‘Is it right that I force my customers to kill a chicken at their table before I cook it for their dinner?’
This was how Magnus Nilsson, flushed with excitement, accosted me one afternoon during February’s Omnivore food festival in Deauville. ‘A couple of Russian ladies just asked me this during an interview,’ he gushed. ‘This is what people are saying about me’.
Although these two journalists were in fact incorrect – Mr. Nilsson insists on doing any killing himself – their spurious speculations were still testament to two truths: many people were now talking about somewhere where some special things were happening in northern Sweden; and that very few people actually knew what these special things really were.
Lying literally on the navel of the Nordic peninsula, on a line of latitude (big number° N) seemingly shared solely by the likes of little villages in Iceland and Alaska and a few hours from the nearest non-domestic airport, Mr. Nilsson does not reside in the most readily accessible of regions. Without doubt, today it is increasingly acclaimed as a destination with the international press talking up and flocking to faraway Åre just to visit it, but it was only a year or so ago, when Fäviken Magasinet was really merely a whisper on the lips of well-informed Swedish diners who spoke of some distant, new place north of Stockholm – the best restaurant in the country, maybe, they would mumble. Soon enough though, such murmurs became more and more material. A name and address were added to rumours before finally, at Cook it Raw Lapland, Magnus Nilsson met the world’s food media and Scandinavia’s best-kept secret was a secret no more.
Now, this young chef is winning cooking competitions abroad (Qoco 2010 in Italy, for instance) and is a regular on the food festival circuit – he was invited to Paris des Chefs, Identita Golose, Omnivore, Flemish Primitives…all in just the first three months of 2011 – whilst the restaurant, in an area inhabited, on average, by a single person per square kilometre, boasts a two-to-three month waiting list.
Indeed, gastronomy has not always been the first priority at Fäviken. Whilst the actual estate upon which the restaurant sits has some history – dating from the late eighteen-hundreds and once one of Sweden’s very largest privately owned properties before being divided into two and slowly trimmed down to its current 10,000 hectare size – Fäviken Magasinet itself has only been open a fraction of that time. Since 1986, to be exact. Furthermore, whereas recreational outdoor activities have been attracting guests to these grounds since the nineteen-sixties, it was not till the present owners, the Brummer family, took it over in 2003, that it was decided that this eatery ought to be anything more than a canteen. Yet even then, it was not until February 2008, when Magnus Nilsson started here, that things really started to happen.
Born and raised in the nearby provincial capital, Östersund, the teenage Magnus had to pick between two passions – cooking and marine biology. Clearly he choose the former – though he maintains an interest in the latter – and, straight out of school, joined Pontus in the Greenhouse as a pastry chef whilst spending the summers before and after at Kattegatt Gastronomi och Logi. At twenty, he left Sweden for France and an internship at a small, new venture in Paris, run by a pair named Pascal Barbot and Christophe Rohat. The place was l’Astrance. Completing this, that spring he traded one Michelin star for three and a permanent position at l’Arpege. But barely three weeks later, he had been fired. It was a language issue: Passard spoke French; his then head chef, Mauro Colagreco, spoke Portuguese; and Nilsson spoke neither. He went home to Sweden, intending to stay there, however before long Barbot offered him a raison d’être to return to France. By Christmas 2003, he was in Paris again.
The switch was successful and Nilsson went on to spend the next three years there. It was a dramatic and exciting period: soon after, the restaurant had a second star; in two more, it had three. His relationship with Barbot was a rewarding one too and he credits the Frenchman with teaching him the value of impeccable ingredients – a lesson that has ordered his own approach. Ironically though, once he had left l’Astrance and was cooking in Stockholm, the young Swede started to recognise that it was becoming increasing difficult to separate his own style from Barbot’s. It was a realisation that led him to leave the kitchen altogether and, in 2006, he enrolled on a year-long oenology course.
