Is it possible to feel homesick for a place where you have never lived? If you had asked me a week ago, the answer would have been an emphatic no. But that was then, before I had visited West Sweden. This is the first in a series of posts covering a Shellfish Journey to West Sweden on which I was very kindly invited by the West Sweden Tourist Board and Visit Sweden, together with five other food bloggers. Further posts will follow over the next couple of weeks. An album containing all my shellfish journey photos is available on Flickr.
There is something really special about arriving for the first time in a country that you have never visited – a sense of expectation and anticipation of the unfamiliar that's rather appealing. And our experience od Sweden started before we'd even left London with a visit to the rather nice SAS lounge at Heathrow's Terminal 3 where, over coffee and pastries, we were briefed a little about SAS and its plans to convert its in-flight meals to organic. Some quick refreshments and a complimentary copy of SAS's Crew Guide mini book later, we boarded our plane. The somewhat aged MD81 gave me the heebies (I mean, it still had ashtrays in the seat arms!) but I needn't have worried – the flight was so ridiculously smooth and uneventful that I dozed all the way to the coast of Denmark! As we flew over Sweden, all I could see was densely forested hills, picture-perfect wooden houses, and gorgeous mirror-flat lakes, reflecting the surrounding forests – it looked breathtaking and I could to wait to get to know the country better.
After about an hour’s drive north of Gothenburg on the west coast, we arrived at Villa Sjotorp in Ljungkile. This small hotel and restaurant are set in a house which was built in the early 20th century as a grand family home. Decades later, descendants of the original owners have re-purchased the property and have lovingly restored it. It now provides pretty, traditional Swedish accommodation in individually decorated rooms, in a tranquil setting. The restaurant is dominated by a tremendously impressive decorated ceramic fireplace and the view through the trees to the sea and scattered islands in the distance is quite gorgeous. Our lunch consisted of excellent bread (a recurring theme throughout my time in Sweden!); a beautiful little green salad served in individual glass bowls; and a chicken breast served with a chanterelle and apple sauce together with beetroot and a warm root vegetable terrine. Everything we ate was organic, grown or raised on the premises – their own chickens, their own vegetables, and foraged mushrooms. And judging by the flavours, these guys should be the poster kids for the argument that organic just tastes better. I doubt that the cocoa for the spectacular chocolate mint truffles was grown on-site, but they tasted mighty fine – I would have pocketed a stash had they not been so decadently melty and messy!
After lunch we had some time to explore the grounds – I was particularly taken by the furs casually strewn over the outdoor chairs and could imagine this would be a good place to spend a week or two curled up with a stash of good books, admiring the view. At 1,695 SEK (£165) pp (based on two sharing) for a package comprising one night's accommodation and a shellfish menu, it's not cheap – but there is something very appealing about staying in a place that makes you feel like a welcome guest in an old friend's country house.
SE-459 33 Ljungskile
Sadly, we could not here linger too long. Back on the bus, we continued our drive northwards, which included a free ferry crossing not unlike the Woolwich free ferry in London. From there it was a short drive to get to Lysekil (pronounced lee-suh-sheel – crazy Swedes!). Here, we met the utterly charming Adrian van de Plasse, a mussel farmer who moonlights as a mussel safari guide. His company, Orust Shellfish, offer a four to five hour mussel tour from Lysekil for 795 SEK (£76) per person, and we were lucky enough to go on a shorter 2-hour version. But before we could board the boat… there were the overalls to put on. We had been told we would be given waterproof clothing for the boat which a) made me imagine us pitching and rolling about a la Perfect Storm; and b) made me picture some crusty yellow oilskins. Clearly, maritime clothing has moved on. These suits were a whole different ballgame – think a one-piece ski outfit lined with a neoprene wetsuit and you won't be far off. They are also uniformly HUGE (presumably to fit strapping Swedish seamen, not puny London food bloggers!) and by the time I had struggled into mine I felt exhausted and looked like the love-child of a Teletubbie and Kenny from South Park. Oh, and did I mention that we were being accompanied and photographed by a press photographer taking pics for a piece in a local newspaper? And making A VIDEO of us?? Moving rapidly along!
