In a fairy tale land – think the darkly beautiful landscapes of the Brothers Grimm – far, far away on the shores of Lake Kallsjön nestled under the eastern slope Åreskutan, in the small (some 1500 live here year round) village of Järpen, Sweden, lives a wild haired giant who serves those who come by strange edibles like reindeer lichen, vinegar matured in the burnt-out trunk of a spruce tree, cow’s heart, turnip leaves that have never seen the light of day, fermented paste of pulses and fermented juice of mushrooms and oats. His dishes have long, terrifying sounding names – Broth of Autumn Leaves and Wild Trout Roe in a Warm Crust of Dried Pigs’ Blood.
This giant can often be seen with a bloody knife in his hand and dead animals hang from rafters in his fiefdom. He is, some might say, the Norse god of Fäviken, described as a former agricultural hamlet and now a collection of slättbrännas, Swedish mountain farms, and if he doesn’t like you he will throw you out of his lair which is called Fäviken Magasinet before you even get a chance to taste his duck-egg liqueur or Pine Tree Bark Cake.
Reality check, please.
Magnus Nilsson isn’t really a giant and his blondish hair is more tousled than wild. He doesn’t wantonly kill animals but he was raised foraging, hunting, fishing and butchering and after time spent cooking at several Michelin three-starred restaurants in Paris, he has returned to the lands of his ancestors and embarked upon an approach to cooking hyper-regional food “that is real.” As for being far, far away, well that part is true. Fäviken is 400 miles southeast of Stockholm in a remote region of lakes, mountains and forests. It is far from Paris, not only in miles but in concept. But if you want “retun mat” or real food from the nearby land with great attention to detail, it is the place to go. Bon Appetit magazine describes it as the world’s most daring restaurant. Oh and about throwing people out – he once did that to a customer who was beyond rude to a waitress.
Most of us can’t make the long and complicated trip to eat at this 12-seat restaurant open only for dinner, but we can read Fäviken (Phaedron Press 2012, $49.95), Nilsson’s wonderful cookbook, a homage to the bounties and a way of life in this remote region.
“It’s important to make the most of what you have,” Nilsson says in a wonderfully Scandinavian accented English. “And it’s about respecting the obstacles and limitations of wherever you have. I want people to understand what we do. This book isn’t for people just trying to cook the recipes, it’s nearly impossible in some cases given that they don’t have the same circumstances and equipment. I want them to understand what we do, why we do it and whom we do it with.”
For Nilsson, who says that the inspiration for his food comes not only from his surroundings but the real food of his grandparents style of cooking, “whom we do it” with means the farmers such as Leif and Stephen Kullen who raise Fjallko mountain cows whose milk Nilsson describes as “tastier and more perfumed” and the eccentric Mr. Duck who raises poultry.
Reading Nilsson’s writings takes us into a different world as we walk with him through the woods, gathering leaves which will be aged for a year before turning into soup, hearing the crunch of nettles under his feet (another soup ingredient), visiting honeybee keepers whose practices have changed little over the centuries and picking the vast selection of delicate berries with such seductive names as Bird Cherries, Cloudberries, Arctic Raspberries and Crowberries.
Though most of his recipes are stuck firmly in rural northern Sweden, some of the recipes let us enter into his world without having to make pine bark flour-- though Nilsson tells us how to make it noting that the first step is to chop down a pine tree or cook over juniper branches.
“The shortbread cookies, the linseed crackers and the bread are all things we serve at the restaurant,” says Nilsson, “and can easily be made in any kitchen.”
He also tells many stories like that of like that of Slättbränna Fabodara, a farming hamlet dating back to the 1850s though roads didn’t reach it until the 1930s, reciting from the diary of 17-year-old Signe who wrote about her experiences moving to Slättbränna Fabodara in 1917 with her large family and the life they led. His tales, whether they’re about the legends of his place, the seasons and what they produce or how to dry marigold petals to use the following year, seem magical in the telling.
It is like a fairy tale indeed.
Douglas’s Shortbread Cookies
2 cups whole wheat flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
10 1/2 tablespoons salted butter, room temperature
1 large egg, room temperature
1 large egg yolk, room temperature
3 tablespoons (about) raspberry jam
Preheat oven to 400°. Whisk flour, sugar, and baking powder in a large bowl. Add butter; using your fingertips, rub in butter until coarse meal forms. Whisk egg and yolk in a bowl; add to flour mixture; stir just to blend.
Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Measure dough by 2 tablespoonfuls and roll into balls. Place on prepared sheets, spacing 2" apart. Make an indentation in center of each ball; fill each with 1/2 teaspoon jam.
Bake cookies until golden, 12–14 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.