Subsequently, Mr. Nilsson was hired at Fäviken – but as its sommelier, working under the then-incumbent chef, Hans Erik Holmkvist. It was a situation that did not last long. On 1st November 2008, at a tender twenty-six, he took over the kitchen too. By replacing Holmkvist, he was left the restaurant’s lone employee and therefore, for the first year of his charge, had to double up as chef and front of house. To make it work, he served one sitting at dinner for at most eight diners altogether on a communal table. Still, in those early days, on some nights, even eight customers was eight more than he could find. He was not discouraged.
Although Mr. Nilsson had arrived intent on never cooking again, soon the allure of the stoves proved simply irresistible. The lush lands of Järpen and natural richness of the surrounding area gave him a new lease of life and allowed him to exercise again the diversions of his adolescence that had been impracticable in Paris – fishing, farming, the chase. Even constrained as he was there, Barbot was quickly able to appreciate this side of him: ‘he is a born botanist, hunting is in his blood’; whilst Nilsson admits that ‘most of my inspiration in the kitchen comes from nature and the unique circumstances at Fäviken’.
The grounds around the restaurant are indeed the model set for this young chef. Seven-hundred-and-fifty kilometres north of Stockholm, the estate entails thousands of hectares of woods, waterways and undulating meadows resting on the eastern slope of Åreskutan alongside Lake Kalljön. It is an area comprising more game animals than people with streams and lochs loaded with local char and brown trout. It is even covered in a calcareous soil that encourages the growth of rare mosses and other plants.
Nestled amidst these moors and meres, assembled about an old grain barn built in 1745, there is a small collection of cottages that form Fäviken Magasinet Restaurang och Logementet.
There are seven lodges in all. Of the newest four – all coloured cream and maybe subtly more rococo in appearance (provoked by the style’s brief popularity in Trondheim during the eighteenth century perhaps) – one is privately owned, another houses a fully-equipped spa and the two remaining are made up of very handsome guestrooms.
The oldest buildings, discernible by their traditional Falun red timber facades, are also the largest; one is a renovated warehouse and office whilst the other holds the games room, some accommodation and is where guests dine. The latter is divided into two separate spaces entered through different doors. To the left, there is a large salon boasting leather settees and a beautiful snooker table; this is the eye’s natural focus, but the horde of various animal’s heads, stuffed and mounted on every one of the very tall walls, vie for one’s attention too. An adjacent staircase leads to bedrooms upstairs.
The building’s other half contains the kitchen, lounge and dining room. Betraying its original barn function, inside the walls are made up of wooden beams and bear no windows; instead light comes from gas lamps and a fireplace. The talking piece is suspended near the doorway – the only item left behind by the former owner: a tailor-made, hundred-year-old coat fashioned from the pelts of four wild wolves. The downstairs drawing room, where today guests enjoy aperitifs and snacks, was in fact Fäviken’s first dining room during the initial year that Mr. Nilsson took over. As the restaurant’s reputation improved and he was able to expand to twelve covers, the meal was moved upstairs and a maître d’hôtel taken on. This was Johan Agrell who was once a promising chef himself before becoming a manager at Esperanto in Stockholm. The new salle does have some windows albeit small, spherical ones that are again supplemented by lanterns and a little fire. There are more tables now, but these still number only ever three or four and are arranged along three sides of the room. As decoration, large hocks of ham dangle from the exposed rafters of the roof. Classical Swedish folk music completes the scene.
Dinner is served promptly at seven in the evening and there is one menu, which Mr. Nilsson decides and everyone eats in chorus.
