[Editorial Note: I traveled to West Sweden to report this feature piece in August 2007, while I was still Saveur’s editor-at-large. As a “summer in Scandinavia” article, it could not run in the fall, winter, or spring because the photos that were shot by the amazing photographer who accompanied me (Penny de los Santos) wouldn’t match the look of those other seasons in Sweden. (All photos here are mine, so don’t blame Penny for these.) At the time, the magazine was only publishing eight or nine issues per year, so the window of opportunity was very narrow. I remember that we published a piece on Norway the following summer, and then we also produced a special issue—on hamburgers, I think—and there went another summer season. Ultimately, the article was never published. I always felt terrible about that fact because a) I thought it was a pretty good piece about a little-recognized region where the food was fabulous, and b) everyone I met in West Sweden and in the Swedish tourism office here in the US was so kind and welcoming to me. Unfortunately, the matter was above my pay grade, as they say. In going through some old files, however, I recently rediscovered it. While it is too late to pitch it for publication now—I don’t even know how many of these restaurants are still in business—I decided to share it here. This is my personal thank you to all of the wonderful Swedes who shared their time, food, and love of their homeland with me. Tack!]
By Sofia Perez
[Reported for Saveur, August 2007]
Along the Rosenlund canal in the Swedish city of Göteborg sits an austere-looking structure of brushed metal and taupe-colored brick with a pitched roof, flanked by seven Gothic arches on its two longest sides. I spot it while taking a ferry tour to orient myself to this industrial town’s watery geography. From outside, the building looks like a solemn house of worship, but later when I walk through the doors of the Feskekörka (literally, “fish church”), my senses are beguiled by the colors, noises, and aromas of a bustling retail fish market: the clank of a cleaver hitting a cutting board; display cases proffering gold- and coral-hued roes; mounds of opalescent peach-toned shrimp, piled high atop shards of ice; the brooding gunmetal greys of various types of flatfish, their eyes and skin gleaming; and in the air above it all, the clean, clear smell of the ocean.
I’ve never baited a hook, and frankly, I’m a little prone to seasickness, but there is something about the ocean and the fishing trade that has captured my imagination since I was a little girl. The most important places in my life, the ones that resonate, have always had an anchor in the sea—economically, culturally, and even spiritually—and so being here feels a little like coming home.
For centuries, Sweden’s most productive fisheries were located off of its west coast, in the North Sea and beyond. Given its location, it’s not surprising that Bohuslän, the coastal province just north of Göteborg, became a hub for the fish processing industry, drawing from the city’s port. During an average week, 172,000 pounds of seafood are traded at Sweden’s largest fish auction, which is held in the central harbor about two miles west of the so-called fish church. Let other places build their stairways to heaven; here, the object of reverence lives down below.
Traveling against the tide, I decide to work my way backwards from Göteborg to the source of Bohuslän’s culinary pride: the fishing villages that are the region’s soul. Bohuslän is comprised of a rocky archipelago of some 10,000 islands and skerries in the North Sea facing a stretch of mainland to the east that is haphazardly sliced by waterways and dotted with hundreds of small lakes. Water is pretty much inescapable here. Where the furious blue-grey surf meets large barren boulder formations, the landscape has a primordial quality; I’m not surprised to learn that ancient burial grounds and Bronze Age rock carvings were discovered in the area. Yet when I venture five minutes inland, the scene morphs into a Swedish pastoral, all primary colors and quaint farmhouses tucked amid the pine and oak forests.
Traveling here takes much longer than I expected from looking at a map. I need precision planning—and luck—to time the departures of the ferries that connect some of the smaller islands with the mainland and each other. Among these is Flatön, most famous as the summer destination of Sweden’s national troubadour Evert Taube, who composed scores of poems and songs in homage to the sea and Flatön’s residents. If this island was special enough to repeatedly draw a wandering writer, it must be worth a visit, I reason. Apparently, I am not the only one who came to this conclusion, as I discover when I step inside the crowded general store made famous by the poet-songwriter in the 1940s. Tourists still flock to Handelsman Flink, but the current owners, the Hjelmér family, have added a restaurant, café, and inn.
Stefan Hjelmér, 53, a professor of hotel management at the University of Göteborg, gives me the grand tour. A genial man with salt-and-pepper hair and a ready smile, he takes special pride in showing me a second, newer shop where they sell seafood, such as herring, lobster, and crayfish, caught from the waters around Flatön by Niklas Krafft, his eldest daughter’s domestic partner and the restaurant’s head chef. “This island was always a kind of center, because of the jetties,” says Hjelmér. “All the boats from Göteborg and Uddevalla came through here.” Many of the young men from this region grew up to be shipbuilders, fishermen, or sea captains, including Hjelmér’s own son who chose the latter profession.
Back at the restaurant, we sit on the large wooden deck overlooking the water, and Krafft brings us each a herring plate for lunch. The fish, which he caught himself, has been filleted, salted, cured, and tossed in a variety of sauces, including sweet mustard and dill-horseradish, and served alongside the classic accompaniments (hard-boiled egg, crème fraîche, boiled new potatoes, finely chopped red onion and chives, freshly grated horseradish, rye crispbread, and wedges of sharp västerbotten cheese). Hjelmér explains that herring is customarily paired with snaps (aquavit) or beer, and I think, “Well, who are we to buck tradition?,” as we raise our glasses of caraway-infused snaps and offer a toast of “skål.”
Later, dinner includes an entrée of fresh cod, cured in sugar and ättika (a Swedish white vinegar), then lightly sautéed in butter and baked. The fillet is nestled between blue mussels and a variety of vegetables, but it’s the impeccable cod—moist and flaky, with an appealing blend of sweet and tart notes—that shines through. “The flavors of my food are very soft, with no strong spices,” says Krafft, a thin, very tall 28-year-old. “I am trying to bring nature to the table.” For this reserved young man, his love of the ocean extends beyond its physical bounty. “Going fishing, being out on the water, is a kind of freedom,” he confides. “You don’t have to talk to people; you can be by yourself.”
