My dinner date at Fäviken restaurant in northern Sweden started in the early morning across the border in Norway, where chef Magnus Nilsson had decided to combine a trip to the town’s fish market with picking me up from Trondheim airport. Nilsson runs the restaurant at Fäviken, a 9,000-hectare estate close to the ski resort of Are. He took charge of the kitchen in November 2008 and, at 28, is being talked about as the new René Redzepi, the chef at Noma in Copenhagen whose work has made such a mark.
As word spreads of Nilsson’s passion for serving spectacular dishes of ingredients raised or foraged for close at hand, the young Swede is already being lured from the restaurant to cook at events such as Tokyo’s Cook It Raw convention and the Sydney Food Festival. All this from a restaurant that seats no more than 12, opens only from Thursday to Saturday and is at its busiest in the winter, when the outside temperature regularly falls to minus 30C.
Nilsson, a smiling, bearded man in Ray-Ban sunglasses, arrived to meet me still in his fish market kit of green Wellington boots. We set off in his 4x4 and pretty soon, as we crossed the border from Norway into Sweden, the mountains began to look steeper and the snow thicker. Nilsson accelerated, explaining that the speed limits were slightly more relaxed in his home country. And he also began to explain how he had turned to the stoves.
He was born close to Fäviken and trained as a chef before heading to southern Sweden and then to Paris for five years, cooking at two of the city’s most respected restaurants, L’Astrance and L’Arpège. As Nilsson recalled this period, the memories brought a smile to his face. “But when I came back to Sweden I grew disillusioned with cooking,” he said. “I never thought I would be able to work with such high-quality ingredients, to cook to the same standard.” He decided to enrol in a sommelier school in Stockholm and it was wine that initially brought him to the Fäviken restaurant, after the estate was bought in 2003 by Swedish businessman Patrik Brummer.
“There had been a restaurant here for 20 years but it specialised in moose fondue for corporate parties and was only really busy during the ski season,” said Nilsson. “I worked there for a while, [but] it wasn’t prospering and it didn’t match Patrik’s vision for Fäviken. He asked me to establish something that would reflect what was growing wild on the estate, or being grown, bred or produced locally.” The partnership established since has Nilsson and his partner and restaurant manager, Johan Agrell, paying Brummer a fee for use of the restaurant.
And while the swiftness with which his name – and that of Fäviken – has swept through restaurant circles has surprised Nilsson, he seems more pleased by the speed with which he has established such close connections between his restaurant and the land. Today, Nilsson relies on suppliers for only four ingredients on his menu: salt from France; sugar from Denmark; fish from Trondheim; and alcoholic vinegar from the south of Sweden. And wine, of course, for which Agrell has an excellent palate.
I was to witness several fine examples of how the chef has achieved this symbiosis so quickly. The first was on a tour of the vegetable garden, close to a small lake where any fish surplus to requirements are kept until needed. The garden is not large and, at the end of May, only garlic shoots were evident. But by the end of September, thanks to the uninterrupted sunshine at this latitude, this modest patch will have produced more than 2,000kg of vegetables – enough to supply the kitchen through the colder months.
Five kilometres away, close to a large lake that freezes over in winter, is a farm belonging to Pieter Blombergsson, whose surname translates as “son of flower mountain”. There could not be a more suitable name for a man with the gentlest of faces and an obvious friendship with the ducks, chickens and geese he breeds for Nilsson, and for Redzepi at Noma. The farm is very, very free-range and the animals meander through a swathe of birch trees, which Blombergsson taps every spring for their sap. He then reduces this over an open fire to produce birch syrup – 100l of birch sap producing just one litre of syrup. Dark and tangy like balsamic vinegar, the syrup has the consistency of an unctuous Pedro Ximénez sherry.
I was to play a part in what is, for Nilsson, the most pleasurable part of cooking in such an environment – foraging. Three hours before dinner started we set off from the back of the kitchen along a forest path, on the way picking fiddlehead ferns, fireweed – redder and thinner but with a taste similar to asparagus – dandelion leaves, stinging nettles and red clover. The fruits of our foraging would be cleaned, steamed for five seconds and served with sheep’s cream. “They cost nothing and taste wonderful,” said Nilsson, who in autumn gathers berries and wild mushrooms from the same paths.
Brummer has sensitively converted the four buildings that formed the original farm when Fäviken was established in the early 1880s. One of them is now the Brummer family home. A small building next door leads to a sauna and steam room; nearby, seven extremely comfortable bedrooms – Fäviken’s hotel accommodation – are housed in a building where dairy maids once learnt their skills. The bar and restaurant occupy the former barley store. One of the rooms wouldn’t look out of place in a Scottish baronial home; its snooker table is overlooked by the stuffed heads of moose and game that can be hunted hereabouts, including the large black capercaillie, a rare member of the grouse family.
Dinner is at 7pm. First, though, we were led into the bar where our table of six was joined by two tables of two. The wooden interior was lifted by a century-old, full-length wolfskin coat hanging on one wall. The first of four small first courses, made moments earlier, included cubes of Arctic char with sour cream; wild trout roe encased in a circle of warm, dried pig’s blood, and crisp lichen from the hedgerows topped with shavings of egg, served with a gin and rhubarb cocktail.
Half an hour later Agrell led us upstairs to wooden tables decorated with wild flowers. Hams and parcels of cod roe hung from the rafters. At the centre of the room was a chopping board on legs, which would later feature significantly. Service was distinctive, as Nilsson and two other chefs carried heavy wooden trays of food up the steep steps, delivered it to our tables and explained each course.
Two of the first three dishes, all of whose ingredients came via Nilsson’s 4x4 and Trondheim’s fish market, were stunning. An enormous scallop had been cleaned and then cooked with its juices over burning juniper branches. A langoustine was simply roasted and served with sprouting barley and a burnt cream sauce. The cod with turnips and green juniper berries that followed was good, but lacked the intensity of the shellfish.
The first foraged vegetables of the season, which I had helped pick, were next and then, in a piece of high drama, Nilsson appeared at the top of the steps carrying a large cow’s leg, looking every inch the Viking. This was placed on the chopping block and sawed open to reveal the bone marrow, which was scooped out and served with diced cow’s heart and grated carrot. This ritual is repeated in the autumn with an even longer and thicker moose’s leg.
A more mundane rib of beef from a very mature cow followed, and then a series of desserts took up the wild theme with a vengeance: wild raspberry ice with fermented lingonberries; a sorbet of milk and whisked duck eggs; and slices of cake made from the bark of pine trees dipped into buttermilk. All were exceptional.
Fäviken also stood out for two non-culinary reasons. One was the constant and somewhat irritating Swedish folk music that may well be in keeping with what Nilsson has in mind, but which I found wearisome. Second, and far more agreeable, was the experience of looking out through the small windows at a sky that, as the meal progressed, only seemed to get brighter. As the wind had dropped, it was warmer drinking coffee on the veranda at 11pm than it had been walking to the restaurant at 7pm.
Magnus Nilsson has created something very special at Fäviken. Few chefs will ever find themselves in such an exceptional location, but there is plenty to learn from and a great deal for any visitor to enjoy. Even if it does mean an early start.