“Eat a kilo of mussels and the ocean will thank you for it,” says Adriaan van de Plasse, blinking into the unexpectedly bright sunlight of an autumn day, out on the water near Lysekil, western Sweden. Aboard Signe, a wooden boat built in 1952, we’ve puttered across the bay from North Harbour on a ‘mussel safari’ organised by his company, Orust Shellfish, to learn about biochemistry as well as gastronomy.
“Nitrogen and phosphorous harm the marine environment,” he continues, “because these nutrients — mainly from agricultural fertilisers — cause blooms of algae that disrupt the ecosystem. The mussels absorb the nutrients and we eat the mussels: it’s a circle of life.”
Mussels also soak up carbon dioxide, providing a carbon trap that, if more of them were farmed, could slow the march of climate change. “We’ll take six tons from this site alone,” Adriaan explains, bringing the boat to a halt by his ‘farm’. It looks like the roped lanes of a swimming pool, except the lines are buoyed up by barrels every few metres and undulate from the surface down to a depth of 50ft, catching every spat (juvenile) that floats by on the current. When mature, they’re moved to another site where they continue to grow for 20 months. One kilo of spat produces 7kg of mussels.
This shellfish safari is just one of many promoting the region’s Big Five (a playful reference to Africa’s big game): mussels, oysters, lobster, crayfish and shrimp. One of its aim is to educate visitors, the other is to let you stuff your face. To this end, Signe is navigated to a calm inlet, where Adriaan and his colleague, Lars Marstone, haul a cage full of oysters from the water. We retire to a hut on a rocky promontory to eat the oysters — raw, briney and gently fibrillating — and the mussels, cooked over Calor gas with carrot, garlic and celery. Steaming hot and sweetly aromatic, they’re twice the size of any mussel I’ve tasted — and, as I’d learned, a big boon for the planet, as well. I try my best to eat a kilo.
Sitting on rickety benches at a table made from a door, we talk about food and fishing, surrounded by reminders of a maritime way of life, including high-vis jackets hanging on a hook and an aluminium boat propeller doubling as a candle holder. It’s a charming way to learn about the region’s food culture, but the experience needn’t stop at shellfish. Landlubbers in neighbouring Dalsland province can go foraging for chanterelles and lingonberries and learn about elk, roe deer, trout and game, then enjoy the spoils at one of 35 restaurants accredited by the Taste of West Sweden scheme. All source their ingredients locally and seasonally. To the east of Dalsland is Vänern, the third-largest lake in Europe. Here, foodies can fish for salmon and learn about the production of their roe. In Gothenburg’s indoor market, Saluhallen, and in its restaurants (including five with a Michelin star), this produce takes centre stage too.
However, there’s only one delicacy everyone’s talking about on my visit to Bohuslän. “This is the first day of the lobster season,” says Adriaan, as we return to North Harbour past strings of red buoys marking the fishermen’s pots. “Look, there are so many you could walk on them!” On 23 September, pretty much anyone with a boat goes out to set their pots; returning to check them the following day. During the five-month closed season, the crustaceans have bred with a vengeance and grown to plump perfection in the cold, plankton-rich waters. One fisherman I speak to tells me he caught three in a single pot last year and, in that bumper season, there was a race to get the first lobsters to auction. The initial batch fetched a record 102,000 kronor (£9,800) a kilo in Gothenburg, stabilising at £40 a kilo after the initial frenzy subsided.
With a growing sense of excitement, I set off the following day for a lobster lunch prepared by chef Paul Svensson, a Swedish Jamie Oliver, at an island beach house near Bovallstrand. On our way there, by boat, we cruise among the volcanic islands of the archipelago, the rocky shore as smooth as bread dough and lapped by water the colour of molten sapphire. It could be the Galapagos or the Azores, were it not for our sou’wester waterproofs and a brisk, cold wind whistling in from Norway. At several islands, boats are moored and fishermen convene, lamenting the news the season’s first lobsters fetched only 28,000 kronor (about £2,700) a kilo that morning, before stabilising at 330 kronor (£31) thereafter.
