Sami specials and succulent elk fillets: a taste of Swedish Lapland

In Sweden’s northernmost province, meals are fresh, hearty and ultra-local, whether you’re dining by an open fire or at a chef’s table.

Friday, January 24, 2020,
By Sally Robinson
Torne River in Lapland provides epic sunsets.
Torne River in Lapland provides epic sunsets.
Photograph by Pernilla Ahlsén

Fire it up: Kukkolaforsen

It’s already pitch black at 2.30pm when I pull up at Kukkolaforsen, a hotel and cultural centre on the banks of the Torne river. I’m within the Arctic Circle, more than 600 miles north of Stockholm and deep in wild Swedish Lapland.

It’s too dark to see the river, but its icy song is loud and clear as it navigates the rapids outside the hotel, near the end of its 354-mile journey through Sweden to the Gulf of Bothnia in the Baltic Sea. For much of the way, including right here, the river forms the border between Sweden and Finland. 

This is a place where life, nature and food are inextricably linked. From November to March, the village of Kukkola exists in the icy grip of winter with scant daylight and temperatures dipping to between -10C and -15C. During the summer months, it’s the land of the midnight sun, where darkness never falls and the frozen landscape is replaced by greenery.

“In summer, we have endless energy and we work all the time. In winter, it’s a time to rest,” says Johannah Spolander, whose family has owned Kukkolaforsen since 1986, and who now runs the hotel with her brother, Mathias Spolander.

Fishing is central to life in this area, and Kukkolaforsen has a prime position on the river: by a stretch of shallow rapids that are 200m wide and nearly 2 miles long. We head out into the bitter air, flickering lanterns guiding our way to a small timber shack on the riverbank. Inside, most of the room is filled with an enormous open hearth, in which bright, birchwood-fuelled flames dance. There’s no electricity; this is our light source. 

There are 23 species of fish in the river, but the most common is whitefish (‘sik’ in Swedish), a beautiful salmon-like fish that we’re about to cook. Caught metres away from where we sit, each is as long as two spans of the hand. Johannah makes five or six slashes along each side and the fish are then threaded on to thick, hand-hewn birchwood spears and placed vertically around the fire grate like sentinels. They don’t touch the flame but cook in the reflected heat.

It’s an ancient cooking technique, and one that’s specific to this area. The gashes ensure the fish is kept moist: as it cooks, the juices run down and are absorbed into the next incision.

While waiting for the whitefish to cook, we make a traditional flatbread. Johannah places a muurikka (a large, flat-bottomed pan) on the edge of the fire to heat up. We pick up lumps of dough, made from barley, wheat flour, rye and sour cream and flavoured with fennel and anise, then turn them slowly, flattening as we go, to produce a thin, round flatbread, which cooks in minutes on the hot muurikka. 

When the fish is ready, Johannah takes them one by one, still on the skewer, and dips them into a pan of hot, salted water for flavour before placing them back by the fire for a minute to burn off the moisture. We break off chunks of the moist, firm fish with our hands and wrap them in the hot bread spread with garlic butter. It’s wonderfully primal.

Later that evening, we walk to the sauna under skies tinged emerald by the northern lights. Sauna culture is at the heart of the Kukkolaforsen community; there are 16 here, including a smoke sauna, which uses a soft, ashen steam. Johannah tells me everyone sleeps well afterwards, and she’s right — although the pitch dark probably helps, too.

Kukkolaforsen, a hotel and cultural centre on the banks of the Torne river.
Photograph by Pernilla Ahlsén

Taste the seasons: Eva Gunnare

Candlelight welcomes me at Eva Gunnare’s cosy timber home on the edge of Jokkmokk. A local forager, Eva’s also an expert on the food culture of the Sami, the indigenous group that occupies an arc of land across northern Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia. 

She runs guided tours of the surrounding forest, meadows and mountains, but I’m here to taste some of the landscape’s bounty, prepared by Eva and Helena Lanta, a Sami reindeer herder. As they cook, the pair tell stories about the seasons, local traditions and the lives of reindeer herders. 

The Sami say there are eight seasons in a year, and tonight’s Njálgge tasting menu is designed to reflect each one of them. We start with midwinter: an earthy wild mushroom soup, with spruce focaccia and resinous pine bark bread. 

