Sweden: My mission to Faviken for the meal of a lifetime
Food, glorious food.
Mark C. O'Flaherty journeys to an 18th-century barn in Sweden for Europe's most remote fine-dining experience.
The original plan was to do it all in one night.
Given that the whole point of a trip to Faviken was dinner, however, there seemed little point: I'd be off balance by late afternoon, experiencing auditory hallucinations while sipping the locally brewed beer in Faviken's sauna, and face-down in the blood bread and moose broth mid-supper.
So instead, I flew to Stockholm a day before heading to the snowbound northern landscape of Jamtland, for some complementary dining and a lie-in. In for a penny, in for a krona...
Faviken's dining room has 12 seats and can be as difficult to book as it is arduous to get to (although the waiting list, and the just-launched Gatelag Table, serving more traditional dishes, are worth considering).
It's on many a foodie's bucket list, and has been on mine ever since chef Magnus Nilsson's cookbook appeared on my kitchen bookshelf. Black grouse, reindeer lichen and cloudberries are in short supply around Stoke Newington in north London, so I'd always approached Faviken as more of a storybook than a source of dinner-party menu planning.
But the Scandinavian, and specifically Swedish, approach to all things contemporary and culinary has impressed me for the best part of a decade. Up there with Eleven Madison Park in Manhattan, Arzak in San Sebastián and L'enclume in the Lake District, one of my top five meals of all time was at Mathias Dahlgren's Matsalen, at the Grand Hotel in Stockholm, shortly after it opened.
Dahlgren weaves a personal narrative that involves Proustian memories of childhood meals, around the logistics of local, premium produce. The night before flying north to Ostersund for Faviken, I booked one of the 10 stools at Dahlgren's new Matbordet – a chef's counter table, in a glass box on the side of the fine-dining room. Chef Oskar Petterson created several courses of Swedish Christmas-themed dishes in front of us, with detailed narration and a modern twist: lush pickled herring, smoked salmon with roe, pork belly with trotter dumplings, and festive spiced breads.
"Matbordet is about predicting the future of dining," Dahlgren told me, shortly before service. "People are now as interested in what's going on off the plate as they are on the plate. The meaning of luxury has changed."
Fine dining has, definitely, become less passive as diners become more inquisitive. Even dinner at the rarefied Matsalen begins with a journey into the kitchen to have a nose around before diners take their seats in front of their iPad menus.
The Grand Hotel is still the only game in town when it comes to lavish, grande dame, marble bathtub, crystal chandelier and Chinoiserie wallpaper luxury. From its position on the water to the way the staff lower the exterior shades at breakfast, inch by inch, until the glare of the morning sun is off the last diner's face, it's a near-perfect luxury hotel. But I was also keen to try out the nearby Hotel Skeppsholmen, on the island of the same name. It's in one of the landmark buildings close to the Moderna Museet and Arkitekturmuseet, in a part of the city so pretty that not even Niki de St Phalle's maddeningly trite sculptures can spoil it.
I loved Skeppsholmen's super-modern-but-still-candlelit breakfast room, but wasn't so keen on the entirely translucent bathroom/toilet doors in the bedrooms. My eyes! My precious eyes!
The next day, after an hour's flight into snowier climes, I am in Ostersund, where I meet local foodie Fia Gulliksson. She runs the Jazzkoket restaurant, which specialises in sustainable and regional ingredients, as well as having her own radio show, running a company producing teas, and, as CEO of Food in Action, is behind a move to have Unesco label the town a City of Gastronomy.
"We need people to know what treasure there is here," she says, as we tuck into clove buns and carrot bread at the Frejas Bakeri. "The farms around here are all largely organic. The produce is incredible."
The produce of Jamtland county is what motivated Magnus Nilsson – who was an apprentice chef at 14 – to open Faviken, around an hour's drive north west of Ostersund. His roots are deep here, in a region that has its own language – more akin to Icelandic than Swedish. It also has its own distinct agriculture, encompassing Sami-style foraging and hunting.
Faviken isn't just a restaurant, it's also a hunting estate.