Apéritif: Fermented Rhubarb Juice and Gin. Upon sitting down downstairs, Miss Roth prepared each diner a drink of ten-year old rhubarb juice and Hendrick’s gin. This sherry-like juice from Bengt-Johnny and Jan-Anders in Öster-övsjö was originally intended to be sold as rhubarb wine, but the pair had made it before acquiring the proper licenses needed to trade alcohol. It took the two almost eight years to get these and even then they were not certified to sell the pre-licence juice…
Amuse Bouche: Fermented Arctic Char ‘Rakfisk’ with Sour Crème. A cube of coral coloured, brine-cured Arctic char sitting atop sour crème came in a long wooden spoon atop a stone slab. Salted and stored for months underground, this small piece of fish had punchy odour, but surprisingly mild and subtle savour; its dense yet yielding texture and mouthfeel were most agreeable. The cream underneath, tangy and unctuous, was an excellent and classic counterpoint to the char. A terrific start.
Amuse Bouche 2: Wild Trouts Roe served in a Warm Crust of Dried Ducks Blood. Baby-sized ebony baskets of desiccated duck’s blood bore bright burnt orange bubbles of unsalted trout caviar. The fragile, charred crust, flavourful and savoury, seasoned the superbly fresh roe that burst with a slightly sweet taste that was more of egg than of fish. Some sauce of cheese, cream and more blood, secreted inside, imbued each warm bite.
Amuse Bouche 3: Crispy Lichens with Dried Egg Yolks and Smokedried Fish, Lightly Soured Garlic Cream. A couple of stone tablets were presented with two different types of foraged and lightly fried lichen prepared in two distinct ways. Upon one, reindeer lichen was served with shavings of lightly cold-smoked trout; on the other, Icelandic moss was covered with cured egg yolk. The former, named for reindeer’s fondness for it as well as its similarity to the same animal’s antlers, is the most common and commonly eaten kind of lichen. Each a small, celadon construction of compacted, crispy branches, they were rather mild themselves, but enlivened by the smoky trout on top. The latter have long been used in Iceland and other Arctic regions as medicine and to supplement grain in the local diet; there they are consumed as candy, soup and mixed with dairy. These darker morsels of Icelandic moss – a misnomer – were flatter and resembled seaweed; they were brittle and bitter, but worked well with the salted and dried yolk. The garlic sour crème alongside had great texture.
Amuse Bouche 4: Shavings of Old Sow and Wild Goose. Cerise slivers of home-cured pork, taken from the plumpest sow and hung since Christmas 2009 in a dry room, arrived with glistening segments of wild goose coloured carmine and fringed with a nice skirt of ochre fat. Aged for nine months, the goose pieces were pleasingly meaty, complex and intense – almost beefy – with an agreeably gamey and lingering aftertaste.
Bröd och smör: Tove’s Bread and the Very Good Butter. As the bread was brought out, an old kneading trough was shown off. It was served with a story. This was the same tray that once belonged to Magnus Nilsson’s grandmother and her grandmother before her; it still harbours traces of the same sourdough culture she used – now over two hundred years old. The family connection does not end there: with this ancestral starter, flour from Järna near Stockholm and from an island in lake Storsjön processed together at a mill in Östersund, he uses his wife’s recipe to bake a pain au levain loaf that possessed a thin yet crunchy crust and dense, dark yet moist and fluffy crumb. It was simply excellent. The very good butter (its official name here), from close by Oviken and with a texture like melting cheddar, was superb too.
Förrätt: Scallop ‘I Skalet Ur Elden’ cooked over burning juniper branches. A triangle of sizeable scallop shells sat closed atop straw and leafy stems at the centre of the table; a small lump of coal sat smouldering amidst them. The scent stemming from this burning birch charcoal – woody-sweet and smoky – was a catalyst, at once awaking the senses and agitating one’s appetite.
One of the sea’s most evocative symbols, suggestive of the setting sun, of Venus, pilgrimage, femininity, fertility and more, each shell was an incomparable intermingling of pale pinks, creams and pastel greens. After admiring their gentle geometry, the covering carapaces were removed to reveal bronze splashs of scallop jus surrounding the shellfishes’ muscles whose burnt rose hues matched the hints tinting their alabaster coffers.
