Nordic gastronomy is today the very focus of attention for the international food media. Sweden, along with the other Nordic countries, offers a refuge of clean, unspoiled nature, as well as the taste of contemporary exoticism. Stretching more than 1500 kilometres from well above the polar circle to the fertile plains of the southern tip, Sweden covers a number of climatic regions, allowing for a rich diversity of flora, fauna and traditions – and exceptional foraging.
Summer and autumn, Swedes of all ages and backgrounds forage mushrooms, berries and fruits. The varieties vary greatly from one region to another. There's an overwhelming number of delicious mushrooms, over 500 wild berries and almost as many different kinds of apples. In the forests and plains grow blueberries, wild strawberries, cloudberries, lingonberries, rowanberries, elderberries and many more. Some are eaten fresh with milk or cream, other turned into homemade marmalade, jam or fruit syrup to be savoured during the cold season.
Many Swedes, including an increasing number of restaurants, have their own garden – at home or at their country house. Staple bushes in the gardens are red and black currant, gooseberry and garden raspberry. There's usually rhubarb, and trees with apples, pears, plums and cherries. The more ambitious garden owners grow vegetables and create their own herb garden.
The need to preserve food in the rather harsh environment has been instrumental to the development of Swedish cuisine – extending the produce's edible lifespan, be it through drying, smoking, salting or any other artisanal technique. The many pickled herring variations are perhaps the best Swedish example of this, most of them with a sweet and sour base. Cured salmon is another example. Gravlax used to be salted and buried in the ground to preserve until needed (grav meaning grave). Today gravlax is ‘buried’ under pressure in salt, pepper, sugar and chopped dill for anything between a couple of hours to a couple of days.
Coffee came to Sweden from Turkey at a time when Finland was part of Sweden, and the Finns are today the heaviest coffee consumers in the world, with Sweden a close second. In Sweden, fika has become a cultural phenomenon, the coffee break Swedes take a couple of times every day, together with family, colleagues or friends. Fika means sipping a cup of coffee or tea, and often, but not necessarily, nibbling on kaffebröd (coffee bread: small cookies, cakes or cinnamon rolls) or a cheese sandwich. The coffee houses, traditionally called konditori, are what everything revolves around in cities and even small villages.
The vitality of Nordic gastronomy manifests itself in many different ways. Accompanying the lively restaurant scene is an increasing number of new, small-scale food and beverage companies popping up on the countryside as well as in the cities. Micro and nano breweries, mobile slaughterhouses, cider press and apple juice buses, stone oven bakeries, artisan cheese producers, growers of vegetable and herbs, organic pig and cattle farms. Many of these new artisanal products are created in close relation and cooperation with local chefs.
Even the winery business is expanding, despite the northerly location. The roughly 30 registered wine producers are found in the southern part of the country and on the islands of Gotland and Öland in the Baltic sea.
A new generation of Swedish chefs are making their mark on the global gastronomic arena. Although the capital, Stockholm, is leading the way, other cities like Gothenburg and Malmö have vibrant restaurant scenes. Also, some of the most intriguing and personal expressions of Swedish gastronomy can be found in restaurants far away from the cities.
Chefs across the country are exploring nature, using everything that foraging and local sourcing can provide. It means venturing into new territory, but simultaneously they rediscover traditional, often artisan methods and techniques. The role of the chef has taken a new turn, not focusing only on the work in the kitchen, but spending considerable time finding the best quality produce, and developing close relations with farmers, growers and producers.
Swedish gastronomy also has a tradition of looking outward. The Swedish kitchen would never be in its present position at the forefront of gastronomy without being open to other cultures. Since the 50s, Sweden has welcomed a relatively large number of immigrants from different parts of the world. They have contributed greatly to the development of the gastronomy in terms of produce, techniques and traditions. They have also helped create a healthy and eclectic restaurant scene where an impressive number of cuisines are represented.
As a token of the success of chefs, Sweden has three restaurants on The World's 50 Best Restaurants list, as well as ten restaurants with stars in Guide Michelin. Two of the restaurants – Mathias Dahlgren and Frantzén/Lindeberg – have two stars, which is more than any other Nordic country.
The vast northern part of Sweden is a great source of characteristic produce and exciting traditions. The cellar-aged goats’ cheeses from just a few, small farms in Jämtland and Härjedalen, with unique character and taste from each particular cellar, can be found on the Slow Food Foundation's biodiversity list, The Arc of Taste. The most well-known and reputable cheese is västerbotten, from the region with the same name, a hard cow's milk cheese with tiny holes and granular texture, providing chefs with a wide variety of applications.
The cuisine of the Sámi people of Lapland is a gastronomic world of its own. One of their staple foods, suovas – smoked in English – is lightly salted and smoked reindeer meat most often served with deliciously dense unleavened bread and foraged lingonberries. The flavour is enhanced by cold-smoking the traditional way in a kåta, a Sami teepee, over an open fire.
In the coastal region of Kalix, in the very northern part of the Baltic Sea, one can find the unique conditions required for the production of vendace roe. The roe is Sweden's answer to sturgeon caviar, with an amazing freshness, delicate flavour, supple texture and subtle saltiness.
The region of Jämtland is an eldorado for foodies, with an array of small-scale food manufacturers. Consequently, the Östersund area of Jämtland is a designated UNESCO City of Gastronomy. A bit north of Sweden's largest alpine ski district, Åre in Jämtland, lies Fäviken Magasinet, one of the most talked-about new restaurants on the international food firmament. No serious foodie can resist the breathtaking menu of the wizardly talented chef Magnus Nilsson, which is based on what is grown, foraged and shot on and around this northerly estate in the middle of nowhere.
