Swedish chef Niklas Ekstedt is the founder of Ekstedt in Stockholm, a Michelin-starred restaurant known for cooking only on traditional Scandinavian fire pits and wood-fired ovens. This weekend, he celebrates Midsummer, an ancient Swedish festival marking the high-point of summer.
Midsummer is our biggest holiday. It's always a huge feast and it's one of the only celebrations we have with a heritage that dates back to before Christianity.
There are a lot of old traditions surrounding Midsummer, but we always spend it with friends and family. We celebrate by putting a pole into the earth. It symbolises an erect penis and the circles on the side are the testicles to represent the fertilisation of the soil. Unmarried women are supposed to pick seven flowers and put them under their pillows to dream about their future husbands.
We eat new potatoes, herring, pastries, and strawberries. Usually, you drink a lot of anything (except maybe wine)—beer, spirits, snaps. Although we use traditional ways of cooking in Ekstedt, we actually close on Midsummer's Eve so the staff can go home and eat with their families. There's no point in being open, anyway—Stockholm will be dead and everyone will be eating at home.
I like the traditions and I like to eat food cooked in traditional ways. It's a big part of my identity. I've spent several years researching Scandinavian cooking—how we used to cook and which techniques we weren't using anymore. When I was thinking about opening Ekstedt, I wanted to use some of these traditional methods. It was the peak of Scandi cooking, noma had been named the number one restaurant in the world, but I wanted to get some attention on the restaurant without being called "just another Nordic kitchen."
In Scandinavia, we used to cook using wood ovens with a hot stone to make flatbreads, as well as cast iron stoves and open flames. But food wasn't slow-cooked on embers, everything was cooked at a high temperature.
We brought all this into Ekstedt. Technically, it's hard to do and it took us months to get permission, but we've added and taken away as we've gone along. Now in the restaurant, we have a wood oven, a cast iron stove, an open fire, a juniper wood oven that has lighter temperatures, a grill, a smoker, and a cast iron pipe called a —you pour fat into it which burns and then drips through to sear the meat.
The place hasn't burnt down yet, though it's challenging to serve contemporary food using old methods. But then in the 1700s, there were loads of everyday restaurants in Stockholm that would all have been cooking this way in small spaces, so I feel like we're just bringing these things back to life. I couldn't go back to cooking normally—it would be like going back to a lake when you've been to the ocean and felt the breeze.
I would like to have more space and a restaurant out in the countryside so we could do more. In August, we'll be cooking like at Wilderness Festival, hosting one of the Long Table banquets, and cooking on grills. There's space to show how we do it off, which will be cool.
The way we make dinner at Midsummer is always the way my grandmother makes it. In our family, the tradition is that we have matjes, which is herring that's been matured in barrels but isn't fermented. It has more flavour than ordinary herring and we usually eat it with sour cream, potatoes, horseradish, dill, and salsify.
Some people mix sour cream with the herring, some people eat their herring cold, but we serve it warm, with brown butter on it, the way my grandmother made it. Everyone has their own traditions. My wife likes it my grandmother's way too, but where she is from in the north of Sweden, usually they powder the herring in flour, fry it, and then pickle it.
Then there are cakes and pastries and strawberries. And lots of drinking. We drink a lot of snaps, which is like gin, but without the juniper berries. Every family will flavour their own snaps with different spices, according to their own recipe. I add cumin to ours, but star anise and lemon peel are very popular. I like to use wild herbs to flavour spirits rather than in food.
When we first opened Ekstedt, I was looking forward to the first spring so we could start using foraged stuff like wild asparagus and wild shoots. We opened in September so the anticipation built. I remember being so disappointed—we couldn't use these products because the heat from all the fires and the pots made it impossible.
It was an awakening because I realised that there was no way people used these ingredients like that. Instead, I think they used wild herbs like we do at Midsummer to flavour spirits and brew beer.
The day after Midsummer, we always have a big, hungover breakfast to recover. Midsummer Day is a big brunch day, and then it's back to work. Midsummer is famous for being the only day of the year where you see your grandparents get drunk, so I always look forward to hearing everyone's funny stories about their drunken grandmothers.
As told to Johanna Derry.