An impeccable Norwegian scallop had been cooked alive above branches of fresh juniper and birch coal. As it started crackling, it was taken off the heat and its contents emptied. Nothing was discarded nor additional added. The scallop was replaced immediately whilst the skirt and insides strained then returned too. This whole process took no more than ninety seconds. It is a seemingly simple system, but the results were brilliant. Eaten by hand, the shellfish itself, satisfyingly firm to bite yet barely cooked through, was succulent and sea-sweet. Drunk straight out the shell, the strong, iodic juices were just as delicious.
Förrätt 2: Langoustine, Toasted Grains, Sprouting Barley, Mature Cheese, Vegetables Stored in Whey since last Autumn and Almost Burnt Cream. A single substantial langoustine, inset with a sprig of birch, dominated the dish; a small mound of muesli mounted with vegetables, hard cheese and barley sprouts, along with a spoonful of reduced cream, shared the plate. Lightly pan-fried till lustrous orange, the shellfish separated nicely into its individual, luscious filaments whilst the toasted grains, tasty and savoury, tendered welcome crunch. Almost burnt cream, full of dairy flavour yet clean, was well met by the acidity of the roots, which had been pickled in whey for almost nine months. The inclusion of mature cheese was a nice nod to the native Swedish custom of eating crawfish with Västerbotten.
Förrätt 3: Slices of Cod Lightly Brushed with Honey and then Seared in a dry pan, Rutabega Roasted Slowly in the Good Butter, Alcoholic Vinegar, Green Juniper Berries and a Cream of Duck Eggs and Gammelost. An ivory ingot of cod, caramelised perfect persimmon colour yet its centre still nearly translucent, sat skirted on one side by a long wedge of slow-roasted swede that was straddled with some vivid green juniper-infused vinegar and whose own orange shades mirrored those of the fish, and on the other by an immaculately rounded drop of cream; each piece was placed on the dish at parallel diagonals bearing from bottom to top.
This could be the best cod that I have ever been served. The fillet’s quality was immense and it had been handled and cooked extremely well too. The juniper vinegar was also impressive. Upon touching one’s tongue, this substance turned from an innocuous jade liquid jelly into unadulterated electric currant that disseminated through the mouth and animated every taste bud. Whilst the al dente rutabaga was decent, this sizzling sauce and cod alone could have been enough. The cream, which was actually a mix of Gammelost – old Swedish cheese – and duck eggs, was rather a little rich for me.
Förrätt 4: Raw Mussels, Very Fresh Cheese and Very Light Broth of Beef Filtered Through the Spring Forest Floor. A bowl was brought bearing a bed of fresh cheese, above which a brace of raw blue shell mussels laid level, side by side, sprinkled with almost raw baby blades of nettle; at the table, a delicate beef broth was poured in from a leaf-filled teapot. Not normally seen served so rare, these tender, tubby North Atlantic bivalves, did not remain so for long – the consommé gently warmed the mussels, carefully cooking them. Made to order literally five minutes before being plated, the cheese beneath resembled tofu in terms of taste and texture. The nearly raw nettles – again something rarely seen – offered some easy bitterness and pepper whilst accentuating the grassy notes of the crystal clear and subtle stock. Having been resting with mosses, replete with their roots, and other random forest flora, the contents took on a tea-like quality with an aroma as well as flavour instantly evocative of the forest floor.
Förrätt 5: The First Foraged Vegetables of the Year Wilting on a Plate, Sheep’s Cream Whisked with Vinegar Fermented Beer and Ground Cods Roe. A considerable, curved dish, its surface flat, was set down. Across its centre, a bundle of assorted greens rested delicately arranged – they appeared as if freshly cut and still moist with the same morning’s dew. At symmetrical spots either side of these could be found a porcelain-like spoon of sheep’s milk cream and some dried cod’s roe grated in a small gamboge heap. The minimalism was imposing. The vegetables, which really had been foraged that very morning from a nearby verge just behind the restaurant, were each toothsome and distinct. The coiled, plump fiddlehead ferns were mildly nutty and bitter (akin to asparagus), the fireweed similar if a little sweeter whilst the ground elder, crisp and refreshing like celery. The cream, made with vinegar-fermented beer, immediately reminded one of malt vinegar; a reference to Kalles kaviar maybe, the homemade roe was the smoky seasoning.
