark winter months,” he says. “We dry, salt, jelly, pickle and bottle.” Fish from the nearby lakes and moose often feature on the menu.

Heading all the way up to Are just for dinner seems an unusual move, but is most certainly not unheard of — Noma’s René Redzepi once famously said: “If I had a chance to go anywhere in the world right now, I would go to Fäviken.” In its closest neighbouring city, Ostersund, you will find various other local producers, such as Sav where you can taste the wines made using Viking-era techniques—including sparkling made from the sap of birch trees.

Coffee drinkers should visit local roasters Are Kafferosteri and say hello to husband-and-wife team Per and Eva—internationally awarded baristas. Chase your caffeine fix with a few local favourites from Are Chokladfabrik, or Are Chocolate Factory, where you will find handmade chocolates, pralines and gooey caramel.

Gotland

Don’t waste time trying to perfect your rudimentary Swedish if you’re intending to venture out to Gotland. The island, 90 kilometres off the south-east coast, is an idyllic escape for those who seek solitude. With Danish roots, Gotland is a little different to the rest of the country. 

“It’s difficult to explain,” begins local food guide Daniel Eriksson, “but Gotland has an ‘island mentality’.” Sparse and less populated than the mainland, the island remains a magnet for two distinct crowds: young neon-light-nightclub-goers, and Swedes looking for solace. With open land, grazing herds and windmills dotting the landscape, Sweden’s Culinary Nation Capital for 2013 has some of the best produce the country has to offer and caters to the world’s best restaurants. 

“The location of Gotland, being part of the Baltic Sea, influences our taste,” says Margareta Hoas, local grower and owner of award-winning farmhouse restaurant Lilla Bjers Gårdsbutik. “Gotland is different [to the rest of Sweden]—cold winters and warm summers give us great produce unique to the region.” Being the largest island in the Baltic Sea, the food culture evolved separately to the mainland. “Gotlandic Vikings have influenced our tastes, from saffron to truffles. People visit Gotland for our food,” adds Hoas.

Hotels are key spots on Gotland (which means “good land”) for luxury isolation. If serenity under the Swedish sun among mossy rocks and a sapphire sea isn’t enough to keep you occupied, food escapism can be a great activity to invest in. From rustic bakeries serving fresh saffron buns, to farmhouses with home-raised lamb and handpicked asparagus, there’s a lot of regional, seasonal produce to enjoy. 

Don’t leave without trying the infamous local homebrew Gotlandsdricka, “Drink of the Land of Goths”  a beer brewed using significant amounts of the abundant local juniper bush  as well as other homegrown delicacies such as truffles and Kobe beef. For those not interested in getting drenched in champagne, avoid the crowds during the annual week-long bubbly-soaked dance party called Stockholmsveckan. 

Gothenburg & Koster

A hop, skip and a train ride from Stockholm is Gothenburg and, unlike other Swedish cities, it’s not just a little sister to the capital. Forget the Stockholm snobs and embrace the self-described puckish, creative cafes of the second city of Sweden. Musicians, artists, designers and entrepreneurs create a vital youth culture in Gothenburg, and the vibrant, underground party scene takes a backseat during the day, when food rules comfortably as the main pull of the city. 

North of Gothenburg is the small city of Strömstad, and west of that Koster Islands. They’re situated on the coast, with access to the wide-open and bountiful North Sea, and are renowned for their seafood. Serene nature reserves carpet the dramatic Koster archipelago and offer an enormous variety of water adventures, such as kayaking. Stop at Kosters Trädgårdar, where award-winning young chef Anna Bengtsson and the team dish up shellfish and local classics that help make this eco-based region unforgettable.

From sustainable eating to artisanal culture, Rökeriet i Strömstad is a slow-food spot for the travelling diner, where owner Stefan Jensen artfully dishes up plates of smoked shellfish. “We do not want the food to be too pretentious, but simple and rustic, using the best ingredients,” he says, surrounded by photos of his fellow local producers. 

The Swedish mantra of bringing together creativity and tradition leaves food critics more or less in agreement when it comes to the sustainability credentials of the new Nordic cuisine. “Trends come and go,” says chef Jonas Lundgren of his Restaurant Jonas in Stockholm, “but good food always stays.”  

Words by Michelle Tchea - Published in Voyeur June 2013
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