“Winter tastes are all about the forest,” explains Helena. “That’s where the reindeer take shelter.” It’s a hard winter, with little daylight and temperatures of -30C. Next, we move on to spring-winter, the driest period in March and April. It’s when the Sami smoke and salt reindeer meat, so we’re eating slices of cold-smoked reindeer with a refreshing birch granita. As we move through the seasons, many different flavours are brought to the table, including the spring-summer dish of nettle soup (nettle is a “multivitamin from the wild”, according to Eva) and meltingly soft mountain trout (a summer favourite) with sorrel sauce. 

Autumn is when reindeer are slaughtered — and so we come to more challenging dishes: blood pancakes (similar to black pudding) are followed by renkok, a casserole containing reindeer skull and the highly prized tongue. “We eat every part, out of respect to the animal,” says Helena. eolapland.se 

The super-cool art suite at Icehotel in Jukkasjärvi.
Photograph by Asaf Kliger

On ice: Icehotel

It’s not easy to drink a gin and tonic while wearing thermal mittens, especially when the glass is made of ice. That’s the tricky situation I’m negotiating at the bar of the Icehotel in the remote village of Jukkasjärvi. 

Pre-dinner drinks have a dress code: thermal snowsuit, fleecy boots, gloves and a balaclava. It’s -5C and absolutely everything here is crafted from huge blocks of ice harvested from the Torne river, including the smooth-as-glass bar and the intricate chandeliers. 

Dinner is at Chef’s Table on the Veranda, the hotel’s fine-dining restaurant, which seats 16 people at an oak table around an open kitchen. In true Swedish style, we remove our shoes at the door; we’re given slippers and time to mingle before the food is served. It feels like being at somebody’s rather swish home.

Swiss head chef Alexander Meier, who has worked in several Michelin-starred restaurants, has been at the hotel for nine years and cooks at the Chef’s Table most evenings. His 12-course tasting menu is centred on ingredients sourced from the region’s rivers, mountains, marshes and forests, and might include elk fillet, reindeer and arctic char.

Tonight, the char has been made as a light, creamy mousse flavoured with lemon zest and served with salty sturgeon caviar and salsify chips. Later courses include a succulent fillet of elk, grilled right in front of us. It has a delicate, slightly sweet gamey flavour and is served with a rich Valrhona chocolate sauce.

“Around three-quarters of our menu is locally sourced,” Alexander tells me. “It’s exciting to cook with reindeer or elk and to discover the local methods of smoking, curing and pickling.”

Al fresco: Sápmi Nature Camp

A long drive across the vast, frozen landscape brings me to Sápmi Nature Camp, just as soft feathers of snow are starting to fall. Five tipi-like lavvu tents sit in a forest clearing, a blazing fire at their centre, surrounded by benches draped with thick reindeer skins.

Lennart Pittja, from the Unna Tjerusj Sami community, runs this small-scale sustainable camp on Sami land as a place
for visitors to understand the indigenous people’s way of life through activities such as hiking and fishing.

We start, though, with a traditional Sami lunch. Lennart ladles out a steaming reindeer soup — a sustaining mix of carrot, potato, reindeer meat and dumplings. Next up is a minced reindeer sausage, smoked and wrapped in a crepinette and cooked on the muurikka, the flat pan the semi-nomadic Sami would have taken as they travelled. There’s also arctic char and trout, caught in the nearby river and smoked in the onsite smokehouse. 

As darkness descends, Lennart lifts his blackened kettle from the embers of the fire and fills our wooden cups with strong, black coffee. This, he says, is his favourite time, sitting around the flames, sharing stories of Sami heritage in the very place his ancestors have camped for hundreds of years. sapminature.com

 

Dinner is served at STF Aurora Sky Station.
Photograph by Pernilla Ahlsén

High Life: STF Aurora Sky Station

One of the best places in the world to see the Northern Lights, the STF Aurora Sky Station is also a pretty special place to have dinner. In the heart of the Abisko National Park, it sits 2,950ft above sea level and is only accessible by a 20-minute chairlift ride.

The STF Aurora Sky Station’s main purpose is as a viewing station for the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, but each evening it also offers a four-course set menu of northern Swedish cuisine, with diners granted exclusive access hours before the other visitors arrive.

