With Jonas Dahlbom, from Luleå, Swedish Lapland
It was with a mixture of intrigue and excitement that I accepted a SweDish Blind Date dinner at my home earlier this month organised by the nice people from Visit Sweden. But before you get the wrong idea - Dr G and four other guests were also present!
If you think of Sweden as the land of meatballs and Gravadlax (as I used to), think again. Sweden is rapidly becoming a major holiday destination, particularly because of its exciting culinary scene with its focus on nature, seasonality and local produce. Swedish Lapland's midnight sun and long winters have inspired a local cuisine that is distinct from the rest of Sweden and, indeed, the world. The hunter-gatherer tradition is at the core of the northern Swedish culture, tracing back to the customs of the indigenous Sami people (who inhabited Lapland for many centuries across what we now know as Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia).
One of Sweden's leading culinary lights is Jonas Dahlbom, who won the country's national 'Chef of the Year' title in 1996, working in some of the top restaurants in Gothenburg. Some years ago, he moved north to Swedish Lapland, to set up his own restaurant 'Dahlbom på Torget'. There, he creates menus from ingredients found uniquely in this part of Sweden, like cloudberries, Kalix bleak roe and reindeer.
Jonas and his team arrived to wow us with a magnificent dinner showcasing some of the finest produce that Luleå in Swedish Lapland has to offer. He had meticulously prepared the dishes at the Swedish Embassy in London, so not long after he arrived we were ready to kick off.
We started with a canapé of "Kalix bleak roe with creamed Västerbotten cheese, chive gelée and tunnbröd (Swedish Lapland flatbread)". Kalix bleak is a fish from the salmon family, whose roe is harvested from the Bothnian Bay archipelago of the Baltic Sea. I was intrigued to learn that it is often served at royal dinners, and is routinely served at the Nobel prize banquets as 'Caviar of Kalix'. It made a lovely appetiser on flatbread, with piped cheese and chive accompaniments.
The canapé was followed by "Cured char with whipped burnt butter, toasted 'kavring' dark rye bread, cucumber, thyme and allspice". Char is an arctic fish, with a similar colour and texture to salmon, but with smaller fillets. Although prolonged salt-curing of fish was traditionally used to preserve it for an extended period, today it is more often cured briefly to add an interesting flavour and to firm up the texture. Jonas' version was pan-fried, served with rye bread toasted crumbs, deliciously sweet pickled cucumbers, and a nutty whipped burnt butter which went perfectly with this type of dish. I also loved Jonas' presentation with the toasted rye bread crumbs and micro-herbs giving it a delicate and sophisticated appearance.
For main course, Jonas served us "Smoked reindeer heart with beetroot, smoked mushroom and herb infused oil, onions and dill". I can't say I've ever eaten any part of a reindeer before, let alone the heart. I was intrigued by this dish and very pleasantly surprised; it reminded me an Italian Bresaola but with a denser texture. Reindeer heart, a traditional part of the Sami diet, was delicious, firm and meaty and well accompanied by the paper-thin slices of beetroot, onions and dill.
As a cheese course, we had "Extra mature Himmelsraften (unpasteurised cows milk cheese) with creamed bitter almonds, cloudberries and roasted almonds". Himmelsraften is a washed hard cheese from Jämtland, somewhat reminiscent of the lovely Comte. It was served with cloudberries - amber coloured fruit similar to raspberries in flavour. Able to survive temperatures as low as -40°C, they are native to Nordic countries and Russia, and were an unusual but pleasing partner to the cheese.
For dessert, Jonas' "Frozen chocolate with warm crowberries and sea buckthorn petit fours, sea buckthorn meringue and caramel nut brittle" was the pièce-de-resistance of this lovely meal. This was a very fine dessert, again combining a number of Arctic ingredients including crowberries, from a small evergreen shrub resistant to subarctic climates, and part of the traditional Sami diet. Sea buckthorn is a shrub resistant to salty conditions in both air and soil, so can grow near the sea. Its berries are difficult to harvest because thorns are hidden among the clusters, and they taste bitter and acidic unless cooked, but the plucky Sami people are clearly very persistent, and manage to make some delicious dishes using this unlikely berry. It made a very fine conclusion to the meal.
Jonas brought a selection of Swedish beers, and a powerful 38% alcohol distilled spirit made from White Birch sap, known as Sav Snaps, which we downed in one at Jonas' recommendation, chilled to -20°C. Bracing stuff.
My guests and I thoroughly enjoyed this exploration of the flavours and ingredients of Swedish Lapland with a very accomplished chef to guide us. It certainly opened my eyes to some of the interesting cooking techniques and unusual ingredients native to this part of the world. I am very much hoping to follow up with a visit to Sweden, and Luleå in particular, as soon as I get the chance.
Many thanks to VisitLuleå, VisitSweden, the Swedish Embassy in London, and Jonas Dahlbom and his team for a special and very educational evening.