Foraging, wild cooking and getting back to nature in Sweden’s Skåne County

  • Wed,12 Jun 2019 09:33:01 AM

Michelin star chef Titti Qvarnström yanks a long, thick pink-green stalk from the ground. “Japanese knotweed,” she says, adding it to a growing basket of nettles, dandelions and meadowsweet.

“You can eat this?!” I’m in genuine disbelief. I know knotweed to be that horribly invasive species causing damage to gardens and houses, that people pay a lot to get as far away from as possible. It turns out you could just pick it, stew it down and turn it into a crumble.

We’re foraging for ingredients to cook dinner over a fire in the forest of Ormanäs, Skåne County, searching for the jagged leaves of ground elder, the freshest-looking dandelions, bright flowers of yellow archangels, liquorice-heavy chervil and wonderfully garlicky ramson, amongst many other delectable herbs I would ordinarily have trampled over.

Most people are “absolutely unaware” that there are so many edible things in the forest, says Titti, who forages once a week.

Touted as ‘Sweden’s larder’, Skåne’s location at the southern tip of the country (much closer to Copenhagen than Stockholm) means there’s an abundance of produce in this county which you won’t find further north. And foraging and wild cooking, I’m discovering, is one of the best ways to sample it all.

The Edible Country project – a nationwide sustainability initiative dubbed a ‘100-million acre DIY outdoor restaurant’ – is encouraging just that. Seven tables have been set up in wild environments across the country, with additional locations opening throughout summer.

Each table hosts 12 guests, and – depending on the location – free bookings can be made up until the end of October. You can choose to turn up and make your own preparations, or pre-book a chef, guide, forager and cooking equipment at a cost. After being open just a few weeks, it’s already proven to be popular and the Stockholm table has sold out.

Sustainability is now at the core of Sweden’s modern kitchen, a reflection of the Scandi nation’s progressive attitude towards human use of natural resources. From a country that gave us teenage green activist Greta Thunberg, it’s hardly surprising and represents a remarkable departure from our western dependency on an additive-packed, processed way of life.

As we emerge from the woodland into a clearing, there’s a pine table beautifully decorated with tealights, coloured glasses, napkins and blankets for some hygge-esque cosiness.

Wooden work benches are arranged next to outdoor cooking stoves, and it’s here a group of us will put the three baskets full of foraged herbs to good use by making dinner. We’ll whip something up – Masterchef Invention Test-style – with Titti and Camilla Jönsson, of adventure company Robusta Äventyr and an Edible Country guide, on hand for advice.

Thankfully, we’ve been provided with some additional ingredients – all locally sourced from not far away, of course; potatoes, root veg, and a huge pile of perch. “It was caught this morning,” confirms fisherman Håkan Björk, who shows me how to fillet the fish before I mash as much wild ramson as I can find into buttery potato and parsnips.

My fellow travellers, it turns out, are pretty accomplished cooks. The yellow arch angel and beech leaves are thrown into a frittata; a celeriac and onion soup is whipped up with nettles and dandelion bulbs; perch is fried in butter and ramson stalks over an open fire (the woodsmoke really adds flavour); and finally, Japanese knotweed is stewed with sugar and topped with a buttery, oaty crumble.

Sitting down to tuck into our forest feast is all the more atmospheric in the wild. Local wine and craft beer is passed around, before the sun dips between the beech tree branches.

If making it up as you go along isn’t your cooking style, a nine-course seasonal menu and accompanying recipes have been co-designed by Titti and fellow Michelin-starred chefs Niklas Ekstedt, Jacob Holmström and Anton Bjuhr. They are available for free online.

Embracing the natural foods available to us, what’s grown locally and knowing where meat comes from, is becoming increasingly important, says Titti. “We’re in uncertain times and need to re-evaluate our lifestyles. Seasonality is important; there’s no point getting asparagus flown in from Peru.

“We forget the struggles of past generations to get meat to the table. Now we can’t always connect the piece of meat we buy in the supermarket to the animal,” she says. “Using the whole [animal] is important, and so is treating food with respect – whether it’s meat or plant based. A big problem in Sweden is that food is cheap and too easy to throw away.” It’s an issue the UK can’t ignore, either.

Artisan food producers have cottoned onto the trend. Wander through the indoor food market of Saluhallen in Malmö, Skåne’s capital and it’s plainly obvious. Sweden’s third largest city is fast becoming a foodie hub and an excellent spot for ‘fika’ (a Swedish tradition of a coffee and cake break).

One Malmö-based chef who’s tackling the problem of food waste head-on, is Erik Andersson. His restaurant, Spill, which opened last year, specialises in dishes made with food that otherwise would be thrown away.

He collects produce that’s either out of date or doesn’t “look nice enough” from restaurant suppliers at a discounted rate. “I can’t take it all; there’s too much,” he says.

Using smell and taste, he says he can intrinsically tell if food is still safe to serve his customers. “The use-by dates are extra cautious, and often food can still be eaten one or two weeks after.”

Spill’s menu (restaurangspill.se) of just a few dishes changes daily, depending on what’s going spare. On my visit, I tuck into pork shoulder, carrot, rhubarb, beetroot baked with rosemary and grilled sweetheart cabbage – with 95% sourced from food wastage. Erik’s eatery is zero waste itself too; any leftovers are packaged into a lunchbox and sold for half the price the following day.

This attitude to sustainability and a more ecological way of life is building in Sweden. It all goes hand-in-hand with appreciating the landscape and getting back to nature. For a mindful trip into Skåne outdoors, I join Felicia Eckersten, from activity company Force of Nature forceofnature.nu, for a walk and meditation in a forest near Höör, a 40-minute drive inland from Malmö.

“Forests more than 70 years old or more have a greater effect,” Felicia says, citing a study done on the Japanese phenomenon shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing. “A combination of forest and lakes make your blood pressure go down the most.”

Preparing for our meditation, we discuss what we want from the experience and check into how we’re feeling. We walk extremely slowly – a practice known as mindful walking.

Switching out of autopilot, I consider every step and focus on small details around me. Later, lying on the forest floor with Felicia’s soothing voice leading a meditation, the rain droplets on the tree tops above make me feel more at one with nature than I’ve been for a while.

I have to admit, whether it’s appreciating nature or eating natural, sustainable food, the Swedes are definitely onto something.

Travel facts

A seat at an Edible Country table is free through bookatable.co.uk. There are different packages you can add (robustaaventyr.se). The Base Experience, which includes foraging, an outdoor kitchen and ingredients, and a laid table, costs 300 SEK (£24.70)pp.

Force of Nature (forceofnature.nu) forest bathing costs 400 SEK (£33)pp.

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