Förrätt 6: Dices of Cows Heart and Marrow, Grated Carrots. Mr. Nilsson and his sous chef ascended the staircase and marched into the middle of the dining room. They had not come empty-handed. They carried with them a large, already-grilled thighbone, which was placed upon a pedestal standing in between the three tables. Here, they sawed the bone open. Whilst stacks of toasted sourdough and vibrant clusters of lovage salt were handed out, Nilsson mined the soft, pinkish marrow out of the bone and onto awaiting plates of raw beef heart tartare and rough-chopped carrots.
The instinctively self-made open-faced sandwiches that inevitably ensued tendered rewarding, contrasting chews of cool, tender meat; warm, melting fat; and deliciously sweet, crunchy carrot.
Förrätt 7: Ribeye of a Pensioner Milking Cow Dry Aged since early January, Panfried and then Rested on the Charcoal Grill, Sour Onions and Wild Herbs, Fermented Mushroom Juices from last year. A carving of dry-aged rib-eye, its crust chargrilled and centre burgundy, came fringed with a nice bronze border of fat; colourful wild herbs covered a mass of caramelised onions whilst dark dots of mature fermented mushroom juice punctuated the plate.
The beef, from a seven-year old, retired dairy cow, had been dry-aged by Nilsson himself for five months – from Christmas till summer almost. It was exceptional. Melt-in-the mouth tender, the meat was full of smoky, charred savour. Its unctuous adipose was especially toothsome whilst pungent like good cheese. The moreish, creamy-crisp onions were a great complement; having been cooked in reduced whey, their sour-sweetness cut the steak well. Year-old mushroom jus packed a punch.
Efterrätt: Wild Raspberries Ice; Fermented Lingonberries ‘Vattlingon’ Thick Cream and Sugar. As a pre-dessert, sugared ‘lingonberry water’ with cream and some wild raspberry sorbet were presented on a pair of wooden spoons, nostalgic of those that the first snack arrived on. The latter was fresh and fruity-tart whilst the former a more intricate, but finely balanced bite. Traditionally Swedish/Russian vattlingon that originated when sugar was so expensive that these berries were preserved by simply storing them in bottles of water at room temperature for a year or so.
Efterrätt 2: Sorbet of Milk, Whisked Duck Eggs and Raspberries Jam. Once upon a time, the barn within which Fäviken Magasinet now rests was a dairy school. Consequently, when Mr. Nilsson moved in, he found, amongst other things, a 1920s ice cream maker and it is with this that milk sorbet is made à la minute in the dining room for the last dessert.
A bright white quenelle of it is deposited, semi-submerged, in a foamy sabayon. Immersing one’s spoon into the snow-shaded, ersatz crust, a cache of raspberry jam reveals itself. It is an easy-to-eat, classic marriage of milk and berry.
Petit Fours: Pine Tree Bark Cake, Buttermilk; Dried Berries, Meadowsweet Candy and Tar Pastilles. A selection of different sweets awaited diners with their coffees and teas downstairs. Alongside them, three interesting homemade liquors were also ready: raspberry, duck egg and sour milk.
Atop a block of rock rested ebony pieces of dried blueberry and blackcurrant, separated by a peachy streak of meadowsweet candy pearls; a small wooden treasure chest held tar pastilles too. All these were precise in flavour and somewhat addictive – especially the liquorice tar, which is apparently an acquired taste. Brought out shortly after the drinks, some excellent pine tree bark cake with buttermilk was warm, moist and tasty.
