Nordic Cooking In The Wilderness
Remote and, at times, unforgiving, the northern wilds of Sweden would not be every head chef’s preferred location for a restaurant. But this is where Mr Magnus Nilsson has made a name for himself as one of the most innovative and resourceful chefs in the world, with Fäviken Magasinet, his Nordic-influenced restaurant in a renovated 18th-century barn near the Norwegian border.
If you want to eat Mr Nilsson’s food, which, depending on what the Nordic gods have bestowed upon the surrounding land, might be anything from scallops cooked over juniper to lamb marrow, you will have to earn it in travel hours. In order to film Mr Nilsson at work, MR PORTER’s itinerary involved a flight to Trondheim in Norway, followed by a three-hour drive to the ski resort town of Åre in Sweden. It’s not uncommon for culinary tourists to journey far and wide to sample the world’s best restaurants, but the logistics of getting to the remote province of Jämtland are not to everyone’s tastes. Not even the staff. After securing a sought-after place in the Fäviken kitchen (Mr Nilsson receives about 200 CVs a week), some have been known to leave after realising such isolation is not for them.
Nonetheless, Fäviken is currently 41st on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants List – reaching as high as 19th in 2014 (though such a concept, we suspect, seems arbitrary to Mr Nilsson) – and is welcoming diners in droves. There are very few nationalities the restaurant hasn’t had pass through its doors, Mr Nilsson tells MR PORTER after a morning spent gathering ingredients. We meet him early, as thick mist hovers over the nearby lake. It is a beautiful setting. But since Mr Nilsson cooks with ingredients from his immediate surroundings (he also uses specialised local suppliers; one lady delivers just one bucket of gooseberries every year), it can be brutal. Temperatures get as low as -40°C in winter and not much grows for six months of the year. To build up one of the most revered restaurants in the world here is, well, a little bit special.
“If you have boundaries, it stimulates creativity. If you have everything all the time, it’s easy to continue producing the same thing”
Mr Nilsson did not always imagine it like this. He was born in nearby Östersund and spent his childhood hunting and nurturing a passion for food, before leaving for Paris aged 19 to gain experience at Michelin-starred restaurants L’Astrance and L’Arpège. “I never planned on coming back here,” he says. “I planned to stay in France and open [a restaurant in] a place where there is a culture of going out much more than in northern Sweden.” Mr Nilsson did return, however, and accepted a job in the Fäviken wine cellar in 2008, before transforming the restaurant into what it is today. It is a nice twist of fate, or a “series of coincidences”, as he terms it, that his calling was on his doorstep all along.
Mr Nilsson now sees the isolation as essential to his highly original cooking. “One of the great benefits of running a restaurant in the countryside is that it’s just us,” he says. “In the city, it is almost inevitable that you connect to the restaurants around you.” The limited resources, ironically, feed his imagination. “If you have boundaries, it stimulates creativity. If you have everything all the time, it’s easy to continue producing the same thing.”
This method of working means terms such as “foraging” and “seasonal” are often applied to Fäviken. Popularised by the better-known Copenhagen restaurant Noma, they are often appropriated by places that don’t deal in “hyper-local” cooking. To Mr Nilsson, who does not benefit from the sophisticated suppliers and spotlight that a city brings, the words do not really mean anything. He believes, whether in Manhattan or the Scandinavian countryside, a restaurant should be loyal to its surroundings so it can create something personal, something that makes sense. “It’s a very weird way of looking at food,” he says. “[Seasonal] is a word often used without any thought about what it means. We have to follow the rhythm of the year here, produce an excess in the summer and prepare it to be stored like people did in the old times.”
“One of the great benefits of running a restaurant in the countryside is that it’s just us”
A quick look in Mr Nilsson’s root cellar reveals the preservation processes on which Fäviken relies. Labels on apothecary-like jars – “Fireweed: 9/6/2015”, “Crowberries in 60 per cent booze” – identify some of the produce he pickles, salts and preserves from the verdant summer. A dedication to these ancient Nordic techniques led him to write his second book, The Nordic Cookbook. He originally rejected the idea of a cookbook, offended that anyone might attempt to simplify the food culture of an area that stretches from Finland to Greenland. But he felt, with enough research, he could celebrate the region’s disparate elements and debunk the myth that its cuisine is insular. “The Nordic region is divided into distinctive sub-regions, depending on who occupied whom,” says Mr Nilsson. “People have been travelling here for many hundreds of years. All the Nordic countries are dependent on trade, which has resulted in a rich and varied food culture.”
The book is supposed to be a guide. Like Mr Nilsson’s own food, there is no fussy artistry at play. It is more concerned with culture and produce. He wants us to rely on instinct and passion to create something we can relate to, rather than cooking by rote. “The idea of a perfect recipe that works every time everywhere is flawed,” he says. “You’re working with living material, so a chicken today isn’t going to be same as the chicken you buy tomorrow.”
As if to prove his point, in our film, above, Mr Nilsson cooks some in-season grouse on an open fire by the lake. Shot in the surrounding heather-filled mountains, he flavours it with spruce needles and juniper. Simple, fresh and local really does taste best – we can personally attest to that. It’s just a shame that most of it goes to Krut, Mr Nilsson’s trusty English setter.
If grouse isn’t your thing, try the classic Swedish meatballs recipe, below, selected from Mr Nilsson’s The Nordic Cookbook.
Mr Tore Wretman's Meatballs
“The recipe for these mild and delicate meatballs comes from the grandfather of Swedish traditional cooking, Tore Wretman,” says Mr Nilsson. “I usually prepare them when I want meatballs to be part of the menu of a bigger meal, like Swedish Christmas dinner, rather than serving them as a dish on their own. For meatballs as a meal, I prefer my grandma’s coarser, leaner and more well-seasoned meatballs.”
Preparation and cooking time: 45 minutes
- Butter, for frying
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 30g (1/3 cup) fresh white breadcrumbs
- 200ml (7fl oz) cream
- 1 egg
- 200g (1 cup) minced (ground) beef
- 100g (1 cup) minced (ground) veal
- 100g (1 cup) minced (ground) pork
- Salt and white pepper, to taste
Melt a knob of butter in a pan over a medium heat. Add the onions and fry until soft and golden.
Tip them out of the pan and leave them to cool.
Combine the breadcrumbs with the cream in a large mixing bowl and leave for a little while to swell. Add the cooled onion and the egg, and mix everything together well.
In a separate bowl, mix the beef, veal and pork so they are thoroughly combined. Add them to the bread and cream, season well, then mix everything together.
Shape the mixture into balls the size of a small walnut.
Melt a knob of butter in a large frying pan or skillet over a medium heat. Fry the meatballs until brown all over.
The Nordic Cookbook (Phaidon Press) by Mr Magnus Nilsson is out now
Film by Mr Jacopo Maria Cinti