Magnus Nilsson Talks Quebec Sugar Shacks, Seal Hunting, and Pineapple Pizza
Photos by Alison Slattery.

Magnus Nilsson Talks Quebec Sugar Shacks, Seal Hunting, and Pineapple Pizza

We bombarded the Swedish chef with pork, beans, eggs, and lots of maple syrup.
March 24, 2017, 5:00pm

Ask any Quebecer if they've ever had bruna bönor i sirapssås and they will probably respond with a look of confusion and a hard "Non."

But the truth is they have had bruna bönor i sirapssås—they just didn't know it.

The ancient Swedish dish, made of baked brown beans and served with fried salted pork and boiled potatoes, is almost identical in preparation and presentation to the Québécois staple fèves au lard, with the exception that it is sweetened with sugar beet syrup, instead of the maple syrup indigenous to Quebec.

"Let me find a picture of it," Magnus Nilsson says, shuffling through the index of his monumental Nordic Cookbook to find a picture. "Sweet-and-sour brown beans… Page 141…" he mutters to himself.

Page 141 contains a fairly detailed recipe, but no picture. Unfazed, Magnus whips out his phone, eager to show us the resemblance between the two. He's right—they are indistinguishable.

"I don't know much about Québécois or Canadian food, but because the climates are so similar, I'm sure there is going to be plenty of similarities," he says. "But it's interesting that it's the brown bean, which is not very common in the rest of Europe. It's very much Swedish and Finnish, it ripens late in the season in northern climates."

He adds, "I think there are a probably lot of similarities between at least Scandinavia—if not the whole Nordic region—and Canada; the need to harvest energy in the summer or when it's plenty, and keeping it for the winter."

In other words, the brutality of cold climates cuts across continents and blurs ethnic and national lines. "I was in Bhutan, in the Himalayas, which is thoroughly an Asian country in every way, but they drink milk. It's the harsher climate—it shapes culture."

Having educated so many in the English- and French-speaking world (The Nordic Cookbook, released in 2015, hasn't even been published in his native Swedish yet) about Nordic cuisine, we decided to return the favour and bombard Magnus with cabane à sucre food.

To that end, we recruited Antonin Mousseau-Rivard, chef-owner of Le Mousso, to construct a menu consisting entirely of his take on sugar shack staples: maple-syrup-glazed ham hocks, oreilles de crisse (deep fried cracklings), fèves au lard, a soufflé of eggs, pickles, boiled potatoes, and cretons.

Every Spring, as maple water begins to engorge maple trees, thousands of Quebecers don their finest plaid shirts and descend upon sugar shacks en masse to consume the closest thing we have to the survival food eaten by settlers and coureurs des bois of bygone centuries. However, unlike the 700 or so recipes in The Nordic Cookbook, these traditional dishes are more of an exercise in nostalgia than an accurate reflection of the modern Québécois diet.

"Here, unfortunately, our traditions are a bit lost," Mousseau-Rivard explains to Magnus. "We're a younger country and our ways are different, also. This is the most traditional food that we still eat, but we only eat it once a year because it's made with maple syrup. When the commercialization of food happened, people stopped caring about doing stuff like this. They were buying stuff and having less time."

Antonin Mousseau-Rivard.

It's Magnus's first time in Quebec and he is thoroughly impressed with the quality of the biodynamic maple syrup that Antonin brought for him. "It's super good. It's super delicate and super complex."

"The climate here is very similar to what we have in Northern Sweden. But regardless of where you are in the world, you can always take things away from reading a cookbook that's about a specific food culture, regardless of whether it's Thai, Nordic, or French. There's nothing that tells you more about culture than what people actually eat somewhere."

But brown beans and cold weather are not the only thing that Canadian provinces and Nordic countries have in common. A significant chunk of the cookbook documents whale hunting in the Faroe Islands and explains the importance of seal hunting for the Inuit of Greenland.

Magnus tastes Quebec maple syrup for the first time.

Magnus, like many Canadian chefs, has no real problem with the consumption of whale and seal meats by indigenous communities, often vilified by animal rights groups and some American chefs.

"For me, it was important to not impose my opinions very much in the content of the book; I just report what was there. But if you look at it in a bigger perspective, there's been a lot of criticism toward the indigenous populations of the world continuing to hunt for sustenance, whilst that perhaps is not really the problem."

For him, the real problem is what "the rest of us" have done.

"You can question the ethical side of it—whether it's humane or not—but that's a different discussion. But purely from an environmental standpoint, that kind of hunting makes no big difference. They weren't the people who turned 90 percent of the world's large whales into few. That was the rest of us, basically. There are pictures in the book of whale hunting in the Faroe Islands which are very graphic. It's very easy to use as an argument in a bigger discussion about the environment. It's very convenient."

And speaking of controversy, I asked Magnus to give his take on Icelandic President Guðni Th. Jóhannesson (jokingly) suggesting that if he could, he would use legislative powers to ban pineapple pizza—the favourite staff meal at Fäviken.

"He can never come to Fäviken now," he laughs. "Pineapple pizza is delicious and anyone who says it's not delicious either has poor taste or is lying because of cultural reasons. The ridiculous thing is when you try to decide what people are going to eat, because you can't. People eat what makes sense. Trying to decide what's good and bad is stupid.

"You can have the world's shittiest pizza and it's never going to be good. Or, you can have an amazing crust with really good toppings—like a perfectly matured pineapple that's been handled nicely—and it's going to be delicious. Everything can be done well and everything can be done poorly."

This supposed tension between high-brow and low-brow food is a falsehood, according to Magnus. "It's just a cultural construction, it doesn't exist. Anything can be made well and anything can be made poorly, it doesn't matter on what level it's perceived. And I think that is being proven over and over again. It's just a shallow way of seeing it."

Googling Swedish beans.

For a chef with such a fleshed-out philosophy, remote restaurant, and diligent approach to documenting food culture, he is surprisingly open-minded about the strangeness of eating and cooking in a time when chefs are deified and pineapple pizza is politicized.

"I have no guilty pleasures, I only have pleasures," he concludes. "We cook based on our cultural origins and we cook depending on what produce is available and what other people around us cook.

"People cook what makes sense."