The wines were all very good and matched the food well. The delicious 2008 Schwarzhofberger Riesling Kabinett from Egon Müller was the standout, but it was also great to see the inclusion of Fäviken’s own Pale Mead from Bengt-Johnny and Jan-Anders in Öster-övsjö on the menu.
Service, directed by Mr. Agrell and assisted by Miss Hanna Roth, was first-rate. Efficient, elegant and humorous, we were entertained and tended too superbly well. Agrell especially was engaging and very knowledgeable about the cooking, beverages and the restaurant, regaling us with many interesting stories about both Fäviken and, much more amusingly, Mr. Nilsson. Although it was literally only the two of them running the front-of-house, one never had to wait for anything nor was it ever any effort attracting someone’s attention. Furthermore, timing – of food and wine – was expert.
The dining room itself is the romantic incarnation of a fairytale imagination. It completely lived up to expectation. Rustic and quaint, it was warm and charming. If there was anything that could be described as imperfect, it was dinner’s soundtrack: this local folk music was sometimes a little distracting during the meal’s quieter moments.
Nilsson and his team made several appearances throughout the meal in what has almost become de rigueur in these parts – service à la nordique, if you will. A couple of courses also entailed à la minute elements completed in front of the guests, including the sawing of the bone and churning of the ice cream. Where possible, some sort of family style interaction was encouraged too: snacks and sweets were served from shared plates, as were the scallops and additional cuts of beef.
Dinner made an impression.
From the first morsel of fermented arctic char – a seemingly simple, small square, maybe enough for a single mouthful – it was evident that this meal might be something special. This minimal nibble was in fact full of flavour and surprise: its pungent musk initially misleading one into assuming something quite intense and powerful, it actually seduced the tongue with subtlety and its instantly recognisable quality. This was quickly succeeded by a series of delicious tastes that showed off Mr. Nilsson’s persistence and patience. Wild goose that had been curing since last August, fatty sow from Christmas over two years ago – such forethought and consideration were remarkable and certainly delectable. The courses proper, preceded by fantastic bread and butter, started with arguably the finest dish, the scallop. More on this shortly. Next, the langoustine and cod really revealed the wealth of amazing ingredients that Nilsson has to hand. Later plates boasted restraint and delicacy, prior to the matured, beefy main that reminded the diner once again of the chef’s providence and planning. Desserts were nice, but arguably not as notable as what came before.
My abiding thoughts from Fäviken are focused about the produce and the personality of the cuisine.
The ingredients were incredible. The shellfish especially were some of the best that I have seen – the scallop and cod perhaps both new benchmarks. The beef here could also include this restaurant in the number of places that I would return to just to eat this meat. It was almost as good as that of Asador Etxebarri and Japan. The repeatedly praised bread made from carefully sourced flours and the wickedly moreish butter deserve yet one more mention here. The eggs do too. Upon arriving at the estate, we were able to visit one of the chef’s suppliers – the increasingly famous Mr. Duck, Peter Blombergsom. This gentleman breeds half a dozen organic and free-range varieties of duck and chicken whilst providing Nilsson with his eggs and bird blood; he has also recently expanded into snail farming. The eggs are certainly of a high standard and I was privileged to try them once more a week later at his newest (and second) customer, noma. The exceptional wild trout roe that arrived super fresh and unsalted must be singled out as well.
Nothing in Nilsson’s kitchen comes from more than two hundred kilometres away. Meat is from Fäviken; vegetables are from the estate too, grown by gardener Magdalena Engberg; the seafood is from Trondheim; with only sugar, salt and wheat sourced from southern Sweden. One might suppose such geographical concentration a constraint – especially considering that snow covers this land six months out of twelve – but not this chef who confides that he has ‘never worked with better produce than here’. He is in a fortunate position. Upon the restaurant’s own grounds, he is able to hunt for moose, grouse and hare; fish in its lakes; and forage for berries, mushrooms, moss and lichen. ‘Of course we could buy vegetables from somewhere else during winter,’ Nilsson declares, ‘but by using our own produce and preparing it in the way that used to be necessary to survive, we force ourselves into thinking in new ways’.
