It all began in mid July with the Summer Food Special magazine in the weekend edition of the Financial Times. On my Monday morning commute in the claustrophobic London tube, sandwiched between various sweaty people, I read Nick Lander’s review of a restaurant in the middle of nowhere in northern Sweden. I decided immediately that I had to go, and upon arriving at work 20 minutes later, promptly made a reservation at Fäviken Magasinet.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it proved difficult – or rather, impossible – to convince anyone to journey to the Nordic hinterlands with me, and so I, undeterred, decided to go alone.
Two months later in early September, after a series of debacles including: a missed flight; some rather incredulous conversations (“You’re going where? To do what?”); the initial confusion of how to turn on my rental car (there was no key, you just put the key chain in a port on the dashboard and press the On button); a brief spell driving on the left hand side of the road until oncoming traffic reminded me I was no longer in the British Isles; as well as numerous turns that took me farther and farther from anything remotely resembling civilization, by some miracle and The Grace of God I arrived at Fäviken at about 2:00pm on Friday, September 2, 2011.
Sommelier, manager, maitre d’hotel, general jack of all trades Johan Agrell greeted me when I arrived and offered to fix me a “simple lunch.” Now, when I think simple lunch, I think ham sandwich – maybe a meat and cheese board, if I’m lucky. But everything’s relative, so what arrived at Fäviken was a beautiful omelette with chanterelle mushrooms, accompanied by crisp bread made with local flour, hard cow’s milk cheese and some of the best butter I have ever tasted. Oh, and of course a glass of wine – a lovely Beaujolais. (Okay, maybe two glasses of Beaujolais.)
So there I was, feeling pretty pleased with myself, sitting in what amounts to a hunting lodge in a room with double height ceilings, walls adorned with stuffed animal heads, a giant Snooker table, and a roaring fire. What a contrast to a normal Friday lunch in The City of London, eating a sad sandwich from Pret a Manger.
To work up an appetite for dinner, I went for a walk around the Fäviken estate. The grounds are in fact privately owned by the Brummer family, and the main house on the property is the family residence. There had been a restaurant on the premises for a number of years – but it was more hunting lodge convenience than haute cuisine. The family decided they wanted something different, and engaged Chef Magnus Nilsson to come up and run the place a few years ago.
Dinner began at 7pm and was announced by a bonfire lit outside the barn. The guests for the evening – nine in total the night I was there – were ushered into a windowless room on the ground floor. A fire burned in a stone fireplace in one corner, and each party was seated at a separate group of low sofas and coffee tables for an aperitif and our four (4) amuse bouches.
There is no menu at Fäviken. Magnus decides what to cook each day based on what is available and in season, and what he feels like. For the wines, there is a bit more choice – Yes or No to the pairings. But frankly, when is that answer ever No?
And so I sat waiting, like a child at Christmas, for the culinary adventure to begin.
The first dish of the evening was “a little lump of very fresh cheese served in warm whey, lavender.” It was served in a small white china bowl and slurped down all in one. It was like eating solid milk, with just a hint of lavender – reminiscent of drinking warm milk before bed. And, as with every course we were served throughout the evening, after each guest had been presented with his or her dish, Magnus explained it and instructed us in how to eat it.
(Sidenote: If any food experience made me wish I had a halfway decent camera, this was it. So if you really can’t stand my iPhone shots, I refer you to various other blogs and reviews with far superior quality food porn: Financial Times, Bon Appetit, Food Snob. The Food Snob post also includes a fairly comprehensive biography of Magnus, who, among other things, started out at l’Astrance in Paris in the early 2000’s.)
Amuse #2 was “wild trout’s roe served in a crust of dried pig’s blood.”
