Chef Magnus Nilsson's restaurant Fäviken is housed in a hunting lodge deep in northern Sweden.
Visit in winter and the drive of almost two hours from Östersund airport is through a landscape that looks bleak and inhospitable, icy winds driving snow that thickly carpets the fields.
It is cold. Very cold.
It's not really the kind of place you might go looking for interesting food. But Nilsson shows the range and diversity of the region's cuisine in "The Nordic Cookbook" (£29.95/$49.95, Phaidon). It's a hefty volume of 763 pages that's surprisingly accessible. One of the first recipes details how to boil an egg.
Nilsson, 31, is an approachable and accessible guy. He's got long hair and rock-star looks, with a twinkle in his eye and a quiet sense of humor. While he is proud of his Nordic heritage, and traveled extensively to research the book, he's more keen to communicate than to preach: He's serious without being earnest.
"I want people to see past the herrings and the gravlax and the meatballs," he says in an interview. "For me, it's super important with a book like this that it shouldn't be an idealized, fairy-tale museum version of reality. It needs to be a snapshot of what people actually eat today.
"There's a lot to discover because Nordic cuisine is very inaccessible. If we went to Spain and went into a random restaurant in Madrid, we'd be able to have a meal that's indicative of an everyday meal that someone could have in their house, a truly Spanish meal. If you go to Stockholm and try to do the same, it doesn’t exist. Food culture in the Nordics is carried in the home. It's not in restaurants.
"That makes it difficult for people to understand. This book shows that. I counted through and there are about 730 recipes of which about 50 no one will ever cook because they contain puffin or something like that that you can't get hold of.
"They are still important for explaining a culture or a context. But the remaining 680 recipes are things that people actually cook on an everyday basis."
Nilsson, who was born in Selånger and raised in Östersund, says that few people he meets even know the difference between Scandinavia (Sweden, Norway and Denmark) and the Nordic region, which encompasses Finland and Iceland, as well as Greenland, the Faroe Islands and Åland.
He says that the quickest way to understand the region's food culture is to eat an open sandwich topped with butter and hard cheese.
"I'm asked so many times to name a couple of Nordic dishes and really there aren't any: They don’t exist," he says. "One of the few things that tie the region together is that the seasons are defined and you have a winter season where you can't harvest fresh plant material, no vegetables, so you have to produce excess in the summer, store it and keep it for winter.
"That's the defining factor in the whole region. One of the only examples of a dish that shows this is the sandwich, because it is so different in different parts of the region.
"If you go to Denmark and have smørrebrød, it says a lot about the country. In Denmark, with all its trade and being a rich agricultural country with lots of food production, the sandwiches are piled so high, you can't even pick them up without making a mess.
"Then you go up to where I come from, north Sweden, the sandwich there will be a piece of flatbread with a layer of salty butter and a thin layer of cheese and that's it. Something you can eat standing up.
"And that says a lot about the circumstances in that area as being far less rich.
"In Iceland, they have few trees, and loaves of bread backed in ovens are a very new thing. Even today, in areas around volcanoes and hot springs, each village has a site where every family has a hole in the ground with a lid on it. You go there in the evening with your rye bread, put it in there and in the morning, it's baked, it's steamed.
"Nordic cuisine doesn’t describe one homogenous food culture. It’s a composite of various food cultures over an extensive area, much bigger than the whole of Europe put together."
If you would like to try Nilsson's dishes at Fäviken - such as Norwegian scallops cooked over fire - that may prove difficult.
The restaurant seats a maximum of 24 guests. Only five meals are served a week. It will be closed for about seven weeks between March and May. It's a real trek to reach. And it is heavily booked. If you do get in, the meal costs 2,200 kronor ($258) plus drinks.
It's worth it. "The Nordic Cookbook" helps to show why.
Here are some sample recipes, along with thoughts on each from Nilsson.
This mix of shrimp (baby shrimp) and mayo was invented by Swedish chef Tore Wretman in the 1950s, and it was named after the northern Danish city of Skagen. Skagen salad is funnily enough almost completely unknown in Denmark, whereas in Sweden it has remained one of the most popular starters (appetizers) altogether. Often served on slices of white bread fried in butter and topped with Bleak Roe in a dish called Toast Skagen. Today skagenröra loosely refers to any creamy salad made from something that could possibly be red shellfish. Some of these salads are great and others are awful. The original contains shrimp, mayonnaise and dill (according to some accounts with the addition of a bit of grated horseradish). The worst more recent addition is onion – red or any other kind. It makes the delicate dilly mix smell to me like standing in a dirty second-hand clothes store, a bit like sweat aged on synthetic fibres from the 1960s. Don’t add onion to your Skagen salad. Also it contains absolutely no dairy products. Many modern recipes contain crème fraîche and they are wrong. It will only result in a sour taste and a too liquid salad.
If you have made a great mayo it will be acidic enough and you won’t feel that the salad lacks in acidity. This is important as adding liquids like vinegar or lemon will make it too wet. Serve the salad with a wedge of lemon on the side.
