The end of an era – without promises, but with glimmers of a resurrection

After a good ten-year run, Magnus Nilsson closed his celebrated, starred restaurant in the hinterlands of Jämtland. Fäviken redefined Swedish gastronomy and won a spot on the culinary world map. White Guide’s Lars Peder Hedberg shares Nilsson’s last meal, he reflects upon what was and contemplates Fäviken’s influence on Swedish restaurant culture.

Clap, Clap!
      Listen up! Magnus Nilsson claps his hands to announce the next course. All conversation fizzles, you really do have to pay attention here. Did he say “last year’s perch”?
      When Fäviken Magasinet rolls out its ultimate dinner service, you can’t be too sure – perhaps there’ll be some golden oldie from the dawn of time; 2008, that is, when the doors opened to this budding global sensation. Or maybe there’ll be something completely groundbreaking and hitherto unseen.  The perch is neither nor; a relative rookie that debuted roughly a year ago. It’s just-caught and from local waters, possibly lake Kallsjön, and the generous piece – cut across the back, skin-on and with the stubborn bones remaining solely as a faint echo of kokumi – is served with a medallion of the iconic, acidic Fäviken-butter, flavored with the fermented waste of “last year’s perch”: a garum. It’s a potent explosive that melts slowly into a well-tempered, herbal fish bouillon, releasing complex and compelling aromas. Yes, this is a quintessential Magnus Nilsson dish; it clearly references bygone days – and the place itself. If you create history, it merits reflection. That moment has certainly come.
      The closure of Fäviken Magasinet marks the end of an era in Swedish gastronomy. Many fear it’s the end of Sweden as a gastronomic destination. It doesn’t need to be that dire of course, though we’ll certainly see fewer influential gourmets on our turf. Stockholm will suffer most. Frantzén might possibly have enough magnetic pull to fill its 23 seats, but most of the capital’s top restaurants will be impacted by a decline of in-transit epicures, stopping in Stockholm on their way to Östersund, looking for an interesting bite to eat.
      Magnus Nilsson put Swedish culinary arts on the general gastro-radar, and his importance cannot be exaggerated. The Danes had effectively kidnapped the New Nordic Cuisine, yet suddenly, there was a powerful counterbalance to their shenanigans, it was an historic instant of “stealing the show”. While they could gambol through their verdant flora and rifle the great Danish biodiversity, it wasn’t quite as simple to forage in barren, northern terrains such as Jämtland. Here you were forced to create masterpieces out of virtually nothing – aided by old tricks that stretched a five-month season into a whole year. At Fäviken, a former dairy school, the traditional model of circular domestic subsistence was recreated; everything used and re-used, nothing wasted, a strategy for survival in a time and place where resources were scarce and the climate unforgiving. Increasingly, we’re realizing that this is also a survival tactic in a world where natural resources are becoming scant and the climate is going out of control. Obviously there’s something to be had from last year’s fish, the ancient Romans discovered that long ago.
      In no time, savvy gastromads were flocking to Fäviken, partly because it’s complicated to get here. The journey itself became an adventure; convoluted flight- and train connections and a long drive through nowhere on consistently lousy roads, with looming shadows of lurking elks, ready to wander out of the woods, in full-on suicide mode, into oncoming traffic. Then, over a hill and beyond a bend: Fäviken, a surreal cluster of clapboard structures, some yokel-rustic, others with impossibly intricate ornamentation and luxe vibes, as if this might be Vladimir Putin’s own dacha. Wow! Disney couldn’t have done it better.

Clap, clap! Silence…we’re rolling!
       Now it’s time for a gratin of lupines, that invasive plant, the low-rent tinsel of outhouses and railroad tracks that grows where nothing else wants to take root. Like other legumes the lupine has a pea-like seed, loaded with nutrition; protein, fiber, vitamins and unsaturated fat. Quite frequently it has an off-putting bitterness and its most wrathful varieties are toxic. This is not the case with Magnus Nilsson’s gratin. Flavorwise it’s quite benign – a silky, tofu-like bean custard, showered with lightly pickled bits of lupine stems and dried flowers. It’s deceptively humble, yet points to the future. We must find adequate new sources of nutrition, especially proteins, and preferably where we least expect them.
      Time and again, Magnus Nilsson has demonstrated how much nature gives us and how little of it we use; this is one of his most important contributions to gastronomy. He’s cooked with lupines countless times throughout the years, and back in October he served a feast of cardoons. Cardoons? Right, I was clueless too. It’s a thistle, a cousin of the artichoke, with a tubular stem, and it’s the stem we’re served, handsomely grilled on both sides. Fibrous, with a lingering bitterness, this stem is no Prince Charming, and sadly, the accompanying kiss of roasted oat sauce doesn’t do the frog-trick either. Adjusting our diets will not always be a walk in the park, but we all have to start botanizing.