When I have described this to people since, invariably the reaction has been less than favorable. But when sitting at Fäviken, you don’t even pause to consider the idea of pig’s blood congealing in small molds – and certainly not how it might have been extracted in the first place – you just smile and nod and think it’s the most natural thing you’ve ever heard, before popping the entire thing into your mouth. And a very good thing that is too, because if you did stop to consider those things, you might not be able to eat it, and that would be a real travesty, because it is, indeed, delicious. The medium sized bubbles of roe popped satisfactorily, releasing their sweet, salty, oil, while the crumbly crust complemented the texture nicely and added a bit of earthiness to the dish.
Amuse #3: Crispy Lichens. Yes, lichens, like the ones that grow on trees and rocks. All of the products used at Fäviken are local, and many of them are foraged on a daily basis from Magnus’s walks.
The lichens were topped with grated, dried roe and accompanied by a garlic cream. They were a little bit salty and felt like eating crispy lace. They almost reminded me of potato chips, except obviously much more delicate, and not tasting like potato. The next chic bagged snack, perhaps? Veggie chips and gourmet popcorn watch out….
And finally Amuse #4, dried trout shavings which had been cured in very good sea salt.
All this was accompanied by a glass of Bereche et Fils champagne – the first of Johan’s six expert pairings.
After the amuses, we were led upstairs, one by one, to the main dining room. On the way we passed a 100-year old fur coat hanging on the wall under a spotlight (excellent photo of Magnus wearing said fur coat on the Bon Appetit website here.)
The dining room is almost windowless – a few small portholes stud one wall through which the darkening sky was just visible. In winter when it’s dark at 3pm, I’m sure it’s nice to be cozily ensconced in a warm, wooden room, forgetful of the big dark expanse outside. When I was there, it would have been nice to be able to enjoy the view across the fields, but one can’t have everything I suppose. In any case, the closed-in, self-contained quality of the room added to the feeling that Fäviken is a world away, removed from the everyday, and certainly it helped us to focus on the task at hand – namely, dinner.
The above photo was taken from my table, and as you can see I have the best seat in the house with a view across the entire dining room, and therefore was able to survey all the goings on of the evening – very key when dining alone.
The first course upstairs was “Scallop ‘i skalet ur elden’ cooked over burning Juniper branches.” And it arrived on a bed of moss and small branches, accompanied by a few smoldering Juniper embers.
Magnus explained that the scallop is slowly roasted over the branches, and when it’s just cooked, the inedible bits are scraped out, strained, and the natural juices then poured back in. We were further instructed to eat it with our hands, and then to drink the juice from the shell.
Now I, like any good American, love finger good. (I have never quite gotten used to eating pizza and hamburgers with a knife and fork in continental Europe.) And this was doubly exciting because, really, when was the last time someone told you the right way to eat something as upscale as a scallop was with your hands?
It was a consistency like no other scallop I have ever eaten (nor am likely to eat again, unless I return to Fäviken) – very firm, barely cooked, and tasted incredibly fresh – which no doubt it was.
The scallop was paired with mead, specially made for Fäviken by a local producer, and fermented in the bottle.
This was my first experience with mead – and a very positive one. The liquid was golden and slightly cloudy, with a slight tang and a savoriness that complemented the sea-sweet scallop.
Then came “grilled monkfish, kale, green Juniper and alcoholic vinegar.” The monkfish was slowly cooked – during service, we were later told – over an open fire of birch branches. Like the scallop, it too was only very lightly cooked – just enough to not be raw. The outside was blackened and infused with a wonderful smoke flavor. The single leaf of kale was also smoked with a satisfying crunch, and the green Juniper seeds and alcoholic vinegar added a jolt, without overpowering the delicate fish. This wonderful juxtaposition of flavors and textures was a trend that continued throughout the meal.
The monkfish was accompanied by a glass of 2007 Saint-Aubin 1er Cru Les Sentiers du Clou, Sylvie Boyer, Côte d’Or – a beautiful white from Burgundy that was very fresh, a little citrus and minerals. Like all the other pairings a perfect companion to the food.