Not everyone here is inclined toward solitude, though, as I find out later when I visit the town of Mollösund on the island of Orust. One of the oldest fishing villages in Bohuslän, Mollösund expanded around the herring trade and is still a hub for the sale of mussels and lingcod, with the latter often split open, impaled on wooden racks or poles, and left outside to air-dry. I walk along the marina, past the staked fish, to Café Emma, where I meet owner Berit Mattsson, 69, a petite woman with short spiky blonde hair who is originally from Stockholm.
Mattsson’s restaurant is a hive of activity, and Mattson herself is the queen bee of what has become an institution in this small town where her husband Gunnar was raised. As you’d expect, fish plays a prominent role on her menu, which is more than a nod to Mollösund’s commercial connection to the sea. For Mattsson, her adopted home is emblematic of a deeper bond between human beings and the ocean. “Mollösund is very true to me; it’s a very grounded place,” she says. “And there’s something about the water and the wind. The salt water here is the same salt water that we all are and have within us.”
“Like one organism?” I ask.
“Yes, we are all part of it.”
Back on the mainland, I walk along a coastal trail, and strike up a conversation with a woman pushing a baby stroller. I mention that I am visiting Bohuslän to learn about the food. “Oh, that’s easy,” she says. “Fish, fish, and fish.” Though it’s a truism to say that the fish here is outstanding, it’s not the only thing worth eating. My visit to Villa Sjötorp, an inn and restaurant in the town of Ljungskile, makes a strong case for some of the other local fare.
The owner, Ellika Mogenfelt, a tall, blonde 44-year-old with a pleasantly quirky air about her, and the restaurant’s chef, Johan Ström, showcase fresh, local ingredients in dishes like a brightly dressed salad of mixed greens, spring onions, and local chanterelles; an entrecôte of grass-fed beef blanketed with a port-mushroom gravy, served with pillowy potato gnocchi; and probably the best wheat bread I’ve ever had, a sweet, nutty blend of wheat, rye, flax and sunflower seeds, dried fruit, and dark molasses. The most memorable dish is a clafoutis made with a batter of flaked almonds, flour, eggs, and cream that’s poured around tart gooseberries and baked. Just before serving, Ström garnishes it with maple syrup and succulent honey-tossed blueberries.
But fish has not been forgotten either; Ström offers up a tender baked plaice, a northern European flatfish, which he tops with a creamy anchovy butter and pairs with a warm potato and cucumber salad, a tangy accompaniment that helps cut through the richness of the buttery fish. The name of the inn-restaurant, Sjötorp, means “house by the sea,” and Mogenfelt considers herself spoiled because she’s almost always lived by the ocean. “I think the energy that you get from the sea is very strong,” she says. Referring to the years she spent in inland Sweden, she adds, “I knew when I was living there that I needed to go back home.”
If there’s a single town that is most emblematic of the region, it’s the small, picturesque village of Smögen, on one of the westernmost islands in Bohuslän’s archipelago. Home to 1,500 people, its waterfront is lined with iconic bright-red fishermen’s cottages. When the wind kicks up and the clouds roll in over the grey rocks and the steely blue water, these wooden structures are the main source of color on the horizon. And kick up it does; the boats anchored in the marina bob and dip vigorously, as pennants sharply whip the masts, and I cringe at the ominous sound of groaning metal.
Home to Sweden’s second largest fish auction, Smögen is notable for its beauty and its seafood, and few restaurants present this bounty better than Sea Lodge, a modest cottage at water’s edge. The young chef, Fredrik Andersson, 32, originally from the town of Lysekil just south of here, has cooked on ships and at restaurants in London and Stockholm, but the excellence of Smögen’s seafood was one of the things that drew him back three years ago. “A lot of the prawns and shrimp that are eaten all around Sweden come in here—the herring comes from elsewhere but we preserve it here in town—so the quality is really good. I don’t want to mess about with it.”
The Swedish penchant for directness and understatement is something I notice often on this trip—why say ten words when one will do?—and the food reflects the same qualities. With ingredients this pristine, simplicity trumps embellishment, and Andersson’s dishes bear this out: an appetizer of salt-cured herring, drizzled with brown butter, is followed by a fish stew made with lightly poached halibut, steamed blue mussels, pan-fried scallops, boiled new potatoes, and a dollop of luscious aïoli, served over an amber-toned broth rich with the briny flavor of crayfish and the heady aroma of saffron. To finish, there’s a classic dessert called nyponsoppa, a pleasantly tart soup made with rose hips, which are abundant in this region. It’s a fitting end to a meal that’s as fresh and bracing as the air that whistles through the window jamb.
Later, as Andersson and I amble along the town’s wooden quay, he takes me to meet Sixten Söderberg, a retired fisherman whose family has lived here since the 17th century. A tall, trim 66-year-old with a weathered but handsome face, Söderberg speaks little English, though he understands some of my questions. Andersson translates the rest as we talk about the challenges facing Smögen’s fishing industry, including the advent of stricter regulations, development pressures, and fewer young people who are choosing this line of work.
When I ask Söderberg if he could ever leave this town, he doesn’t wait for Andersson to translate my question. Shaking his head, this soft-spoken emphatically repeats the Swedish word for no. “Nej, nej, nej.”
He pauses and then gestures to Smögen’s harbor.
“I want to see this,” he adds in English.
“Why?” I ask.
“For this here.” As he says these words, he lifts his right hand to his chest and smiles, his fingers gently tapping his heart.