Clap, Clap! A scrim of sounds shrouds the dining room. There’s an echo of worn, folky muzak in the walls, the shuffle of footsteps in the stairway and the buzz of cultured conviviality around our tables; a cacophony of astonished whoops. And of course, applauding hands. The acoustics are central part of the experience at Fäviken Magasinet.
      Pay attention! Iceland mussel with frozen lingonberries.
      These particular specimens are between 60 and 70 years old, we’re told. The mollusk native to the North Atlantic (Also known as Mahogany clam) can reach a ripe old age of 500 years – easy to figure out, all you do is count the rings on its shell. As such, it’s the animal kingdom’s most long-lived creature; both trees and mushrooms can live longer, much longer. I’m approximately the same age as the crustacean facing me and I can’t help but wonder if it might share some secret to a long and, by all means, why not, contented life. But no, mostly I recognize myself; sinewy and grumpy, there are no freebies here – the ice-cold lingonberries do little to cheer things up. It’s hardly a culinary highlight, though granted, chewing your way backwards, through the decades, has its own peculiar appeal. Didn’t that mouthful exhibit a slightly rebellious, 60s-style defiance?
      Marine biology was clearly an attractive career alternative to Magnus Nilsson whose concept of “local” seafood is very generous; it includes the Norwegian Sea, on the other side of mount Åreskutan and the coastal county of Tröndelag, 15 – 20 metric miles to the west. When it comes to terroir, he’s passionate about his immediate surroundings, but his relationship with these Norwegian waters is equally affectionate. It appears to be a requited love as these waters generate unparalleled creatures. Last October we were regaled with quasi ribeye-sized oysters – huge thanks to the warm Gulf Stream that takes a random turn past a cliff formation where these oysters thrive, explains Nilsson. A couple more degrees is all it takes to create a microclimate that enables an almost perverse growth. The beasts are served grilled and carved in their shells, medium rare. Monumental!
       The famous scallop is plucked off Hitra, Tröndelag’s biggest island, and presented warmish with its own jus “in the shell, out of the fire”; the very definition of a signature dish. It’s kicked off the seated part of the supper every night since day one, and when the army of chefs and waiters trot up the stairs, plates lined with still-smoldering juniper branches in hand, one understands why this dish has defined not only Magnus Nilsson’s cuisine, but also the entire Fäviken Magasinet experience. Extraordinarily dramatized, choreographed and flawlessly delivered, not a step in the wrong direction, every aroma just so. A first whiff reveals smoke and a soupçon of the sea, this olfactory mise en scène is as masterfully calibrated as any exclusive perfume. Is the clam a tad brawnier in honor of this eventful soirée? It’s springy to the touch and has an elastic mouth feel; all seductively assertive on the outside and tender, juicy submission under the surface, with a creamy, crème caramel sweetness. One sip of the maritime-briny, smoky liquid is all it takes to stall any dessert trolley associations.
      Naturally there’s king crab on the menu too – in its brilliant simplicity, one of Magnus Nilsson’s top compositions and my all-time favorite. Yet again a marvelous ingredient; a good chunk of shelled leg, fleshy like a baby’s arm, lightly spritzed with ättika, the local vinegar, accompanied by a generous dollop of “almost burnt cream”, a toffee, more or less. Miraculously, the crab’s delicate inherent muscular sweetness manages to punch through.
      ”Stalin’s crab,” I note.
      ”Yes, it was introduced in the Barents Sea, from the Sea of Okhotsk, nine time zones to the east,” confirms X, a seatmate and Russian colleague. “Bringing it closer to the Soviet elite in Moscow,” he clarifies.
      “And now it’s crawled around the North Cape, down the Norwegian coast,” says Y, a seatmate and Finnish colleague.
      “A Russian invasion of the good kind,” I venture, well aware that the monster-crab eats everything in its way – take no prisoners! – devastating the marine ecosystem. The crab is actually happier in its new habitat than it was in its original one, having therefore become almost twice the size as its Asian forebears. Naturally, it’s become a profitable export and a hot menu item in Asia.
      “The Japanese love it,” adds Z, a seatmate and Thai colleague.
       Yes, many colleagues from the media world are gathered here this evening; journalists, publishers and documentary filmmakers, as well as others who’ve facilitated or chronicled Fäviken Magasinet’s success story; key suppliers, regulars and soul mates from around the globe, one or two chefs as well. Danish toque Bo Bech is seated at our table, a slightly rowdy, but very entertaining character. I politely decline to inspect the tattoo on his thigh. The Brummer family, owners of the property that Fäviken sits on, has its own private table in the downstairs lounge. Each and every one of us a guest of Magnus Nilsson’s, and the festivities have only just begun. A proper party is slated for the following day; over 200 habitués, including damn near everyone who’s ever worked here, some already present, others on their way in. If this is a wake, then the corpse will dance on the table.

