Monday, March 03, 2008

Sweden’s Culinary Trends: WOWable

If excellent cuisine, artisanal flair, and bucolic settings on par with Provence or Tuscany play a key role in your holiday pleasures along with ecologically sound and fair practices then Sweden is where you want to go.

The gastronomic developments sweeping the country are raising Sweden’s sophisticated culinary scene into new “Wow able” realms. Among the trends is a surge of authentic artisanal products that go hand and hand with learn-from-the-farmer culinary packages, award winning chefs, eco-attuned restaurants and a culinary take on fair trade. Also new: Culinary Skåne, a chef’s group where camaraderie rules and new standards are set for regional cuisine.

Competition Breeds Excellence
Long after you understand why Stockholm is a world class culinary capital you will remember the taste of strawberries which are just bursting with flavour or the truly sublime experience of fresh new potatoes with a little salt and butter. Chefs use local ingredients in a metropolis that is surrounded by pure fishing waters, and forests are full of mushrooms, berries and elk. And freshness counts in a city that lives and breaths by rankings in culinary guides such as Sveriges Bästa Bord (Sweden’s best tables) and earns international recognition via the prestigious Bocuse d’Or, the Michelin Guide and les Grandes Tables du Monde.
Famous chefs and new restaurants are part of the Stockholm culinary scene. Among the newest and most prestigious gourmet restaurants is Mathias Dahlgren, which opened in 2007. Chef Dahlgren is the first Swedish chef to win the Bocuse d’Or culinary competition runs his eponymously-named luxury restaurant in the Grand Hotel. Pontus! Is the latest addition to the gastronomic empire of famous restaurateur Pontus Frithiof and aims to be Stockholm’s foremost continental restaurant with an innovative milieu. Within the past few months numerous restaurants ranging from mid-price to gourmet have opened including The Aquavit Grill & Raw Bar which is touted as the “fun” counterpart to its sister establishment Aquavit which has served New Yorkers the very best in Swedish cuisine since 1987, and has been awarded numerous distinctions over the years. Other openings include: Franzén Lindeberg with an "at home" feeling in Gamla Stan; Restaurant 1900 big on ecological think and the era of Swedish artist Carl Larsson; Restaurang Imperiet availing the best sky bar view in the city; Le Rouge Swedish-French and Italian. Its bar is a local favourite. Another great thing for travellers: most of these restaurants offer affordable hot midday meals. Look for “Dagens lunch” (“Lunch of the day”) or “Dagens rätt” (“Dish of the day”). And since Stockholm has a seriously indulgent fika (slang for coffee) culture cafes are plentiful with new ones opening frequently such as Xoko run by Magnus Johansson, who has created desserts for the Nobel Prize dinners for the past five years.
Chefs Passion, Diner’s Ambrosia
 aining momentum throughout the region is the Culinary Skåne project which dovetails the burgeoning industry of artisanal producers and specialist farms that have cropped up in recent years throughout the region of Skåne. Match this with historic inns, castles and manors in idyllic settings and innkeepers determined to be the best and you have excellence at every turn.
The Culinary Skåne project, driven by the passion of chefs from Southern Sweden, yields the best ingredients, the best quality and best presentation that Skåne has to offer. Member chefs use networking, training initiatives, joint ventures, and joint promotions that revolve around local food and fantastic local ingredients for consistent improvement. There are now 27 certified restaurants and growing. To dine in one of these restaurants, including Gastro in Helsinborg, the slow-food restaurant Salt & Brygga and the environmentally-friendly restaurant Ängavallen, is a unique and authentic culinary experience. Regional foods such as crisp asparagus, new potatoes, sweet apples, elk, lumpfish, garfish, cep mushrooms, geese, eel, corn fed chicken, regional rye breads such as ‘kavring’ turn up on menus that are as distinctive as they are different.
Situated at the very south, Skåne is the larder – or kitchen cupboard – of Sweden with a mild climate perfect for growing crops, fruits and vegetables and for raising cattle. Across the region artisanal cottage industries are flourishing. In the last few years farms have gone “direct” selling to the public giving birth to a wide-spread agri-tourism industry that involves selling products as well as hosting classes and overnight guests. The world-famous vodka Absolut, for instance, is produced in eastern Skåne.  And the potatoes grown here are of such high quality they are used to make ‘single estate’ and ‘vintage’ potato vodkas. Smoked eel from the Kivik area is a Scanian specialty and there’s a festival that occurs during the season from August to November.
Artisanal Bounty at Nature’s Best
The trend towards artisanal has spread throughout the country. You can, for example, learn how to prepare delicious lamb dishes in a genuine country environment at a sheep farm in the province of Västergötland. And pick wild mushrooms in the woods, prepare them together with the chef and enjoy them in a stylish 1800s manor-house during a “Wild Mushroom Weekend” at Sikfors Manor near Sörälgen Lake. These and other similar experiences can be found on their website, see the link on the right.
Carbon and “just” footprints
The Swedish penchant for honesty and clean living has culinary repercussions too. When Malmo was appointed Sweden’s first “Fair Trade City” it assured the continued growth of restaurants, cafes and boutiques which offer organic and “fair trade” products.  According to Wikpedia, Fair Trade is an organized social movement and market-based model of international trade which promotes the payment of a fair price as well as social and environmental standards in areas related to the production of a wide variety of goods including handicrafts, coffee, cocoa, sugar, tea, bananas, honey, cotton, wine, fresh fruit, etc.
Among the numerous Swedish entities adhering to the “Fair Trade/Organic” philosophy is Slottsträdgården (the castle garden), an organic garden and café city centre behind Malmöhus castle in Malmo. This is a KRAV-certified garden with herbs, vegetables, various theme gardens and its own nursery. There is also a cosy café, run by a non-profit association “The Castle Garden Friends”; the work in the garden is led by John Taylor a man with a burning interest in ecology. Here travellers can enjoy the garden, concerts in summer, buy newly-cut flowers, order organic drinks, sandwiches and grilled ciabatta, a famous carrot cake and other delicious snacks. The Barista Fair Trade Coffee is the first ethical café chain in Scandinavia. Its alternative attitude has turned a lot of heads making its recently opened café in Malmo a huge hit. All of its coffee, tea, chocolate and sugar are fair trade while all dairy products and juices have the eco-label Krav. Moreover, every day each coffee shop sponsors a school class in the Amhara district in Ethiopia with school meals, which results in the number of pupils increasing by more than 30 %. The ambition is to be better in two ways, both through its ethical aspirations and by maintaining good quality.
In a similar mode, Gothenburg located between the Swedish coast and countryside has kitchens awash with organically grown ingredients and the freshest fish and shellfish. Seafood grows slower in the cold waters of the North Sea, a key component of quality. Gothenburg has four Michelin-starred restaurants and numerous great places to eat. The cuisine is fundamentally Nordic cooking combined with flavors from around the globe.

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