Monday, 17 October 2011
The Shellfish Journey, West Sweden
Is it technically still a press trip when it doesn't actually involve any press? There were six of us, amateur bloggers all, invited along to what was billed as a Shellfish Journey (with matching Twitter hashtag #shellfishjourney, 'natch) along Sweden's dramatically beautiful west coast. I remember a few years ago now when I first started getting invited for free meals and blogger events that my extreme gratitude at being asked was always matched with a kind of bafflement that they even considered it worth their while. At least if you invite a paid journalist they have a job to do, a duty to report, almost always a much larger readership. Where's the guarantee a blogger will even bother writing it up at all? These things must be a huge gamble for the organisers; after all you can never be completely certain how things will pan out, and if you think PR companies are taking a risk sending out invites to review a new restaurant, imagine how much is on the line on an all-expenses 3-day jolly to Sweden.
Fortunately, for us and more importantly the kind people of VisitSweden.com, the trip was an absolute blast. The weather, first of all, was incredibly good, and despite various PR-savvy Swedes informing us, tongue-in-cheek under bright sunshine, that it was "always like this" in mid-October, something about the rather more "broody" shots from previous trips tells me that isn't quite the case. But from a freakishly smooth SAS early morning flight from Heathrow (plus complimentary use of the Heathrow Star Alliance lounge, thankyouverymuch) to a boat trip on the last day which would have been a lot more... challenging if the conditions had been less than perfect, we could thank our lucky stars for benign Nordic weather gods. Well, that or global warming.
First stop on day one was a beautifully restored early 20th century mansion house, now a hotel, on a hill overlooking a lake in the town of Ljungskile. Oddly for the first meal on a "shellfish journey" our lunch was a dish of chicken and girolles mushrooms in an apple sauce (with some kind of alcohol too, perhaps cider) and a lovely sweet root vegetable cake thing. As an introduction to Nordic cuisine it all seemed a bit French, but the accompanying fresh bread rolls and crispbreads were fantastic, as was the butter, and apparently all the ingredients were very local/foraged.
For our first taste of West Sweden's seafood bounty we boarded a small boat in Lysekil (pronounced something like "Lisse-shil" I think) harbour and headed out to where the mussels grow, attached to cross-hatched ropes under large floating tubes. This being quite early in the season, all there was to see on the ropes themselves were the odd tiny juvenile mussel amongst an alarming carpet of strange writhing tiny sea creatures of some kind, but it was all still fascinating stuff. At a wooden hut knocked up on a remote island near the mussel beds we were treated to a moules marinere cooked on a portable gas ring ("here's some we prepared earlier"), along with our first taste of an extraordinary delicacy, the powerfully metallic native oysters. Sat in our hilariously oversized survival suits, eating fresh oysters and sweet mussels and watching the sunset on a remote island miles away from civilisation, it was a magical introduction to the country.
That evening, dinner was a seafood buffet at an atmospheric little restaurant in Lysekil old town called Ferdinand's. We were told it can generally only be booked by groups tied into a Sweden tour package, and mindful of the kind of "restaurants" you're lumbered with in the UK if you go for a hotel tie-in (50% off at next door's Harvester, or perhaps if you're very lucky a Groupon voucher for Pizza Express) it's fair to say my expectations weren't high. But the quality of the food and generosity of spirit was stunning. Huge trays of dill-softened gravadlax and fresh salads, hot rolls and more of that lovely salty crispbread, and - most importantly - as many fat langoustine and sweet crab claws as my freebie-loving face could fit. Bed that night was the eclectic Strandfickomo Hotel, clean and comfortable and good Wi-Fi coverage (gold dust to a Twitter-obsessed loser like me) but with an interesting approach to interior design. Some of our group shared their rooms with creepy dead sailors belongings and a disembodied Victorian nightgown; I think I got off lightly just having this staring at me as I tried to nod off:
Wasting no time the next day we were bussed off to Stromstad and from there a short ferry ride to the Koster islands, home to (be still my beating heart) the Lobster Safari. No cars are allowed on Koster; instead, residents (of which there are a few hundred permanent) and tourists (hundreds of thousands in the summer months) get around either on pushbikes or these strange machines that look like the flat trolleys at Homebase welded to the back end of a scooter. They looked fun, and are just the right size for hauling around big boxes of lobster and crab - handy that. Before the lobster, though, a tour of the island by bike, and lunch at a rustic farm/cafe in the centre of the island called the Koster Gardens. The food here was obsessively local - every ingredient in our lunch was either grown on the farm itself or, in the case of a handful of edible flowers, an hours boat ride away. It was very interesting to see how fierce localism (horrible word but I can't think of a better one) isn't particular to middle-class Tom and Barbara types in the UK - indeed, the locavore (ugh) has their own temple in Scandinavia, just further south in Copenhagen in the form of Noma. Personally, I don't think you're betraying any very important foodie ideals by having a bit of Irish beef or Spanish anchovy every now and again but hey, each to their own.