Clap, clap!
      Time for a lauded comeback! That’s why we’re here, after all, to relive historic moments. “Eggs in sheep shit ash” is perhaps not everybody’s idea of a beloved classic, but I remember the first season it landed on the table in its quaint little straw nest, six or seven years ago. What a sensation! Not that it was the most delectable thing I ever consumed, though the slightly rubbery quail eggs, with their sooty crusts removed, gain traction when dipped in a heady umami cream of dried brown trout with pickled marigold. Behold, this is about the lofty idea itself, of course! And the courage! The exceptionally skillful mythmaking! Preserving wild birds’ eggs in burnt sheep dung is a traditional, Icelandic method. At this time, Magnus Nilsson’s wild mop of hair had taken on Viking-like proportions, and the photo of him in the iconic wolf fur – still hanging in the stairway leading to the dining room, despite vicious assaults by moths – had waltzed briskly through the world press in conjunction with one of his book launches (He’s written four so far). The timing was impeccable, and the eggs did the trick, they moved gastronomy’s magnetic pole far, far north of Copenhagen. Sheep dung is no bullshit – it’s supercharged storytelling.
      Next up: yet more reflections about the passing of time. An aged apple, shriveled and blackened into muffled sweetness, is served with moldy milk to further illustrate the complex allure of over-the-top maturity. It’s juxtaposed with a youth-snatching of sorts from Nilsson’s dungeon of experiments: grilled endive “that never saw the light of day”. Without the corrupting influence of photosynthesis, the pale bud has developed a distinctive, virgin sweetness. It’s served with “Finnish fish eggs”, fresh Karelian sturgeon caviar that, without botox – sorry; obviously I mean borax – also displays the very bright vitality of the primeur.
      The menu’s four-legged interlude features not the now legendary “retired milk cow”, but her stand-in; old sow.  While we’re savoring the mussels, she’s paraded around our tables as a raw rack of chops, still flaunting her sensuous and fragrant fat cap.  One should never inquire about the fabrication of laws and sausage, cautioned Chancellor Bismarck––he would have said the same about the “tasty paste” that tickles the pork chop.  Heady with guts and groin, that flavor-glob makes the grizzled coquette dance like a frisky missy on the plate.

Clap, clap! It’s getting exceedingly harder to catch people’s attention. Stellar wines, not least Nilsson’s personal red darling, a 2015 Domaine de la Grange des Pères from Aniane in Languedoc, have made the guests less docile. Clap, clap, CLAP! Even Editor Q shuts his trap now, he’s got a lot of chitchat to catch up on, his flight from Copenhagen was redirected from Östersund (Snow!!! What a surprise in the mountains, in December), delaying him two hours.
      The time has come for desserts, I was about to say sweets… but there’s probably less sweetness here than in the seafood section. We work our way through kalvdans, a traditional pudding of colostrum, with meadowsweet, a slice of raw Jerusalem artichoke (Ok, that one’s sweet, very sweet) with roasted grains and a spoon of ice cream made with silage, or fermented straw. And then comes the highlight: frost with beet sugar.
      Say what?
      Frost––“we harvest it upon the first night of frost and carefully put it in the freezer.”
      Is Nilsson joking with us?  Do I see a slight twitch in his eye?  Is he asking for a bluff to be called?
      On the plate is a fluffy snowball with brown flecks of sugar beet, the same color as the crust of a standard-issue “sweet loaf”, a Swedish invention dating back to the early 20th century when years of crop failures compelled the Swedish government to campaign for cheap beet sugar instead of expensive flour, thus creating a Swedish staple.
      The flavors are faint but the poetry is mighty!  Just the concept of eating nature’s own breath – “harvested” on an early winter’s morning – is a staggeringly beautiful thought. That the ball collapses into a sludge under its own weight and the heat of our exuberant squawks brutally illustrates the fragility of beauty, in substance as well as in essence.
      The feast’s last act is customarily enjoyed downstairs, where we also tucked into the initial snacks. It’s a cavalcade of hits; the showy burning marrow pudding, a wild raspberry ice, pickled root vegetables, birch sap pie with dried reindeer meat, and the box of lozenges, a bit garish both in tint and taste – and of course the duck egg liqueur and a portion of snus, made with homegrown tobacco, matured in a used bitters barrel. I notice a few guests pilfer the natty bandannas, a trophy from the last supper. You bet I follow suit.
      The obligatory speeches are of course followed by recaps, gossip and speculations galore. There’s something rather ominously symbolic about the weird 2010s coming to a close at the same time as this restaurant. Fäviken not only defined contemporary Swedish gastronomy but also raised several pertinent questions – and additionally delivered a few answers – about the role that food plays in our lives. Now what? Surely the greatest Swedish culinary thinker since Tore Wretman (Don’t know him? Google him, he’s a big deal in modern, Swedish cooking) isn’t just going to retire at the age of 36 to grow apples, as he claims. Maybe, maybe not. No sequel has been promised, but we’re hopeful.
      So far it was perfectly magnificent.  All we can say is thank you for the music.
      Clap, clap, clap, clap, clap!

-- by Lars Peder Hedberg

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