Eat Sweden: a journey through the ‘edible country’
It was afternoon in October, and yet already as dark as night outside; the sun had abandoned us earlier in a blaze of royal red and pale pink in the South Swedish highlands of Småland, Sweden. There had been unusually early snowfall, which gently blanketed Wallby Sateri – a gorgeously spooky manor house, a bit like something out of a Stieg Larsson thriller.
Somewhere out in the darkness, beyond the cosy cabins surrounding the house, was a huge icy lake, and up above, stars so low it felt as though they were within touching distance. It’s a remote part of the world where, according to one Swede I met earlier in the trip, you can see “every bit of star”. He wasn’t wrong, but there was no time for stargazing. Back on Earth, there were more pressing matters at hand.
Namely, merrily stripping down to our swimsuits, before making a mad dash to a wooden hut with a roaring wood-fired stove in the corner. Our motley crew consisted of two ebullient Swedes, a German journalist, and a French food critic – our US companion had deserted us once she realised that this would be a sauna, Swedish style. The Swedish pair had predicted that the hotter the little hut got, the more enticing Lake Skirö would become, beckoning us into its murky depths. I had my doubts, but the pressure was beginning to mount – the droplets of sweat heading south down my back were surely not just a result of the rising mercury. “I know Felicity. She’ll take a dip in the lake,” said our Swedish host Frida, darkly, leaving me uncertain as to whether this was benign encouragement or a thinly veiled threat. Frida, who liked to shoot moose, was definitely not to be trifled with.
And so my fate was sealed. Abandoned by the US, and with France and Germany watching me closely, (and let’s be frank – silently judging me – there’d been a fair bit of Brexit talk during the trip) it was time to step out into the night. “Right, let’s do this,” I said, with a determination that startled even me. With one bold move, I strode out of the cosy wooden hut and into the ice cold night, across to the wooden pier, down a few small steps into the inky dark water, and (briefly) submerged my limbs in the lake’s tomb-like depths.
The cold was immediate and merciless. Time seemed to slow down in this yawning gulf of darkness. Luckily, a muffled voice somewhere above pulled me back to reality. Something about watching out for the crayfish – nocturnal creatures, apparently – enough to make me hastily pull myself back onto dry land.
If you’ve ever taken part in a Swedish-style sauna (the Swedes take it to a whole new level – jumping in the lake and then rolling around naked in the snow) you’ll be familiar with the sense of elation that accompanies the rush from brutally hot to crushingly cold.
After this minor victory, it was back to the manor house for an out-of-season, yet still deeply Swedish, crayfish party; a regal feast consisting of local bright red crayfish, porcini mushroom soup with pickled chanterelles, fallow deer with blackcurrant jelly, kale and blue cheese pie, dill aioli, horseradish cream, potato salad, apple chutneys, chilli marmalades, pickled cherries and a board of cheeses including two named after local goats Gunilla and Britta, along with a handy “osthyvel” cheese slicer (“the only worthwhile thing the Norwegians invented”, one Swede playfully told me.)
The feast was accompanied, naturally, by copious amounts of schnapps and aquavit and some riotous singing of Swedish songs. Don’t ask me what the lyrics meant.
This was my first time in Sweden, and in some ways, it set the tone for the entire visit. Sweden is synonymous with the outdoors. It’s not something just to be seen and admired from afar, but a treasured way of life. It’s a country where you learn to live off the fat of the land in the long, light, lingering days of summer, pickling, preserving and smoking your food in preparation for the lean, dark ones ahead, to ensure that even in snowy autumn, there are tables groaning with food.
It’s a country where foraging is not a fad, but a cherished and regular habit which connects the Swedes to the seasons – the country is home to two thousand edible species of plants, berries and mushrooms. The Swedish ethos of Lagom (a sort of Goldilocks “not too much, not too little – just enough” joyous frugality inspired apparently, by Vikings sharing round mead to make sure everyone had enough) – is ingrained in the culture.
As a result, Swedish food is seasonal, sustainable and simply delicious. I’d already devoured a thick split pea soup, topped with crisp bacon and croutons, apple pies with homemade vanilla cream, on the dreamy, isolated island of Hasselö (the tiny Thirsty Winter Swan pub is a must) and tucked into a traditional fika (more of a moment than a meal, when Swedes take time to down tools for cake and coffee.)
It would make perfect sense then, for the Swedish tourism board to launch, this month, something called ‘The Edible Country’; a 100 million acre DIY gourmet restaurant, co-created by four Swedish Michelin-starred chefs that runs between May and September. Seven handmade wooden tables have been placed across the country which can be booked in advance, with ready-to-use kitchen kits and cooking tools. The idea is to make a nine-course seasonal menu that you prepare and cook yourselves in the wild – either with a guide to help you, or, depending on how brave you are, on your own.
If ever there was a country more suitable for such a seemingly ambitious plan, this is surely it. Sweden is vast – if you stuck a pin in a map at the bottom of the country and swivelled it around, it would pretty much swallow up Italy. And yet it’s 96% uninhabited. Thanks to Allemansrätten – the freedom to roam – visitors can pick, cook and eat from nature's own pantry, gathering berries, mushrooms, and fish from the lakes.
So, in the depths of a glossy green forest, we came across our table, all laid out for a sumptuous feast and looking like something out of a fairytale. Candles in jars had been suspended in the trees, wild flowers decorated the tables, there were thick blankets on benches, a carpet of emerald green moss at our feet and a silent audience of countless trees.
On the menu for Autumn was fatty, delicious char – a bit like salmon – smoked over a fire with juniper branches strewn on it, intricate chanterelle mushrooms sizzling in hot butter, followed by a berry crumble, all devoured in a truly magical setting (there are also vegetarian menus available). The feeling of being outdoors in the fresh air, while cooking with ingredients you’ve collected yourself before sitting down together to share a meal, feels like such an obviously simple but good idea, and yet one that seems to occur all too rarely.
So if your New Year’s resolution is to get outdoors, cook more, focus on your health and happiness, and just possibly take a plunge in an ice-cold, crayfish-filled, lake, then Sweden might just be the destination for you in 2019.