Mr. Nilsson’s own attitude towards ingredients is simple: the initial step in every new recipe must be finding the ‘perfect raw material’. The second step is maximising that product’s potential. The chef enjoys focusing on one principal protein when building a dish, keeping it as intact as he can and altering it as little as possible. It is in the garnish that spicing and additional flavours may augment that of the main meat/fish/vegetable. The prime example of this is the scallop ‘i skalet ur elden’. This course corroborated Nilsson’s argument that the ‘combination of the perfect ingredient and the perfect cooking technique’ negates all need for extra seasoning. It is a total eating, drinking, sensory event where everything you taste, all that you taste is scallop – it is the essence of scallop. Stunning and memorable, it conjured up similar sensations as René Redzepi’siconic langoustine dish did the first time that I ate it. The chef himself admits that his wish would be a menu composed of a dozen such dishes.
‘Time and place’ is an expression that is becoming more and more established – and important – in the average eater’s everyday lexicon. Fäviken has both in abundance. It is a terrific illustration of where the eating experience is the essential digest of what one sees and feels around them filtered through the imagination and intelligence of the chef cooking their meal. Accordingly, this is an immensely personal cuisine.
Nilsson explains it best himself. ‘We do things as they have always been done on Jämtland’s mountain farms: we follow seasonal variations and existing traditions. We live with the community. During the summer and autumn, at the peak of each ingredient’s ripeness, we harvest what grows on our land and refine it using methods that we have discovered from our rich traditions or which we have found through our own search for quality. We build up our provisions ahead of the dark winter months; we dry, salt, jelly, pickle and bottle. The hunting season starts after the harvest and is an important time, when we take care of the exceptional food that the mountains provide us with’.
This restaurant could not be anywhere except in Jämtland. And its chef could not be anyone but Magnus Nilsson. Besides the fact that the restaurant relies nearly fully on its surroundings to fill its stores, many of the techniques and routines of the kitchen are informed by indigenous customs of preserving, curing, fermenting and the like. Rightly so then that the chef is a native too. More than that, he fulfils all the expectations of a Jämt given that the etymological root of the word derives from the Proto-Germanic term meaning persistent, efficient, enduring and hardworking.
Indeed, no shortcuts are allowed. This is one expression of the old-school ethos here – that there are no thermometers and all the cooking is judged by touch are others. As is the open charcoal fire in the centre of Fäviken’s kitchen, which the chef enjoys using as much as he can and where he experiments with the flame and different kinds of wood. These are responses to Nilsson’s childhood and reminisces over the wood-fired oven at his grandmother’s farm. Other idiosyncrasies of the chef are easily distinguishable too. For example, Mr. Nilsson has a sweet tooth and fondness for candy, something that the petit fours, a choice of different confections, are doubtless indicative of. There is also an uncommon incidence of dairy during the meal, which is actually acutely reflective of where one is eating: in Jämtland, there is a strong appetite for milk and thus many milk products, especially cheese, as it is the easiest way to conserve milk. Consider it carefully and this food reveals Nilsson’s terroir, upbringing, personality, tastes and even those that have influenced him too.
It is in such ways that the chef articulates his own character and thus colours his cuisine with individuality.
The chef that has made the greatest impact on Nilsson is Pascal Barbot. This is from whom the Swede has learned the most. The striking minimalism, optimistic use of colour, seasoning style and indifference to saucing of some of the courses all intimated that this is someone who might have spent time with the Frenchman, but it was really the cod that was the single largest clue of this. The cut, cuisson and even caramelisation of it reminded me immediately of Barbot. That being said, this is not in any way an implication that this is imitation in any form. Not at all. This is clearly Magnus Nilsson’s food and one of his greatest gifts is his originality.
