Swedish-Japanese fusion food and locally produced wine: The city’s foodies are highly creative, and like the city itself, very ecofriendly, too
His diesel motor beats a sedate two-four time as Lasse Englund steers his boat carefully between the rocky islands protruding from the waves like whale backs. Ball-sized buoys bob on the water, marking where the fisherman has set his traps with mackerel inside as bait. We’re in luck: One of the first he hauls up from a depth of 25 meters contains a glossy, black primeval creature: eight legs, eyes on stalks, antenna-like feelers – a European lobster. “Watch out for the claws,” warns Englund. With its crusher claw, the lobster can crack shells, while the narrower claw is sharply serrated for cutting. “Your fingers don’t want to make the acquaintance of these tools.
Forty traps is the maximum number a lobsterman is allowed to put out, and the lobster season only goes from the end of September to November, the aim being to ensure that stocks on the west coast of Sweden are not overfished and that lobsters will continue to find their way into future generations’ traps. As a lobsterman, that’s a matter of course for Englund – but also because sustainability and environmental protection are writ large in Gothenburg. The city occupies the top spot on the Global Destination Sustainability Index (which compares over 50 tourism and conference cities) – chiefly because many of Gothenburg’s restaurants prioritize local ingredients. And with skerries teeming with shellfish on the city’s doorstep, there’s no need for anyone to forgo seafood.
It’s been a quarter of a century since Lasse Englund made his home on the island of Hönö. He gave up his job teaching informatics for love, he says, and bought himself the boat that, like him, is now 61 years old. Every day, he takes visitors out into the archipelago on fishing trips or lobster safaris organized by the agency Kastor Boat Trips. “It’s paradise,” says Englund, “the constant breeze, the sea full of fish – and whenever you need the city, you’ve got Gothenburg on your doorstep.”
There was once plenty of work to be had in the many shipyards here in Sweden’s second-largest city, but the docks have long lain deserted. Only the long-armed cranes resembling giant crustaceans still gleam red in the morning light. So people in Gothenburg have found a new outlet for their industry and creativity and now demonstrate in hotels and restaurants that enjoying food and preserving the environment are not mutually exclusive.
In Hönö harbor, Englund unloads his tourists along with his catch at the Tullhuset Restaurang, a small wooden cabin with panoramic windows and a terrace overlooking the sea. Tullhuset proprietor Preben Pedersen, 50, uses the simplest method to cook lobster: immersion in boiling water, which turns the shell bright red. Ten minutes is the longest even a large lobster should stay in the pot to keep the flesh firm. Once it’s cooked, Pedersen cuts the lobster open lengthwise and serves it with lemon and homemade mayonnaise. “Practically every seafood restaurant on the west coast has its own fish soup,” he says. At the Tullhuset, it has a strong, creamy flavor with a hint of saffron, he says, “and we haven’t changed it in 17 years. But now we’ve decided to replace the Norwegian farmed salmon that usually goes into it with wild char because we want to be local and ecofriendly. That’s why we wouldn’t dream of serving Mediterranean fish.” The vegetables, 40 percent of them at least, are also locally sourced, “but we want increase that to 90 percent.” That’s why the Tullhuset has joined a network set up by a regional tourism association that brings cooks and farmers together to promote regional sourcing and sustainability.
This is evidently the spirit that inhabits Gothenburg. The Garverlet is a hot spot of new cuisine located in a former tannery in the village of Floda, 30 kilometers east of the city. Guests here can learn how to ferment vegetables themselves or go foraging for edible plants, accompanied by a guide. At the counter of what looks like a temporary hall with its bare, concrete walls, the owners explain to guests how to substitute native ingredients for those from southern climes – by using quinces and hawthorn berries instead of lemons and limes, for instance – and most importantly, how to run a zero-waste restaurant. Nothing is thrown away at the Garverlet, neither during food preparation nor in dealing with leftovers. The organic bakery Cum Pane in the center of Gothenburg works to a similar concept: Here, the shelves are lined with hearty sourdough loaves baked with the addition of ancient cereals, such as regionally grown organic spelt and emmer wheat, which have a more pronounced flavor than new varieties.
