When I told my friends earlier this month that I was going on a blind date with a Swedish chef, their reactions tended to fall into three distinct categories:
“Oh – so you’re going on a date with one of the Muppets?”
“Does Nick know about this?!?”
“Why bother? You an get such good Swedish meatballs at IKEA?”
And when I replied that Nick did know and was in fact joining us, I’d get knowing looks and comments like “aaah, yes, very liberal, the Swedes…!” Similarly, I had been assured that there were no hand-puppets involved; and anybody who thinks that Swedish food is adequately represented by IKEA seriously needs to get out more. Having visited Sweden though, I knew that when Visit Sweden asked me to host a blind date with a Swedish chef at my home, I would be in for a treat.
The premise was simple: a number of up-and-coming Swedish chefs were coming to London and four food bloggers were asked to host a dinner for friends in their home, where one of said Swedish chefs would come and cook for them. I didn’t need to be asked twice. As things can get a little crowded in my kitchen, my lovely friend Jen volunteered to lend us her kitchen for the night. I was still walking from the station when she called me: ”Get here quick! There are loads of people here and I need help entertaining them!”. Mystified, I hurried along to her house where I found the lovely Marlene from the Swedish Embassy; bubbly Grace from Visit Sweden; super-talented photographer Fenella (click here for the wonderful series of photos she took throughout the meal); a chef’s assistant Kate from the University of West London; and of course, our Swedish chef Andreas Hedlund (Swedish Chef of the Year 2002).
Andreas is relaxed, hugely personable and his enthusiasm for good food is palpable. While we were waiting for the rest of the guests to arrive, Andreas told us a little about the food we would be eating. Each of the dinners would feature the cuisine of a different Swedish region, and we had been allocated the Stockholm region. Over a glass of Nils Oscar God Lager (apparntly Swedish for “good lager” – nothing divine about it!) Andreas explained that although Sweden has a long tradition of wonderful fresh produce, it is only recently that artisanal producers have begun producing food for chefs, shops and restaurants, rather than simply making for themselves. In fact, by entering into a dialogue with artisan producers, Andreas says chefs are not only creating a demand for their products but also shaping it by requesting specific products.
Once everybody had arrived, Andreas started preparing and plating the amuse bouche. We were intrigued by the bag of intensely green liquid that he produced from his bags and boxes: nettle soup, as it turns out, which would make up half our amuse bouche! While he was preparing the potato rosti, Andreas also explained that the golden orange bleak roe (löjrom) that we would be having as an accompaniment comes from Lake Mälaren, which is the lake on which Stockholm is situated.
Camly and efficiently (especially considering he had at least 2 women following him around with large cameras!), Andreas, fried the rösti, poured the soup, and then then plated the amuse bouche: potato rösti with bleak roe and Väddö crème fraîche; alongside little espresso cups of nettle soup sprinkled with more bleak roe. But before we could eat, we were treated to some of the promised “Swedish entertainment” which comprised Andreas and Grace’s rousing rendition of Helan Går, commonly sung as a toast for the first glass of spirit at a Swedish seated dinner (and a song I remembered well from last year’s Swedish Christmas lunch!). This was rather rapidly followed by some excellent Rånäs Brännvin, a snaps that was originally created in 1774 and was made up until sugar rationing in WWII shut down production. The recipe was lost but rediscovered in the early 1990s when it was released as a Christmas snaps in 1994 before returning to full-time production. Its flavours of aniseed, Seville bitter orange, cinnamon and fennel are intriguing and appealing – and it is definitely heartwarming! But enough about the drink: on to the food. The rosti were particuarly light and crispy, containing nothing other than potato, and made a great vehicle for the mild-flavoured roe and creamy crème fraîche. But it was the nettle soup (with some sort of a garlic cream base?) that really blew everybody away – fresh, yet creamy and oh-so-green – and with the added benefit of the gentle pop of the roe. We were off to a very good start.