His methodical approach and his curiosity are two more of this chef’s strongest qualities. These are perhaps the automatic manifestation of Mr. Nilsson’s scientific mind. Like a scientist, he has an innate affection for researching and testing new techniques and ingredients. Such keenness might be behind one of dinner’s most interesting items: the juniper-infused vinegar. This is basically alcoholic vinegar – the same that is used to clean dishes – yet in such small amounts, it was superbly effective. There was also a logic and attention to detail here that was at times so subtle that it might have been missed. My favourite demonstration of this was with the Icelandic moss. These lichen possess a bitterness proven to whet the appetite and stimulate hunger – hence, they are inherently ideal as a snack. Another symptom of this mind-set is his insistence on an evolutionary process with new dishes rather than a saltational one: ‘the menu is changeable, when one ingredient runs out, it needs to be replaced by another. We never replace dishes ‘just because’, instead we would rather wait for a new ingredient, idea or dish that is actually better than the one being replaced. Much of what we serve has its own lifespan and remains on for a long time, slowly becoming something entirely different to the original, despite having the same name throughout its existence’.
Magnus Nilsson sums up his philosophy as Rektún food. Real food. ‘[The] literal meaning is very simple, but for me it has a lot more values than that. We respect our raw ingredients for what they are, what they look like and where they come from. We strive to monitor production of each ingredient from seed to plate. We accept nature’s own choices as the primary factor and apply our own knowledge in order to maximise every product’s potential before we select the ones we are going to use. We concentrate on harvesting, preparing, cooking and then serving it in most thought through and exact way possible. We present every single ingredient in a manner that conveys feelings that arise in the process to create rektún food…We don’t follow trends. We serve what we want, when we want. Respect, control, selection, concentration, presentation. [This is] rektún food’.
It is inevitable that similarities will be drawn between noma and Fäviken. Both restaurants reside in the same region and both limit the ingredients they cook with to that area too. This is enough for many to conclude that they are essentially the same. This is wrong. Where the two overlap is only on ideology, geography and thus some basic foodstuffs and methods.
Whilst the raw materials might be similar, the results are certainly not. For one, at Fäviken there are three in the kitchen; at noma, there are thirty more. Redzepi has the resources to create perfectly complete new dishes quickly and in quick succession; Nilsson pursues a more measured pace where recipes evolve over time and with the seasons. Here, the cuisine is a little simpler, more straightforward and direct – and rightfully so. But it is not just about what is on the plate. When leaving Fäviken, one departs with the most abiding, brightest conviction of a potential immense and not yet met. The chef is refining – still cultivating – his craft and even now discovering what is realisable with what he has still waiting, unearthed, around him. To see the impending consummation of such a beautiful ideal as his is compelling enough reason to return.
Today, terroirism is trendy and sexy. Thanks to the adherents of new naturalism, eating natural, local food has become cool again. Chief amongst these is indeed René Redzepi, who has shown chefs worldwide – and instilled within them a confidence – that cooking what is native to each is a realistic ambition and, more than that, meaningful and worthwhile. It is not a new idea, but a forgotten one remembered again.
When Magnus Nilsson arrived at Fäviken, it was not with a calculated mission to cook with ingredients as immediate to him as possible. His superlocavore attitude was an intuitive, subconscious – and eventually self-fulfilling – impulsion that grew from an increasing intimacy with the natural world directly around him. It was a slow, steady success and it was not without stress. However, it is Redzepi who Nilsson cites as the one who showed him that it was not a futile effort, but something fundamentally valuable and actually viable.
Food is currently fashionable and the greatest interaction that the average urban individual now has with nature – real, raw nature – is arguably with what they find in their refrigerator or on their plate at a restaurant. Thus, what chefs like Magnus Nilsson and René Redzepi are doing – though doing differently – is incredibly relevant.
They are changing how people eat. They are renewing man’s relationship with nature.
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