As I waited for our luggage to appear at the Åre Östersund airport in the central Swedish province of Jämtland, a sign right above the single carousel read “Welcome to the culinary capital of Sweden”. At the time, I wasn’t exactly sure what to make of the statement, and I wondered what made this place worthy of such a title. But shortly after our arrival, our stay in a nearby restaurant and hunting grounds known as Fäviken, gave me a crash course on what this place was all was about.
Starting with an hour drive to the Fäviken estate from the airport, the tone was set for our entire stay. The visual of rolling hills, unending lakes, massive rolls of hay and red wooden houses was sprawled against the background of the setting sun clouded by the cold fog of autumn. When we stopped, my ears were filled with the pleasantness of birds chirping and the crunch of my footsteps pressed against the frosted grass. It was peaceful. And I would like to think it is that same serenity that brought the region’s founder here from Norway centuries ago. But as it is said, it was his longing for freedom. And today, it is that same independent spirit (along with a sort of obstinance) that continues to live within the people and towns of Jämtland, yielding a culture relatively preserved and a nest of entrepreneurial activity.
With Jämtland’s crisp clean air and proximity to mountain fresh water, this ethos of entrepreneurship has resulted in a number of artisanal food producers who base many of their processes on preserved local traditions passed on from generation to generation. A trait reflected in the Jämtland native and Fäviken chef himself, Magnus Nilsson. Modern culinary trends have little to no weight on this man who displays an unwavering commitment to what the land and community have offered for generations. And it is this combination of the chef and the relative preservation of the Jämtland ideology that has created an atmosphere at Fäviken not seemingly contrived but simply organic and reflective of the surroundings and the people that live within in.
Surroundings that were so evident not only during our meals but also in every aspect of the estate. The dwellings next to the restaurant smelled like concentrated fresh mountain air, and our rooms employed the all too familiar pragmatic Swedish design including moose fur blankets. A sauna before our meal was accompanied by pickled vegetables, prepared meats and juices from berries around Jämtland. And even our glasses used throughout the dinner and breakfast employed a sort of ostensible barbaric elegance. These details were so meticulous and reflective of the artisanal atmosphere of the area. They drew me in. And before I knew it, 7PM had come all too quickly and a quick hop to the restaurant next door brought in a clapping Magnus who began to describe the food that lay before us.
The first items of the evening were outstretched pieces of flaxseed and vinegar crisps accompanied by a bowl of Jämtlandian broth. Although the broth itself was absent of any overriding flavour, its accompanying berries more than made up for its shortcomings when it burst with sourness. When eaten with the salty and sour crisps of flaxseed and vinegar, I was reintroduced to the bold flavours of Sweden I had grown to know. Unfortunately, this was all too fleeting as shortly after I dug into my crisps, they were quickly taken from my sight to make way for the wild trout’s roe from the crisp mountain waters of Jämtland. The roe’s creamy and light bits melted so wonderfully on my palate as it lay in a custard and also a crust both made of pig’s blood. The crust emulated the look of thick seaweed but cracked to the touch of my mouth.
Snacks that followed consisted of various preparations of pig and herring that were not overwhelming in one flavour or the other but instead so subtle in nature. A departure from the first bites of the night but a great introduction to the meal ahead.
Shortly after, I made my way up the creaking flight of stairs and the sounds of Swedish folk music serenaded us while pieces of ageing meat, fish and tabacco leaves hung from the wooden beams of the ceiling. A massive prep table in the dining room served as the “pass”, and on that same table was an old juice press which the three front of house staff took turns churning as the meal progressed.
When the thump of heavy footsteps along with the creak from the stairs reached my auditory senses, I was forewarned of the next dish in tow not fully concocted until it was aggressively put together by Magnus and team seconds before it reached our palates. And the first of the evening was a single scallop “in the shell of the fire” cooked and served over a bed of burning juniper branches and birch charcoal. The first attribute I noticed about this bivalve was that it lay in perhaps the thickest shell I have ever seen. So thick that I remarked to my brother that it was fake and one could use it against their body to deflect bullets. But I assume the thickness of the shell was a product of its environment and a natural adaptation to outlast the frigid temperatures of Scandinavian winters. Externally, it was quite remarkable. Internally, it was sublime. The scallop was dense, and on the cusp of cooked and raw with its broth packed with hearty umami goodness that was soaked up by remaining bread. And although relatively simple in nature, this piece of seafood required a tedious two man team to process. And once completed, it had to be served within 90 seconds for optimum output. Amazing.
With Jämtland’s crisp clean air and mountain fresh water, it is no surprise that seafood is a strength of the area. Not only were the scallops pieces of perfection, but the pieces of lobster that evening were wonderfully light and sweet. The poached turbot that followed had amazing depth even without the use of salt. And accompanied by nutty and sour sunflower seeds, the entire dish blended together so wonderfully with various bits of texture. Even the turbot served in liquid form, accompanied by a sourness from some buttermilk, did not disappoint.
In addition to seafood, it is in the produce where Fäviken shines. From the bitterness of the smoked brussels sprouts, the savouriness of the jerusalem artichokes, the lightness of the mushrooms served with cottage cheese or the purposeful blandness of their boiled potatoes, it is here in their traditional Jämtland forms and preparations, that the beauty of the produce fully comes through. It is also a result of the team’s ongoing process of learning more about the produce of the land – from the nearly extinct, to the old varieties that have adapted to the region through generations of farming methods – and continually seeking different ways to grow the highest quality produce in this almost subarctic climate.