At the beach house, a dozen jet-black lobsters are laid out in the sun, lashed to branches suspended over a charcoal grill. Our starter, served on a pink granite rock, is lobster sushi topped with a slice of cured apple and served with crunchy lobster roe and horseradish cream. The second course is white cabbage, chanterelles and lobster meat (‘from just behind the claw’) with a smoked lobster stock poured from a teapot. Then the grand finale: a whole grilled lobster that appears on a roll of brown paper with a piped rosette of brown-butter mayo and warm bread. Demolishing it with hammers and pliers from a workman’s toolbox, I could almost be at Noma.
Five West Sweden food finds
1. Shellfish Journey: A range of food experiences, from crayfish-catching and lobster-fishing weekends to tours of mussel farms and watching divers harvest oysters. vastsverige.com/en/shellfishjourney orustshellfish.se
2. Taste of West Sweden: Federation of 35 accredited restaurants, some with rooms, that use local, seasonal produce and often make their own specialities, including beer, schnapps and sourdough bread. vastsverige.com/en/a-taste-of-west-sweden
3. Saluhallen: This market, with its steel-and-glass cupola, is a treasure trove of cheeses (try Västerbotten, a cross between cheddar and parmesan), isterband and falukorv (sausages) and bakery products: dinkelknäcke (spelt crispbread), smörbulle (cardamom buns) and toscalängd (nutty cake). Stora Saluhallen 46, Kungstorget, Gothenburg.
4. Feskekörka (Fish Church): A 19th-century fish market, resembling a gothic church, with counters selling cod, lobster, shrimps, brown crabs, fish kebabs, roe, tins of surströmming (fermented Baltic herring), catfish and more. feskekörka.se
5. Strandflickorna: Charming guesthouse in Lysekil, with period rooms, serving traditional breakfasts and arranging outings with oyster divers and mussel farmers. strandflickorna.se
Four places for a taste of West Sweden
On the first floor of Gothenburg’s historic Fish Church (Fish Market), Johan Malm’s lunchtime venue serves everything from fish soup or a prawn sandwich to oysters (he’s a master shucker) and a West Coast smörgåsbord of langoustine, prawns with dill mayonnaise, hot lobster cream in a glass, gravadlax with green Hovmaster sauce (mustard, vinegar, dill), smoked blackened herring on ryebread, and pickled herring on brown bread with hard-boiled egg. Downstairs, browse market counters selling the Big Five and more.
■ How much: Three courses from £21-£48 per person, without drinks. restauranggabriel.com
Kock & Vin
Michelin-starred Kock & Vin is pricey but well worth it for its inventive cooking and astonishingly knowledgeable waiting staff. Crab, on a pool of tomato and dill mayonnaise, came folded in a translucent membrane of crisp kolrabi (part of the cabbage family) with shards of frozen crab butter on top. Pan-fried plaice was enriched with oyster-flavoured sour cream, cockles, blue mussels and cauliflower cut in sections to look like delicate coral.
■ How much: Four-course tasting menu from £64, six courses £83, nine courses £106; wines to match cost almost the same again. kockvin.se
Take a ferry from Lyskiel to Fiskebäckskil, a picture-perfect West Swedish village of historic wooden houses and boatsheds in Farrow & Ball colours, where the smart, contemporary Gullmarsstrand Hotel has an overwater restaurant. I had glazed langoustine with Jerusalem artichoke and an emulsion of browned scallop butter and tarragon, followed by hake with a purée of black garlic (its colour fascinates chef Frederik Goldhahn), then buckthorn sorbet (from a tart, physalis-like fruit) with white chocolate, seasalt caramel, meringue and macademias.
■ How much: Three courses from £57-£63 per person, without drinks. gullmarsstrand.se
Sandwiched between Fond, a Michelin-starred glass temple, and the Gothenburg Museum of Art, Mr P serves casual brasserie-style food with an Asian twist, making the most of Swedish ingredients. Share three or four plates: raw salmon with cucumber, apple, soy-marinated onion, jalapeño and miso mayo, or squid in a sauce of tomato, chilli, lime and avocado. I was pleasantly surprised by steak tartare with trout roe; the exploding spheres of saltiness cut through the raw beef.
■ How much: Small plates from £9-£14, medium £13, large £15-£24. mr-p.se
Published in the Jan/Feb 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)