This circuitous path led him to Fäviken. In 2003, the restaurant’s new owners recruited Nilsson to organize their wine collection under a three-month contract. At the time, the restaurant relied mostly upon products imported from around Europe, and mainly served a surplus of guests arriving for an annual game fair held on the property each July. “Nope, I never though I’d come back here,” Nilsson later tells me of his rural home region. Gradually, however, he began finding himself spending more and more time in the restaurant’s small kitchen. He also took to roving the forests and fields of Fäviken’s 24,000-acre property, collecting interesting edibles he came across and experimenting with recipes in his spare time. Months melted into years, and in 2008 Nilsson began officially running the restaurant. “That’s how it happened,” he says. “I went back into the kitchen again.”
Reaching that fabled kitchen, however, is no easy task. My boyfriend Paul and I opted to fly through Östersund as we took off early in the morning from sunny Stockholm, leaving behind perfect summer-dress weather. As we slid through the layer of thick clouds obscuring Järpen, a new landscape materialized. Dense swaths of evergreen forest—broken only by the occasional cabin or farm—blanketed hills and encroached upon expansive black lakes. When we touched down at the tiny Östersund airport, a large hare sprinted out onto the runway, racing the plane for a few brief moments. It occurred to me that we were dealing with something entirely different than Stockholm’s outdoor cafes and glimmering waterside promenades. This was the North.
A traditional palate
Up here, Nilsson explains, incorporating the land into daily eating and living is second nature. October’s chill traditionally marks the end of fresh ingredients until spring’s thaw renewed life in April. Studious planning and preserving were essential for a subarctic household’s survival. Even now, some of those traditions have lingered on. If residents don’t hunt or fish, they know someone close to them who does. Picking berries for jam, gathering mushrooms for preserving, pickling homegrown vegetables and curing meat are normal household activities. While high-end restaurants in the world’s metropolises may boast about the novelty of their handful of foraged ingredients, here it is natural and unforced. “It’s just part of what people do, even if they don’t realize it,” Nilsson says.
Nilsson, too, abides by these traditions. Only a few ingredients—including salt, sugar and rapeseed oil from southwest Sweden, Denmark and France, respectively, and fish from Norway—do not originate from the immediate vicinity. The repertoire of wild plants he regularly harvests from around the property number around 50, ranging from hedgehog mushrooms to Iceland moss, from wormwood to fiddlehead ferns. He also hunts, as attested by the paper-thin slices of wild goose served during my visit. The bird is coated in an insulating layer of sea salt, then hung in the dining room to dry for several months before appearing on our plates. Likewise, he slaughters his own livestock and uses nearly every part of their bodies. Fried pigs head balls sprinkled with pickled marigold petals, for example, appear on the menu this summer. “Sometimes, when I look at the way people treat meat inefficiently . . . I think there should be some kind of an equivalent to a driver’s license for meat-eaters,” Nilsson writes in his book.
In the winter, Fäviken hunkers down and relies upon a store of pickled, cured, dried and fermented produce and meat to feed its guests. “It’s so lovely in the winter, so dark,” says Sara Haij, who works at the restaurant as a server-cum-hostess-cum-travel agent. “But the snow lights it up. And in February and March, the northern lights peak.”
During these nearly sunless months, some vegetables, including cabbage and kale, can remain in the earth or buried under snow. As long as temperatures stay below freezing (not a lot to ask in Järpen, where winter temperatures regularly dip to -22˚ F) the vegetables will keep.
For fermenting, Nilsson largely relies upon Lactobacillus bacteria, whose use in preservation spans centuries and cultures, from kimchi in Korea to beer brewing in ancient Egypt. Pickling, on the other hand, depends upon lowering the osmotic pressure in the cells of the ingredient—beets, berries, roots—with salt, then adding a solution of vinegar and sugar, which easily penetrate those emaciated cells. The flavor of pickling—specifically with white alcohol vinegar—Nilsson writes in his book, is “one of the original tastes of Scandinavia.” Nilsson, not surprisingly, also makes his own vinegars, including a “vinegar matured in the burnt-out trunk of a spruce tree.”
Many of Nilsson’s preserved products are stored in his cellar, a cubby hold dug out of the side of a hill, across from the restaurant. Here, curious diners can also take a peep at his ongoing experiments, where jars of pickling wildflowers, submerged sprigs and even bottled curios of seafoody flesh line shelves on either wall. The space seems deceptively small, but, starting in the autumn, crates of dormant roots are buried beneath its sandy floor. In spring, even in the light-deprived environment, what’s left of these roots often begin producing pale shoots that “taste like the very essence of the vegetables from which they sprout,” Nilsson writes.
A day at Fäviken