And if we thought that preparations for the amuse bouche had looked interesting, the preparations for the fish course were positively mesmerising. After Andreas had pan-fried the lightly brined pike-perch medallions in butter. he produced the coolest kitchen gadget that I have seen in ages: The Smoking Gun. This ingenious little smoker is only about as big as a can of hairspray and can impart a smoky flavour to food without adding extra heat, meaning you can use it on raw or cooked food without worrying about overcooking. It’s pretty simple: you fill the cannister with wood chips, right them to make them smoulder, attach a hose to the cannister to channel the smoke and then simply place the hose into whatever closed container your food is in. Raw fish – £10. Two stainless steel bowls – £12. Smoking Gun – £75. The utterly delighted look on your friends’ faces – priceless.
Once the smoking show was over, we were finally persuaded to sit down at the table to enjoy the rest of our meal. The fish that we had watched being transformed from raw to plated was presented to us as lightly brined and smoked pike-perch with wild garlic, cucumber, creamed new potatoes with Väddö creme fraiche. This was wonderful: the fish had a delicately smoky flavour and a crisp, savoury crust that only frying in butter can produce. The potatoes added creaminess; the cucumbers crunch; and the wild garlic cream a splash of colour and a spike of flavour. A beautiful, light and very succesful dish.
For our next course we moved on to red meat – lamb shank, to be precise. But when Andreas called us over to the stove to see the meat before carving, it looked unlike any lamb shank I had ever seen. The reason, as Andreas explained, is that the shanks had been deboned, rolled and tied, prior to being slow-cooked for 36 hours (!). He then finished them off in the pan before slicing into medallions and plating. The completed dish consisted of braised lamb with spring onions and green asparagus and a cress crème. The lamb was quite extraordinary, reminding more of the consistency of marrow than meat and with a deep, rich flavour. One of our dinner guests (a New Zealander) even pronounced it to be the best lamb she had ever tasted – and that’s not something a Kiwi says lightly! As a counterpoint to the richness of the lamb, the bright flavours of the green asparagus and spring worked well and I just loved the cress crème: heavier than an espuma, lighter than a mash, and entrancingly green. To wash this down, we had a rather excellent French red from Morey Saint Denis – a wonderful pairing.
Despite having had three courses, we were most definitely still up for dessert after all this! For his final course, Andreas had chosen an ingredient that is still rather uncommon on UK menus but far better known in Nordic countries: sea buckthorn. Sea buckthorn is a shrub which is largely confined to sea coasts where salt spray off the sea prevents other larger plants from growing. The berries are an intense orange colour and grow in tight clusters close to the branches, making them tricky to harvest. But as they are quite strongly flavoured, you don’t need many to make an impact: their flavour is pleasingly tart and even after cooking, the colour remains a nearly-neon orange. Andreas chose to make a sea buckthorn soup with vanilla pannacotta and toasted sponge cake cubes. I liked this for the clever visual play (dessert masquerading as your soup course complete with croutons) as much as for the taste (tart soup; sweet panacotta and cake) – and as you see I made short work of it! This was paired with a Sauterne which had everybody around the table crooning with delight.
And that, sadly, marked the end of our extraordinary blind date. Andreas and Kate had taken us on a little culinary holiday, showed us some cool cooking techniques, and extolled the virtues of the unique produce and dishes for which Sweden is gaining a reputation. For those among my guests who still thought IKEA meatballs and rollmops represent the pinnacle of Swedish cuisine, the evening had been a revelation and (hopefully!) a motivation to explore Swedish cuisine a little further. Thanks very much to Visit Sweden for asking me to be part of this project, and thank you to Andreas for a fantastic meal!
As for the blind date side of things, I think it went well and am hoping Andreas will call or send flowers (or at least a large dish of his nettle soup!).
DISCLOSURE: Four friends and I attended this private dinner as guests of Visit Sweden.
Sleek and effortlessly chic, it is hard not to be charmed by Stockholm’s cutting-edge galleries, trendy fashion stores and innovative restaurants. The capital built on 14 island offers high quality food everywhere; be it one of its charming cafés or a Michelin star restaurant; you won´t be disappointed. Just in the past year, over 20 new restaurants have opened in Stockholm, many of which focus on Swedish cuisine with international influences. As Europe’s first Green Capital, locally sourced ingredients and produce are a given and as demand continues to grow, Stockholm is fast becoming one of Europe´s most exciting culinary destinations. For more information on the great foodie destination of Stockholm, go to www.visitstockholm.com.