Sunday, 7 August 2011

A Very Swedish Safari

There’s blackcurrant herring, dill herring, fennel and schnapps herring, black pepper herring, Scotch whisky herring and plain old pickled herring,” recites our waitress, pausing to catch her breath. “And, of course, we have herring tartare for an appetiser!”

It must get repetitive doing an impression of Bubba from Forrest Gump every five minutes, but when you’re working at Salt & Sill, the world’s first herring-themed hotel, you can’t expect customers to order spaghetti.

If herring tourism dries up, Salt & Sill can turn to its other USP – it floats. It’s moored to a giant raft at the edge of Klädesholmen, an island responsible for almost half of Sweden’s herring production. There’s also a floating sauna – Sweden's fastest, apparently – where I take my cue from the locals and get in touch with my inner Scandinavian. We heat up until it’s time to cool down, and with bellies full of pickled fish and boiled potatoes we fling ourselves into the sea, arms and legs flailing.

I’ve come to west Sweden to experience the seafood it’s so celebrated for – and the following morning a herring-heavy breakfast fuels photographer Per and me for the northbound drive to Strömstad and the ferry to the island of South Koster. After a hearty lunch of seafood stew we’re introduced to Kenneth Myrvold, the softly spoken Norwegian manager of Ekenäs hotel (tel: +46 (0)526 20250), and Johan Andersson, a South Koster native and, I’m about to discover, owner of Sweden’s firmest handshake. Every time he picks up a crab, I feel its pain.

As a child, Johan fished these waters with his grandfather. He’s tried and failed at city life (“I just start to panic”) and local bar work (“I prefer to drink drinks rather than serve drinks”), but he couldn’t be more comfortable than when he’s on his boat, hauling crabs, mackerel, lobster and shrimp onto the deck. He throws out salmon as bait, lowers a cage attached to a 40m rope, waits a few minutes, and then wheels it up triumphantly. Every 10 minutes, another 10 crabs appear. It all seems too easy.

Johan grapples like a wrestler with his catch and skilfully deactivates the crab’s desperate clawing. Not to be outdone, I reach to grab a crab by its shell. “It’ll take your fingers off!” screams the fisherman, showing me the scars on his arms. “When a crab attacks, you have to wait until it let’s go,” he warns. “If you try to pull it off, it’ll clamp harder.”

With our work done, we take a leisurely cruise past rugged, rocky landscapes; tiny islands inhabited only by horned goats. Back on dry land, we follow our bounty to the Ekenäs kitchen, where a team bakes bread, sautés scallops, roasts lamb and, upon seeing our catch, boils water in gigantic pots. The crabs re-emerge on a platter; a mass tangle of claws jostling for space with shrimps, mussels, cockles and oysters, all caught that same day.

By the time we’ve prized every speck of meat from every pincer it’s gone 10pm, although there’s still enough sunlight for a bike ride. With no cars on the Koster islands – the ferries aren’t big enough and the roads aren’t wide enough – it’s the main mode of transport for the 400 or so permanent residents. We pedal to the north side of the island, where we find two buildings: a ferry terminal and a bar, Johan’s former workplace. He’s sitting on a terrace, catching up with friends.

“My grandfather lived on South Koster until he was 92 and he never visited North Koster,” says Johan as we marvel at the midnight sunset. “These islands are at war!” We laugh – the north island is no more than 50m away, within earshot of a choice Swedish insult.

By buggy and by bicycle, we move en masse to the Blu Bar, a lovely pine and oak venue so hidden it seems surprising anybody finds it – then return to our hotel for a party, rural Sweden

style. The whole island appears to be here, dancing to Madonna and drinking schnapps until the start of another long summer’s day.

It’s a day that finds us a little worse for wear, and the lack of pickled herring at the breakfast table feels like a betrayal of biblical proportions. But we pick ourselves up for the ferry back to Strömstad and the stunningly scenic drive to Grebbestad, home to 90% of Sweden’s oysters. We head to a yellow sea hut perched on poles above the water. It’s home to a fishing tours business called Everts Sjöbod (tel: +46 (0)70 672 5208), run by the Karlsson brothers, Lars and Per.

It becomes quickly apparent that the brothers, born and raised in Grebbestad, are standing on a goldmine. Lars sweeps his net through the shallow water where their boat is moored and heaves up six oysters, each of which could sell for £10 at a top Stockholm restaurant. When we’re at sea on their wooden boat Per hands me a knife and gloves, and teaches me a key life skill. I make a mess of the first few shells, but the press-nudge-twist-lift technique soon comes together. And if I keep practising, Per suggests, I could represent the UK in the Nordic Oyster Opening Championships, which takes place in Grebbestad every spring.

Feeling like the luckiest man in west Sweden, I eat the two-dozen oysters on the table on deck. I close my eyes to focus on the lively, complex flavour – somehow sweet, salty and creamy at the same time – and miss out on much of the gloriously rugged coastline. But my oysters are just a warm-up for the main event. Back at the charming 120-year-old fisherman’s hut there’s bread, cheese, Champagne and a vast seafood platter. Almost anywhere else, this would be considered the height of luxury. Here, it’s simple local fare.

The brothers used to own a furniture shop, but didn’t like working indoors, so they turned to something they’d been doing for as long as they can remember. “It was the right decision to fish full-time,” says Per, who also runs an organisation dedicated to promoting the wonders of the Grebbestad oyster throughout the world. This is a town of seafood addicts – they even celebrate a dedicated Oyster Day, held every September.

The fishing seasons, we’re told, are mind-bogglingly precise. The lobster season, Per insists, begins at 7am on the first Monday following 20 September. Before then, fishing for lobster is a waste of time. It seems crazy, but it’s precisely this obsessive devotion to their craft that’s made Scandinavian food the talk of the culinary world. The emphasis is on seasonal ingredients and simple, unfussy preparation. As I help myself to one last mussel, Per shows me various clippings and certificates stating that Grebbestad oysters are the best in the world. I’m not going to argue.

Originally published in Ryanair magazine

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