Our third seafood course was a “raw mussel and wild pea pie.” It was a tiny, slimy mouthful, topped with edible flowers (foraged by Magnus, natch), and nested in a crunchy mini pie crust. It tasted like the sea.
Next up: potatoes
Yes. With tiny new potatoes hidden inside. The official description (on the printed menu we were given the next morning) is “potatoes harvested some hours ago then boiled with autumn leaves.” This, Magnus explained, was because new potatoes quickly lose their flavor after being picked. Thus, they are extracted at the last possible moment, and then, to even further reinforce the flavor, they are cooked with last year’s autumn leaves (that have been decomposing since the spring). We were told to pick them out with our hands, squash them and dip them in the “good butter” provided. Speaking of butter – it probably deserves a post of its own – it was so creamy, salty, delicious – you could eat it plain (in fact I think I did).
The potatoes were followed by “steamed leeks, sheep’s cream whisked with vinegar fermented beer, grated cod’s roe.”
If you are wondering where the cod’s roe is – it’s the brown shavings to the right of the leek. The leek itself was softly crunchy; the cream had a wonderful barnyard sheep flavor, with a small sting of vinegar and beer; topped off by the salty, crunchy roe. I never knew leeks could be so interesting.
The final vegetable dish was a small salad of “mushrooms, stone brambles and very fresh peas”. There were a few different types of mushrooms – including chanterelles – lightly cooked; some of the biggest (and exceedingly fresh) peas I have ever eaten, served raw; and stone bramble fruit, which are the small, red berries in the picture. They were acidic with a large stone in the center, and popped when I bit them. In texture, they reminded me of pomegranate seeds, but were not sweet. (Sidebar: Wikipedia, source of all real and true knowledge, states that some sources claim eating stone brambles with alcohol can be dangerous and cause allergic reactions. Luckily no one in the restaurant seemed to have this problem.)
The whole thing was a wonderful combination of flavors and textures – the mushrooms were woodsy and soft, the peas were crunchy, fresh and sweet, and the brambles added an acidic pop.
Somewhere along the way between the monkfish and the mushrooms, we switched to a new wine – the 2008 Scharzhof Riesling, Egon Müller, Mosel – a light style Riesling.
After the latest round of dishes had been cleared (the service was at all times impeccable), and our next wine – a hearty Barbaresco (2005 Barbaresco Montestefano, Theobaldo Rivella, Piemonte) – had been poured, Magnus and one of his kitchen staff appeared with a saw. With no fanfare or announcement, they moved a wooden block with a cow’s leg to the center of the room and began cutting it in half. (I did not get a good action shot of the sawing, but this one from Food Snob pretty well captures it.)
He then took the two pieces of leg over to the large table set up on one side of the dining room and proceeded to scoop out the marrow directly into the bowls of our next course which, in addition to the above, included “dices of raw [cow] heart, grey pea flowers, toasts and herb salt”.
It was epic.
I have had marrow before, but only in a Parisian brasserie (Claude Sainlouis, which is a very fine establishment and by far my favorite in that city), where it bore little to no resemblance to what now lay before me. At Fäviken, it was soft and slimy – but in a good way – and the raw heart was firm and rich – real essence of cow.
This extravaganza was followed by “grouse fried in the good butter and served with sauce of its offal”.
We got the head (including the brain), breast and leg of grouse – artistically plated as you can see. The brain was kind of smushy and strong (even for an adventurer like me, perhaps not my favorite part), and the breast and leg were deliciously gamey.
The bird was served not only with offal sauce, but with a delicious slice of Matsutake, or pine mushroom. Matsutake are highly prized by the Japanese, and most of the Nordic crop is exported, but an eccentric scientist nearby to Fäviken doesn’t trust the local exporter and provides them to the restaurant instead. The best ones are served as above, or similar, the less attractive ones they preserve, and the really yucky ones they infuse into a housemade, pungent vodka that I sampled after dinner.
True to their English common name, Matsutake have a strong pine taste, and the flesh is white and meaty.