Due to a two-metre swell out in the open ocean where the lobster pots were, our hosts quite rightly concluded our weak city-dwelling stomachs couldn't deal with quite that much reality of a Saturday afternoon and after a pleasant pootle around calmer waters in a fishing boat came back to Koster to gawp at a few boxes of lobster braver people had caught earlier in the day. They were lively beasts, flicking and wriggling in a way you hardly ever see even from the freshest examples to reach London, and included a huge 50-year-old mammoth beast of about two kilos - not great for eating perhaps but fascinating to see.
So what did they taste like? Back at the hotel, later that evening, we were treated to a lobster menu, beginning with a gorgeous silky lobster bisque and generously followed up with a whole beast each. They were, if perhaps not any better than examples from Scotland or Canada, at least as good, although I'm not entirely sure their method of cooking them in 800g of salt per 20 litres of water was entirely necessary - they turned out quite on the salty side. The Swedes have a habit of serving their seafood with cheese, which took a bit of getting used to but actually is no more strange than lobster thermidor when you think about it. I wasn't that keen on the cumin flavoured cheese though, which brought back terrifying memories of Cheddar Tikka Masala.
The next day, early but not so bright thanks to spending until midnight in the hotel bar the night before drinking £7 beers and watching a middle-aged 3-piece work their way through a repertoire of Bryan Adams and Wham!, we set off for Grebbestad. This is where the Oyster Experience was to take place, which sounded very intriguing, but getting there involved an hour long boat ride over waters that, if they had been any choppier, may have meant a premature end to the gastronomic experience for a few of our party. For whatever reason, and I'm not trying to sound smug here, just stating the facts - I've never had too much of a problem with sea travel, and so I think I probably enjoyed bouncing around in the back of a small boat a bit more than some of my friends. Before long, though, we had arrived at an achingly picturesque seaside shack and were watching our host dredging up fresh oysters from the beds right underneath the building. Following a short demonstration we were even let loose with a shucking knife ourselves, to discover first-hand how opening oysters really isn't as easy as it looks. Having opened a few rocks in Spain a few years back I had nearly convinced myself I might repeat my success, only to "expertly" slice one of the precious, delicious natives almost entirely in half in an effort to get it open. Still tasted nice though, as did the 2nd massive seafood buffet of the trip served in the same shack, consisting of more huge langoustine and fresh brown crab.
A fantastic experience then, from start to end, and one I'm equally flattered and delighted to have been invited on. But let me try for a moment to be objective. There are some things that are irrefutable - West Sweden is a breathtakingly beautiful part of the world, clean and fresh and easy, populated by friendly, helpful (and helpfully English-speaking) people and where, at least from our PR-cossetted experience, the food is fantastic. And I would have no problem recommending anyone go there if - and it's a big if - it wasn't all quite so expensive.
Firstly, the biggest problem for a boozehound like me (and if I know anything about my readership, most of the rest of you too) is that alcohol is astonishingly wallet draining. A beer in the hotel bar - ONE BEER, and not even quite a pint (500ml), was 70 Kroner - about £7 at current exchange rates. Wine was worse, even the cheapest on the list in the lobster restaurant on Sunday being a Jacob's Creek Semillon Chardonnay for £36 - yes, the same as the ones you see in Tescos. And lastly, spirits - a double of something even quite ordinary like Jack Daniels or Beefeater gin will set you back at least £10, and in fact in many places is even more. Alcohol tax rates are set by the Swedish government of course, and are nobody's fault that we met over the weekend, but having to worry quite so much about how much you're spending on everyday holiday activities like eating and drinking really does become an issue. At least, I imagine it would.
Also, the hotel we stayed at in Lysekil, pleasant and clean if ever so slightly Haunted House is currently available on Expedia "from" £181 a night in October. I think there are better deals if you book in advance, but still, not cheap. Better value perhaps is a 3-day lobster experience (a more extended version of the mini preview we had) on South Koster which is £359 per person based on two sharing a room, which includes all meals including the final day's lobster feast. And for £24 the oyster class and tasting at Grebbestad is well worth the money - watching your live lunch being dredged out of the sea and then opening them up yourself with a glass of local porter is unforgettable.
So, blame the Swedish tax system, blame our pathetic currency or simply blame sheer cosmic injustice that this idyllic place is just slightly out of the average-earning Brit's reach. But for die-hard seafood fanatics I can't imagine there are many better places in the world to indulge yourself - the whole trip was almost worth it for a taste of those stunning native oysters, and after all this was always going to be a shellfish journey, not a steak-and-wine journey. It's worth repeating, too, just how utterly, heart-stoppingly attractive it all is, the rugged pristine fjords cut through by sparkling clear waters, the picturebox seaside huts hugging the lichen-covered rocks, and not to mention the abundance of non-edible wildlife - we saw seals, rockpools and jellyfish along with any number of different finches and sea birds. It may come at a price, but West Sweden is a rare and precious part of the world, and I feel utterly privileged to have been.
Photos, apart from Bjorn the Evil Pheasant, courtesy of Food Stories.
More West Sweden Tourist Info:
For more information about the Shellfish Journey: www.westsweden.com/shellfishjourney
Facebook page: www.facebook.com/westsweden