But once we chugged away from the jetty, all thoughts of how peculiar I looked faded away. The first thing you notice about this part of the world is that it is beautiful – heart-stoppingly, breath-takingly beautiful. The water was calm and the late afternoon sun was golden; the rocks and inlets glided past us and the sky seemed endless. No cell phone reception, no interruptions, just the gentle movement of the boat. I was catatonically relaxed within minutes. Soon we arrived at the mussel beds where Adrian explained the various methods of farming mussels. Teensy mussel spawn is collected from the wild and then grown on horizontal systems of ropes suspended in the water by buoys, pipes or floats. Adrian pulled up one of these rope meshes and it was absolutely TEEMING with teensy mussels and other crawly sealife (ghost shrimps, evidently). The mussels are not fed but live on natural species of algae in the sea, some of which are toxic to humans. Mussels are regularly sampled to test their safety, and where they have ingested water containing these algae, harvesting is postponed until the mussels have eaten themselves “clean” again (in South Africa this is called "red tide"). Sadly this was the case during our visit, so we could not just grab a handful of mussels off a rope and chuck them in a pot. Good thing that Adrian had a stash that he had harvested previously!
We chugged past several rocky islands, one ostensbly inhabited solely by 2 kamikaze sheep, until we came to one with a small jetty and a cute outhouse-sized wooden cabin where we docked. We disembarked to find that there was a makeshift field kitchen set up on the rocks with an enormous saucepan bubbling away over a gas camping stove; and the cabin was to be our bar for the afternoon. Result! While Adrian was dealing with the mussels, his colleague got to work shucking some local native fresh-as-can-be oysters for us – incredibly minerally and briny but incredibly delicious. This was followed by wonderful, steaming bowls of moules mariniere and glasses of cava, enjoyed while perching on the rocks admiring the view. And yet later, we were presented with spicy carrot cake and fresh coffee – our first Swedish fika (coffee break)! In the words of Ace of Base (who are from Gothenburg, incidentally!), "It's a beautiful life". It was quite a wrench having to get back on the boat to leave. Adrian and his colleagues were warm and engaging, great cooks, and had us giggling about their assertion (delivered with a huge wink) that "oh yes, the weather is ALWAYS this sunny in Sweden". Apparently it's Swedish dialect for "OMG YOU PEOPLE ARE LUCKY WITH THE WEATHER!!" I can't think of better folks with whom to take a boat trip. (They even made a video of our mussel safari - do check it out!)
472 31 Svanesund
Tel: +46 (0)706 731731
Fax: +46 (0)304 45516
All posts in my West Sweden series:
- Villa Sjotorp and a mussel safari in Lysekil, West Sweden
- Café Ferdinand seafood buffet and Strandflickorna Hotel, West Sweden
- South Koster island and lunch at Koster garden
- Lobster safari and lobster lobster dinner at Sydkoster Hotel Ekenäs
- An oyster experience with Everts Sjöbod in Grebbestad
DISCLOSURE: We travelled to Sweden and enjoyed our Shellfish Journey as guests of the West Sweden Tourism Board and Visit Sweden
Flights from Heathrow to Gothenburg fares incl taxes and charges on SAS (http://www.sas.se) start from £63 one way or £103 return
Please also visit West Sweden Tourism’s:
- Website: www.westsweden.com
- Information about the Shellfish Journey: www.westsweden.com/shellfishjourney
- Facebook page: www.facebook.com/westsweden
- Twitter: www.twitter.com/westswedentb
- Blog: www.explorewestsweden.com
Please also visit Visit Sweden’s:
- Website: www.visitsweden.com
- Facebook page: www.facebook.com/visitsweden
- Twitter: www.twitter.com/Sweden