The grouse was followed by “fermented lingonberries, thick cream, sugar, raspberries ice” which was served in two beautiful wooden spoons. We were instructed to eat the raspberry ice first.
The ice was tart and refreshing – while the lingonberries’ sourness was slightly tempered by the cream.
With this palate cleanser came our last wine of the evening – a 2003 Vouvray Moelleux Réserve, Philippe Foreau, Loire.
Next came the “cheese” course, which wasn’t really cheese, but took it’s place on the menu: “Pine bark cake, pudding of cream, acidic herbs and frozen buttermilk, lavender mushroom.”
The cake was sort of a cracker – savory and, as one might expect, piney – and the frozen buttermilk added a cold, tangy punch to the cream and herbs.
And finally, the dessert dessert, “raspberries jam, whisked duck eggs, sorbet of milk” which reminded me of a zabaglione, but fresher and lighter.
The raspberries were a sort of jam on the bottom of the dish – tart, not too sweet, and with the whole berries still intact – the duck egg was room temperature, soft and with that unique flavor that is more wild and farm-y than chicken eggs, and the milk sorbet was a little ball of coldness on top.
The sorbet was finished off in the dining room by one of the sous chefs in a 100 year old barrel.
Now three hours later, we were shown back downstairs and reseated on the low sofas with coffee tables for infusions, coffee and candies. There was a selection of dried blueberries, lingonberries, hard meadowsweet candy and tar pastilles.
After the other parties had departed or retired, I was left with two fellow diners, a Finnish chef and sommelier, and together we were given a tour of the kitchens. We saw the open grill where the monkfish is made, as well as 20 or so beautiful game birds, including a few capercaillies – dead – strung up by their feet on a rack in the middle of the room. They were stunning, with incredible plumage and as Magnus handled them and I tentatively stroked their feathers, they seemed more like works of art than dead animals.
Finally we rounded out the night finishing off the bottle of Barbaresco in front of the fire in the game lodge, before dragging ourselves to our rooms and collapsing into bed.
You may find it hard to believe, after the epic food journey the night before, that anyone could have room for breakfast the next day. But of course I did – and it was amazing, in a totally different way from dinner.
Served in the almost-windowless-dining-room, it included, clockwise from left: a very thick homemade yogurt, a soft boiled egg (the most perfectly cooked soft boiled egg I think I have ever had), fresh honey, smoked trout, hard cheese, liver pâté, a “reindeer salami thing” (technical term), rilletes, raspberry juice made specially for Fäviken, fresh milk, raspberry jam, granola, fresh bread, the good butter and boiled Swedish coffee (served from a big copper pot).
Off to the right there also arrived a delicious short bread type cookie with raspberry jam in the middle “to go with my coffee.” YUM.
Of course I had to try everything, and couldn’t bear to actually leave, so it was a mad dash collecting my suitcase, driving an hour or so to the airport, and boarding the plane to Stockholm for the next leg of my Scandinavian Adventure (post forthcoming).
As I left, Johan joked that if I got lost and missed my flight, I could have a second night at Fäviken. I seriously considered getting lost on purpose …
Location: Fäviken 216, 83005 Järpen, Sweden
Prices: total for one person including lunch, dinner, wine, breakfast and lodging was about US$530 (£345)
- SAS flight 1530 London Heathrow to Stockholm Arlanda 7:15-10:40am
- SAS flight 72 Stockholm Arlanda to Östersund 11:15am-12:15pm (this is a very tight connection – only recommended if, like me, you miss your flight out of London the night before.)
- Hertz rent-a-car and drive approximately 1 hour (if you need an automatic, make sure to book in advance)
- Or you can get a taxi which runs about 1,500 SEK (about US$218, or £140)
- SAS flight 73 Östersund to Stockholm Arlanda 11:40am-12:40pm
- Fäviken’s website also provides good directions and information about getting there.
- Tip: SAS offers really good deals on youth fares for 25-and-unders