If you think there's a profit margin in a 12-cover restaurant in an old barn, 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle, that's closed for 20 weeks of the year, then you have scant understanding of the business. A night costs more than €600 before flights, but as life experiences go it's definitely worth it. And it's the very definition of what Dahlgren means by the new kind of luxury.
After unwinding in the sauna – complete with bar and charcuterie – the evening's guests assemble in the candlelit 18th-century barn at 7pm for rhubarb wine and amuse bouche. There's a bust of Socrates (looking like a bearded sibling of Magnus's) above the open fire, next to an axe and hand mincer, and a bookshelf with a copy of Australian chef Ben Shewry's Origin. In case any of us have somehow forgotten the temperature and landscape outside, there's a ton-weight of ankle-length, two-century old wolf-fur coat hanging on the wall, like a lupine Joseph Beuys installation.
We have multiple courses downstairs, including flaxseed and vinegar crisps and pig's head, dipped in sourdough and deep-fried into little balls, with pickled gooseberry. A salted herring – aged for three years – is deconstructed into small bites. Major effort has gone into ensuring the stripes of fat on slices of cured pork are even and symmetrical. It all looks beautiful, tastes marvellous, and everyone's excited: the Norwegian couple next to me are on a belated honeymoon. But no one is on Instagram or Twitter.
"Only politicians and comedians do that in Sweden," someone says.
For the first of the main courses – the biggest and most succulent scallop I have ever encountered, cooked over juniper branches and served in broth in its own shell, accompanied by honey-rich mead – we are led upstairs. It's arrestingly sparse. Just three tables are set. Slabs of meat hang from the rafters, like the carnivorous elements of a Francis Bacon canvas. It's theatrical – a little bit Amish, a little bit Evil Dead, but also cosy and chic. Staff prepare dishes in the shadows, in matching grey smocks, suggesting some kind of rite as much as supper, and each new dish is introduced by two sharp claps of a chef's hands.
Dinner at Faviken is never anything less than interesting, even if there are elements (potatoes cooked in decomposed autumn leaves) that are more pretentious than flavourful. And a few dishes are subtle to the point of blandness – lost in meticulous technique and studious research. But when Magnus's concept of peerless local produce cooked in a quite primal way is on form, it leads to incredible sensations. Much has been written about his fixation with the age at which livestock is slaughtered, and its subsequent ageing (in brief, older = better). His "retired dairy cow" dish features beef from an animal way older than I'd ever eaten. It put the taste of the aroma of the best butcher's shop straight on to my tongue and I am sad to think I may never experience it again.
They've dialled things down a little at Faviken of late.
They've stopped using the legendary ice-cream churner from 1920 (employed largely for its distinctive and wonky cranking sound). And they no longer saw bone marrow in the dining room for theatrical effect. But they do still play the same repetitive, minimalist strings of Jamtland folk music, night after night. It probably wouldn't work in any other dining room, but here, it's all part of the experience.
After a few more post-dinner courses downstairs, including little meat pies packed with deer shavings and birch syrup, and an offering of Faviken's own snus (chewing tobacco – no thanks, Magnus), we retire to the tepee outside to wrap ourselves in blankets, don Tibetan-style knitted hats and drink negronis by the fire. We talk about our favourite dishes of the evening and how we are all looking forward to breakfast the next morning, particularly the most famous dish, "Johnny's porridge".
When morning comes, that porridge – with cloudberry jam – is as good as I'd hoped. I've got the recipe. It's in the Faviken cookbook on my shelf in Stoke Newington. It's quite simple – just oats, barley, rye and some seeds. But unless I get them all from the mill near Magnus – oily and fresh – and spend a month perfecting the technique, I'll never make it as good as they do at Faviken. Sometimes you have to go that extra mile for something so simple, yet so perfect.
SAS flies to Stockholm and onwards to Are/Ostersund (0871 226 7760; flysas.com). A cab between the airport and Faviken takes approximately an hour and costs around SEK1,400 (€150).
Faviken Magasinet, Faviken 216, Jarpen, Sweden (00 46 647 400 37; www.faviken.com). Doubles from SEK2,500 (€275) , including breakfast. Dinner in the Dining Room costs SEK1,750 (€190)pp (SEK3,500/€381 with drinks pairings).
More information: www.visitsweden.com
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