This past October, the European Commission pronounced Gothenburg the “European Capital of Smart Tourism 2020.” The competition recognizes cities in the European Union “for their outstanding, innovative and sustainable tourism practices.” On the strength of its accessibility, digitalization, creativity, sustainability and cultural heritage, Gothenburg won the title over rivals such as Nice, Ravenna, Turin and Bratislava.
Visitors can discover the city’s various approaches to protecting the environment already at breakfast. The Comfort Hotel, for example, explicitly requests guests not to pile more onto their plate than they can eat – something that really should be obvious, but we’ve all seen it done before. The hotel also promises to pass on to second-hand shops any clothes guests deposit for the purpose in their room. And the Michelin-starred Upper House restaurant in the futuristic Gothia Towers (one of Europe’s biggest hotels boasting 1200 rooms) not only has a kitchen garden on top of a flat roof, but also recycles 94 percent of its waste. Squeals of delight can occasionally be heard inside the hotel – they come from the rollercoaster at the Liseberg amusement park across the way, which like the hotel, runs exclusively on wind power.
The Swedish for “sustainability” is “hållbarhet” meaning “durability.” – “We want the world to stay as it is,” says Sofia Olsson, 37, head chef at the Vrå restaurant (the name means “nook” or “hiding place”). “As a kid, I used to spend the summers with my grandmother north of Gothenburg. I used to catch pike and perch, and pick berries, and we were always busy in the garden and the kitchen, and planning what we would cook next,” Olsson recalls. “That’s why I want to preserve the experience of nature and the seasons, of creative cooking and the sense of belonging that sharing a meal can evoke.” At the Vrå, she combines Japanese and Swedish cuisine, incorporating as many regional ingredients as possible. “We only use produce if we know exactly how it was produced and that no unnecessary transportation was involved en route to us.” She substitutes tart Gravensteiner apples for ginger and horseradish for wasabi, and serves mackerel cured in elderflower vinegar and kelp as sashimi. Her steamed cod is traditionally Swedish but comes with a miso sauce.
In recent years, Pacific oysters have become more widespread on the west coast of Sweden. “They were regarded as more of a pest than a resource,” says Olsson, “but I began to wonder why we didn’t use them.” She persisted with the idea until she found a small diving firm that now brings up the invasive species from the seabed. “We set a trend with the oysters, and now other restaurants also include them on their menu.” She regards herself as a role model, says Olsson self-confidently – also from a social perspective. “People need jobs in which they are valued and feel secure.” She has seven women and only one man working in the kitchen at the Vrå. That’s unusual for a top restaurant, but word has gotten around that the boss, a mother herself, is happy to offer part-time work and flexible hours.
Kastor Boat Trips
Cum Pane Bakery
Upper House Restaurant/ Gothia Towers
Lobster, oysters, cod – they all go well with a good Riesling, says Kenneth Gustafsson. “Gothenburg has a long tradition of producing goods: cars, ball bearing, ships – and now wine, as well.” Gustafsson, who was raised in Gothenburg, played professional soccer in his teens and moved first to Malmö, where he played alongside Zlatan Ibrahimović, and later to Iceland, Norway and Finland. “As a professional soccer player, you often find yourself with time on your hands,” he says. “That’s why I started importing wines from overseas.” On a trip to Oregon in the U.S., he came across an urban winery, and that gave him the idea of producing wine himself – in Sweden. Now the 37-year-old has opened Gothenburg’s first winery in the city’s slaughterhouse district. His company, Wine Mechanics, imports 50 tons of grapes a year from France, Italy, Hungary and above all Germany. His cellar master learned his trade in New Zealand and now turns the grapes grown by the Fußer brothers in Niederkirchen into an acidic wine reminiscent of fresh green apples that goes perfectly with the oysters from the tiny coastal town of Grebbestad that Gustafsson serves to his guests at the bar. But is his business sustainable, too? “If we want to drink wine in Sweden, we have to import it. But transporting grapes is easier on the environment than transporting individual bottles.” And because wine from Gothenburg is a new departure, Wine Mechanics completely disregards convention and fills its Riesling into bulbous Burgundy bottles, rather than the typical tall, slender flute. And there we probably have Gothenburg’s secret: Instead of clinging to old customs, it prefers to concentrate on creating new ones.