The views are sensational; there’s no light pollution, just a huge expanse of the blackest sky and a million twinkling stars. Inside, I’m greeted by a roaring log fire and candlelit tables. I settle in for the starter: creamy vichyssoise dotted with smoked ptarmigan, a local grouse with a gamey flavour. It’s followed by more local specialities, and the meal is regularly interrupted by calls to see the aurora. At 1am, bellies full and feeling exhilarated by the silent darkness, we catch the chairlift down.

Dried reindeer meat is a traditional snack in Swedish Lapland.
Photograph by Pernilla Ahlsén

Only in Swedish Lapland

Reindeer charcuterie

Traditionally, fresh reindeer meat was only available in winter after the slaughter. The indigenous people became adept at salting, smoking and drying the meat to make a portable, protein-rich snack that could be carried by the reindeer herders. Nowadays
the rich, gamey snack is eaten in thin slices,
often alongside an aperitif. 

Coffee cheese

It might sound odd but coffee cheese, or kaffeost, is hugely popular. Cubes of kaffeost, a firm but flexible cheese with a rubbery texture and high melting point, are placed in the bottom of a traditional wooden cup, and hot coffee is poured on top. The idea is that you drink the liquid first, then scoop up the softened cheese — a meal in a cup.

Wild mushroom soup with birch breadsticks

This recipe is on Eva Gunnare’s Njálgge seasonal tasting menu.

EVA’S WILD MUSHROOM SOUP

Serves: 4 as a main or 6-8 as a starter   

Takes: 1 hr 

INGREDIENTS

butter or mild oil, for frying

6 cups mixed mushrooms, roughly chopped

1 small brown onion, roughly chopped

¼ small celeriac, roughly chopped

1 vegetable stock cube

1 cup cream

2-3 tbsp sherry, port or madeira

METHOD

Heat the butter or oil in a pan on a medium heat, then fry the mushrooms. Tip in the onion and celeriac, lower the heat and fry for 2 mins. 

Add the stock and enough water to cover the ingredients in the pan. 

Cover and gently boil for 30 mins.

Blend the mixture with a hand mixer until smooth (or use a food processor). Turn up the heat and stir in the cream. Once boiling, turn to a medium-low heat and let the soup gently simmer for 15 minutes. Add more water if the consistency is too thick. 

Pour in the sherry, port or madeira and season with salt and black pepper.

BIRCH BREADSTICKS

Serves 25  

Takes 1 hr 40 plus 45 mins rising 

INGREDIENTS

600ml warm water 

25g yeast

1 tsp bicarbonate

1 tbsp honey

2 tsp salt

2-3 tbsp crushed, dried birch leaves (alternatively use fennel seeds or cumin)

450g fine spelt flour 

240g wholemeal flour 

METHOD

Heat oven to 225C, fan 200C, gas 6. Mix all the ingredients in a dough blender or large bowl, then work the dough for at least 5 mins. Add more flour if needed. Set the dough aside to rise for 45 mins, then split into three parts.

On a surface lightly dusted with flour, roll out the first section of dough to make a flat, thin sheet, roughly 25x40cm in diameter and 2-3mm thick. Repeat with the remaining two lumps of dough. 

Slice the dough sheets into strips. Arrange 25-30 strips on a baking tray lined with baking paper, ensuring they don’t touch. Bake for 8 mins until lightly browned. Leave to cool on a wire rack.

Meanwhile, repeat with the remaining dough. Continue to roll, slice and bake the trays simultaneously. 

Essentials:

Getting there and around 

SAS flies from the UK to Lulea and Kiruna airports via Stockholm.

Staying there

Kukkolaforsen has rooms from £72 per person per night, and two-bedroom cottages from £92 per person per night, both B&B.

Sápmi Nature Camp has heated tents from £670 a night, including snowsuits and all meals.

In Kangos, Lapland Guesthouse has rooms from £160 a night, B&B.

How to do it

Discover the World offers a three-night food-themed stay at the Icehotel in Jukkasjärvi from £1,117, with direct charter flights from Heathrow, one night in an ice room and two nights in a ‘warm’ room, B&B, plus a 12-course tasting menu, a wilderness dinner and husky sledding.

More info

visitsweden.com 

swedishlapland.com

Printed in the Jan/Feb issue of National Geographic Traveller Food. 

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