- 400 g/14 oz boiled shrimp (baby shrimp) tails, shelled
- 100–200 ml/3½–7 fl oz (½–¾ cup plus 1 tablespoon) homemade Mayonnaise, it needs to be very thick
- 1 good bunch dill, leaves picked fine and stems cut fine
- salt and white pepper, to taste
- Grated horseradish, to taste
Preparation time: 10 minutes.
Sitting time: at least 10 minutes.
Serves: 4 as a starter (appetizer).
Coarsely chop half the shrimp (baby shrimp) tails and place them in a bowl with the remaining whole shrimp tails. Add enough mayo to properly coat all of the shrimp and make the mix creamy. Be careful though not to add too much as this will turn everything into more of a sauce, which is not the idea. Add the dill, salt and pepper and some grated horseradish if you like it. Let the salad sit for 10 minutes or so in the fridge. Stir again, adjust the texture with more mayo if necessary and once again adjust the seasoning.
Grydestegt kylling (Denmark)
Grytstekt kyckling (Sweden)
Pot-roasted chicken is a dish with a very old history. It would seem logical that this was a practical way of cooking a whole bird until juicy and tender, without the use of an oven, the pot in itself creating a little miniature oven when placed on top of a heat source. The wood-fired cast iron stove which offered the first really usable oven available to most modest homes that couldn’t afford or fit a brick oven was popularized during the mid-nineteenth century, and it is easy to imagine this technique being way older than that.
The funny thing, today, is that most of the more recent recipes for pot-roasted chicken place the pot in the oven for the actual cooking as opposed to the stove top. This is obviously very convenient, but also makes you question if it wouldn’t be better to just roast the bird without the lid to get some crispness on the skin and just skipping the pot altogether and using an ordinary roasting pan… Anyhow, I often make pot-roasted chicken in the oven and, even if it doesn’t make sense, it feels good somehow.
Chicken like this is, in Denmark, often served with Boiled Potatoes, Brown Gravy, and Quick Pickled Cucumber. In Sweden the gravy is most often substituted with a basic cream Sauce. Both the gravy and sauce most of the time are seasoned with liberal amounts of Chinese mushroom soy sauce. Most Swedes would also want some Black-currant Jelly and some, including myself, like some browned Brussels sprouts with their chicken.
- 1 chicken, liver, heart and gizzard reserved
- butter, for browning
- cooking oil, for browning
- 2 carrots, cut into medium pieces
- 8 small shallots
- 6–12 button mushrooms, depending on size, whole, halved or quartered, according to their size and your preference
- 2 cloves garlic, crushed with the side of a knife
- 1 bay leaf
- 2 sprigs thyme
- 200 ml/7 fl oz (3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon) white wine
- salt and white pepper, to taste
Preparation and cooking time: 2 hours
Season the chicken well with salt and pepper, both inside and out.
Melt some butter with a little oil in a heavy cast iron pot or ovenproof dish over a medium-high heat and brown the bird all over. Take the pot off the heat and sit the bird breast-side up. Add the liver, heart, gizzard, vegetables, garlic and herbs, then pour in the wine. Cover with a lid and bring to a simmer over a low heat. (Or place it in an oven, preheated to 150°C/300°F). Cook the bird for 30–40 minutes, which makes it just cooked and juicy, or longer if you like it more well-done.
Waffles are served all over the Nordic region and each country has got a multitude of recipes. Some have eggs in them and others don’t. In general terms a waffle with eggs will be less crisp and more rich than one without. Some versions are leavened with yeast or chemical leavening agents and others are not. If leavened with yeast or not at all, the recipe will produce a pancake-like texture and if leavened with chemical leavening agents, a shorter texture. Waffles are often served as lunch, a snack in the afternoon or as a dessert. In Norway, waffles can also be found with Brown Cheese for breakfast. In the whole Nordic region, waffles are most commonly cooked in the classic Scandinavian waffle iron, which produces heart-shaped pieces.
Sprøde vafler (Denmark)
My favourite kind of waffle, crisp and delicate in an almost unreal way. Enjoy them hot off the iron with whipped cream and jam.
- 180 g/6½ oz (1¼ cups) weak (soft) wheat flour
- good pinch of salt
- good pinch of sugar
- 300 ml/10½ fl oz (1¼ cups) cream
- melted butter, for brushing
- Pour 200 ml/7 fl oz (3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon) of water into a mixing bowl. Stir in the flour, salt and sugar to form a batter.
Preparation and cooking time: 25 minutes
Makes: 10 waffles
Whip the cream to soft peaks and fold it into the batter gently. It should be fully combined, but not overmixed.
Heat your waffle iron to proper working temperature and brush it very lightly with melted butter. Pour in a suitable amount of batter and cook until nice and golden. Repeat with the rest of the batter.
The Nordic Cookbook is published by Phaidon.
Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Bloomberg. Follow him on Twitter @richardvines