Also native to this climate are the ungulates known as moose. And after seeing one cross the road during our drive, the use of its fur as blankets on the counters at the restaurant and the presence of four moose heads hunted days before our arrival, there was no doubt in my mind that there would be moose on the evening’s menu. My thoughts were confirmed early during the meal when a cook carried around a hulking piece of moose rib eye. Several courses later a moose broth was accompanied by blood bread that had the consistency of a soufflé. In flavour, it was neither bereft or overwhelming in tart or blood. Contrarily, the addition of square bits of back fat had a very mild subtle flavour but provided a chewy texture – serving a mostly textural purpose. And the slightly burnt bitter and acidic onions cut the richness of the moose broth. It was glorious in its entirety and Sonny’s favourite dish of the evening. Dutifully, this was followed up by large pieces of the cut up rib eye displayed earlier. Again, no salt was needed to bring out the intense flavour of this lean but tender piece of meat. Instead, berries were its only companion, and that is honestly all it needed.
And where many places digress, desserts is another aspect of Fäviken that excels. From the fermented lingonberries, to the curdled woodruff milk that was not only nicely creamy and eggy but also hot and cold at the same time, desserts were a representation of many traditions enjoyed by the Jämtland people for centuries. With the ultimate dessert of the evening coming from an egg yolk preserved in sugar syrup and served on a pile of crumbs made from pine tree bark. When I mixed the items together, it produced a doe like consistency that was eventually combined with ice cream, becoming a concoction similar to a cookie crumble with hints of soft chewy toffee and caramel flavour. Suffice it to say this was nothing short of one of the best desserts I have ever had. And the sour milk sorbet with sweet raspberry jam and whisked ducks egg that followed could have easily fell short of this precedent, but the duck eggs that were whisked right before our eyes had a consistency so thick and flavour so rich, it was as if ten eggs were combined. Yet in spite of it all, the dessert had an airy pleasantness that vaporized in my mouth.
To top it all of, along with the desserts came an amber liquid from a press the staff churned all night. Although it was merely referred to as apple juice, this may very well be styled the nectar of the gods. In the Old Testaments of the Bible, an apple was referred to in the book of Genesis as the forbidden fruit, a temptation of an immoral indulgence, and I could not help but feel the parallels. As I drank the nectar of the forbidden fruit, I felt unworthy of this refined sweetness, this perfect naturality that could not be duplicated elsewhere. It was, as they say, too good to be true. But as I have learned up until this point, this was quintessentially Fäviken, and quite simply a product of nature aided partly by man. Where the succulence of the apples is a result of the long winter months of the area, acting as a natural preservative, prolonging its life of peak ripeness on through the autumn months. Then on his way to work, sommelier and do-it-all man (he also carried our luggage, drove our car to/from the parking lot, showed us to our room, etc), Robert, hand picks the apples to be hand-pressed by the team during service.
When the meal was over and I made my way back to the downstairs dining room, my brother and I were seated with two Swedes we met during the start of the meal. It was a unique ending epitomised by the tasting of some home made snus. At the time, the word “snus” did not ring a bell. But as a front of house staff rolled up the powdered tobacco for me and I placed it in between my gums and lips, the tingling sensation that shot right to my head within minutes elicited memories of my University days when I used to have it with a friend from Scandinavia.
Some intense discussions later with our new found friends about travel, food and the enthralling stories of the cultural significance of many of the dishes and snacks we just ate, and it was with a heavy heart that the experience of the evening had come to an end. Retreating next door to the moose fur blankets of my bed, deep sleep was the second luxury I had that evening.
The next morning, I awoke to the first snowfall of the year. Breakfast was served in the main dining room and helmed by a single front of house staff named Karin. I could not have felt more complete from the breakfast that so perfectly extended the dinner the night before. And as my brother and I bid adieu to such a wonderful young lady, she curtsied and sent us off to the snow covered lands of yore.
Less than twenty-four hours after our arrival, I found myself back at the Åre Östersund airport leaving with a whole new perspective on what I defined Nordic cuisine to be. It was a similar mind opening and refreshing experience to a meal at a restaurant called Noma I had the year before. Although both pay tribute to the products of the land, the process and the result in both establishments could not be any more different. Where Noma is one of the biggest attributes to modern culinary trends, Fäviken retreats to the traditions of the old. And as I met the sign once again that greeted me upon our initial arrival at the airport, its meaning finally dawned on me and I laughed at my ignorance the day before. Today, as I look back on our time at Fäviken, I am set adrift on memory bliss of the small restaurant in the middle of nowhere that gave me an experience bigger than I could have ever imagined.
To view pictures of our meals in its entirety, click through these photo sets.
– Unsure of how long it would actually take to get to there, we opted for a late morning flight. Upon arrival at the estate early afternoon, we were promptly spotted by their sommelier/do-it-all man as we were looking around. He approached us. Although we were aware that we arrived early, check-in was hours later and no food would be served aside from dinner and breakfast the next day, he kept reiterating they could not accommodate us at that time and they did not serve lunch. After explaining that we just wanted to look around and did not expect anything from them at the time, he again proceeded to say they did not serve lunch and the rooms were not ready. Perhaps he panicked because we arrived early but his tone and approach left a sour taste in our mouths.
– As the only non-Scandinavian diners that evening, Magnus explained every dish to the room-at-large in Swedish. A nice touch to the cultural immersion.
Thanks for reading and happy eating,
Carla and Sonny