Stockholm wouldn't be the same without its vast archipelago, one of the largest in the world with upwards of 35,000 islands, islets and skerries, covering 1,700 square kilometres. The archipelago has over 10,000 residents and 50,000 holiday homes. A voyage out to the archipelago in your own boat or by ferry is a must for both locals and visitors. There are a large number of restaurants and inns, and other food destinations such as fish smokehouses, distilleries, village stores, sausage makers and bakeries.
The city itself is a melting pot of cuisine from all over the world – with a bursting restaurant scene covering everything from innovative street food and gastropub-style cuisine to restaurants of international acclaim. Many demonstrate their very own take on Nordic cuisine. Leading the way are Frantzén/Lindeberg, currently ranked number 20 on The World's 50 Best Restaurants list, and Mathias Dahlgren, ranked number 41 in the same poll. However, young, ambitious chefs are continuously challenging for the leadership on the city's culinary stage, and new restaurants and other food venues continue to open their doors to the avid restaurant-goers of Stockholm.
The west coast of Sweden boasts its own marine version of ‘big five’: langoustine, lobster, oyster, shrimp and mussels. Benefiting from the cold, clean water, the shellfish are of supreme quality. The native oyster – ostrea edulis, historically grown all over Europe – has a different set of characteristics compared to the most common farmed oysters of today, crassostrea gigas. It has more taste of the sea and minerals, and a pleasantly meaty texture. Similarly, the langoustine offers taste and texture revered by chefs all around the Nordic countries. Supremely juicy flesh and with a multi-layered taste, it needs no company on the plate.
The main city on the west coast, Gothenburg, is where the country's most important fish markets are located, offering a wide range of fish and seafood. The restaurants in Gothenburg, and on the west coast in general, are heavily reliant on the unique produce available, making this one of the most exciting places in the world to visit for passionate fish and seafood lovers.
The southernmost region of Sweden, Skåne, consists of vast, fertile fields, beautiful rolling hills, enchanted forests and a very long coastline. This is an ideal region for growing, farming, foraging and hunting – the Swedish equivalent of Tuscany. Not only do the many hours of sun and mild climate provide favourable growing conditions, this is an area characterized by its very own regional culinary traditions. For example, spättekaka is a local, sugar-based dessert cake baked on a spit, and äggakaka a traditional thick pancake with fried bacon on top. Also, every year, the locals meet for gåsamiddag, the annual goose dinner on 10th of November.
The food scene in the region's main city, Malmö, features bistro-style restaurants with comfort food based on local produce with a modern European influence. One of the most fiercely innovative chefs in Skåne, just recently discovered by international food media, is Daniel Berlin, who runs his own restaurant in the small village of Skåne Tranås. Together with his mother, who looks after the vegetable garden, and his father, responsible for the cheese platter and beverages, Daniel Berlin cooks local specialities in season, such as cod, forest-raised pig, asparagus, beetroot, wild rabbit and rook – all served with his own personal, innovative and caring twist.
The co-founder of corporate communications group Intellecta, one of Scandinavia's largest and most successful – listed at Nasdaq OMX Nordic Exchange – Lars Peder Hedberg is also the founder and publisher/editorial director of White Guide and Gourmet Magazine in Sweden, two institutions with massive influence on Scandinavian gastronomy.
As the editorial director of White Guide, Sweden's leading restaurant guide, I'm not really supposed to have ‘favourites’: I should always be impartial. Nonetheless, there are restaurants that I'm happier to visit than others, even if some of these others score much higher when tested methodically.
Some of the favourites make my list for challenging the preconceptions of what something should look, smell and taste like: breaking the rules, pushing the boundaries of gastronomy. Others make my personal list for exactly the opposite reason: for reigniting the classics, rediscovering lost flavours or just accomplishing a traditional dish the way it was originally meant to be.
To view my recommendations, please see Top 50 Restaurants and Academy Recommendations.
Slide show 1
(image 1) Photo: Peter Cairns/VisitSweden
(image 2) Photo: Magnus Skoglöf/VisitSweden
(image 3) Photo: Tomas Utsi/imagebank.sweden.se
(image 4) Photo: Jonas Overödder/imagebank.sweden.se
(image 5) Photo: Mirima Preis/imagebank.sweden.se
Slide show 2
(image 1) Photo: Staffan Widstrand/imagebank.sweden.se
(image 2) Photo: Tina Stafrén/VisitSweden
(image 3) Photo: Mark Harris/imagebank.sweden.se
(image 4) Photo: Miriam Preis/imagebank.sweden.se
(image 5) Photo: Ulf Huett Nilsson/imagebank.sweden.se
Slide show 3
(image 1) Photo: Erik Olson/Fäviken Magasinet/VisitSweden
(image 2) Photo: Erik Olson/Fäviken Magasinet/VisitSweden
(image 3) Photo: Nico Södling/imagebank.sweden.se
(image 4) Photo: Ola Ericson/imagebank.sweden.se
(image 5) Photo: Restaurant Mathias Dahlgren
Slide show 4
(image 1) Photo: Sebastian Lineros/imagebank.sweden.se
(image 2) Photo: Nico Södling/imagebank.sweden.se
(image 3) Photo: Björn Tesch/imagebank.sweden.se
(image 4) Photo: Björn Tesch/imagebank.sweden.se
(image 5) Photo: Anders P Hansson/imagebank.sweden.se
Slide show 5
(image 1) Photo: Ola Ericson/imagebank.sweden.se
(image 2) Photo: Restaurant frantzen/lindberg
(image 3) Photo: Restaurant frantzen/lindberg
(image 4) Photo: Tuukka Ervasti/imagebank.sweden.se
(image 5) Photo: Fredrik Broman/imagebank.sweden.se