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Sweden: For the love of foraging

In Sweden, the right to forage is part of the nation's lifeblood, and its people's deep connection to the land is reflected in how they eat. In Stockholm and Sörmland, every ingredient — from berries and mushrooms to cod and deer — is treated with respect

By Audrey Gillan
photographs by Tina Stafren
Published 3 Apr 2019, 10:37 BST, Updated 12 Jul 2021, 15:31 BST
Foraging in Sweden

Foraging in Sweden

Photograph by Tina Stafren

Here, amid the pine and spruce trees, she finds all manner of fungi — penny buns, parasols, shaggy ink caps and wood hedgehogs. The cartoon-like, red-and-white-spotted fly agaric sticks its head up, seeming to shout 'eat me, eat me!' but Lena is very clear: this is a trick, this toadstool is a vomit-inducing hallucinogen.

As I follow in her path, my eyes become sharper and I'm pleased to find one little chanterelle, which, to me, is particularly beautiful. As I stoop to the forest floor to retrieve my buttery bounty, I observe the tiny world at my feet — a bed of hundreds of different mosses, lichens and fungi — many of them once commonly used for cooking and general household purposes — lichens for insulation and for babies' nappies, moss to top roofs…

Earlier, I'd met up with Lena at Högtorp Gård, the 150-acre farm she and her husband, Ola, have owned for over a decade. She's a chemical engineer, he's a biologist and forest ecologist; together, they've turned their land into a kind of eco-gastro experiment, declining to exploit their spruce and pine for logs and instead turning the fruits of their forest — spruce buds and needles, birch sap and leaves, berries — into oils, syrups, jams and jellies of such high quality that they're in demand from many of Scandinavia's great chefs.

"What we do is produce tastes in food. We manage the forest in certain ways so that we can produce different flavours. It's completely different than a coniferous forest in the rest of the world. We earn more money from the needles than the logs and in that we're quite unusual," Lena explains as we explore her domain in Sweden's southeastern Sörmland province. "When we started our food business six years ago, we thought, what type of knowledge do both of us have? I've always been interested in foraging and really great food — going to really niche restaurants when I was a student. I like good raw material and quite pure tastes and not a lot of mixtures. I'm a food innovator, combining my tastes and interest in wild food with Ola's knowledge of trees and flowers."

In a tiny off-grid cottage on the farm land — the oldest in the area — Lena and Ola serve up a soup of nettles, sorrel, garlic, rapeseed oil, toasted sunflower seeds and parmesan. I taste her spruce oil — extracted from shoots — as well as a syrup made from tiny spruce buds, her pickled rowanberries and more. "Marinated wild reindeer meat, cold-smoked trout, chanterelle mushrooms fried in butter — these are all hallmark flavours of Sweden," Lena explains. "And when we top them with seasoning oil such as spruce, we add freshness and depth and the experience of the Nordic is enhanced significantly."

Berries feature prominently in the Swedish diet and picking them in the wild is part of the lifeblood of its people. Allemansrätten (the public's right to freely roam the countryside) is a cherished tradition dating back to the Middle Ages, which was fully exploited in the late-19th and early-20th century when extreme poverty helped to create a nation of thrifty foragers.

There are numerous species of wild berry in Sweden, most of which feature on restaurant menus and in rårörds (raw-blended jams) across the land. Cloudberries, lingonberries and bilberries are arctic berries that are key elements in the New Nordic Cuisine, a cooking movement founded in 2004 by a group of top Scandinavian chefs, centred around local, seasonal and natural ingredients. Michelin-starred Swedish chef Mathias Dahlgren, a member of this group, said at the time: "Chefs should dig wherever they are standing and use as many local ingredients in season as they can. The only next trend in gastronomy is whatever is growing next season."

This 'on-your-doorstep' philosophy manifests itself at Äléby Gård, a hunting-focused family farm that boasts a restaurant and farm shop, as well as holiday homes to rent. Owner Jacob Högfeldt tells me the guiding principle on this vast estate is conservation — of both the countryside and the game animals that call it home. These include fallow deer, moose, wild boars, hares and mallards. Here, you can hunt, butcher and cook your own dinner and pick your own vegetables to go with it. As Jacob shows us around the small butchery area next to the kitchen, he talks reverently about the preparation of the game: "It's quite a unique dinner. You get to talk about humbleness and the way you should take care of an animal. It's not a bloody thing, it's a very respectful thing." Jacob — who's also the local mayor — describes Sörmland as "a factory without roof or walls". There are so many farms here that the region is, in effect, Sweden's larder. 

I next drive further into the forest, around 70 miles south west, to Virå Bruk, a farm and all-round mecca for field sports, with a conference centre, farm shop, restaurant, hunting lodges and a game kitchen to hire. Chef Claus Jarding greets me in an open kitchen warmed by a wood fire and hands me a bottle of God Lager from the local Nils Oscar Brewery. We smoke wild duck breasts, sauté mushrooms in butter and sear fallow deer — combining our bounty with meat hunted on the estate and other raw materials from the forest.

In Stockholm, a final cooking class awaits, the dishes of which seem to be a perfect distillation of Swedish cuisine: lamb tartar with smoked sour cream and crispy beets, oven-baked cod with sprats, potatoes and broad beans, and, to finish, chilled cloudberry soup with almond crème brûlée and cloudberry sorbet. The menu has been devised by Magnus Albrektsson, a consultant chef who's showing me the ropes at Restaurangakademin, a gastronomic school for chefs and restaurant workers that also hosts classes for the public.

As we put the pieces of cod loin into an oven set to a very low temperature, Magnus explains that this species of fish has made a great leap, in gastronomic terms. "It was previously regarded as a lower-standard fish. Now it's treasured and it's sustainable."

The sauce for the cod is flavoured with tinned ansjovis (not anchovies, surprisingly, but sprats), another essence of Sweden. Their sweet flavour is essential for this dish, as well as the husmanskost (traditional Swedish cuisine) classic, Jansson's frestelse ('Janson's temptation': a potato gratin, with a cream sauce flavoured by sprats). It's lain on a bed of soft potatoes and broad beans and the whole thing is sprinkled with sourdough croutons scented with caraway and aniseed — two very Swedish spices that, like another favourite, cinnamon, was brought to this land by the Vikings.

"You eat with all your senses," Magnus tells me, as we prepare the dish. "You need two textures to make everything happen on your palate." As we eat our dessert, he explains that "almonds and cloudberries are best friends", and that the most important thing to do when cooking is to relax and enjoy it. "I'm teaching restaurant cooking for home cooks, but nothing is too complicated," he says. "The first priority is to see your friends — the second priority is fantastic food." 

In five

1. The sandwich
The räksmörgås (or räkmacka) is an open-faced shrimp sandwich, topped with lettuce, tomato, cucumber, boiled egg, North Atlantic shrimp, crème fraîche and dill.

2. The sweets
Swedes love liquorice — particularly the salty version, which can be a challenge for visitors. Another favourite is kanelbulle, a cinnamon bun, usually served with coffee.

3. The fruits
Berries are adored in Sweden. Popular varieties are cloudberries, lingonberries, bilberries, arctic brambles, blueberries, wild raspberries and strawberries.

4. The side
Knäckebröd (Swedish crispbread) is eaten at breakfast, lunch and dinner and as a snack. In the 1970s, a government campaign advised eating six to eight slices a day.

5. The stalwart
Köttbullar (meatballs, most commonly made from pork or beef) are typically served with a light, buttery sauce and a lingonberry condiment.

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