At some point when driving up to restaurant Hävvi i Glen in Jämtland, northern Sweden, you might wonder if you took a wrong turn somewhere. To get there, you have to drive about 49 miles from Åsarna (population: 268), on to a blind alley road that seems to lead nowhere. The road, wrapped by pine forests, crawls up the fell landscape with its snow-clad mountain backdrop. You're getting hungrier, hoping you're not lost. Eventually, you see the restaurant sign, and there it is. Reindeer are standing on the slope behind the restaurant, and near them, a barrel-shaped sauna and a tipi.
Hävvi i Glen is situated in the small village of Glen, in Oviksfjällen. Glen is a Sami village, one of 51 Sami villages in Sweden. Elaine Asp and her husband Thomas Johansson have been running the restaurant since 2009. They serve traditional Sami fare, fusing traditional Sami flavours with modern creativity.
The Sami people are the indigenous people of Scandinavia, living in Sápmi (commonly known as Lapland in English) in the very north of Europe, which stretches across the northern parts of Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Russia's Kola Peninsula. The Sami way of life is lived close to nature, and their most well-known means of livelihood is semi-nomadic reindeer herding.
"Sami food culture is quite simple," Elaine says. "It's based on the obvious reindeer, and moose, mountain fish, mushrooms, berries, and herbs, and we cook over open fire, boil, grill, fry, or salt and dry. All parts of the animals are used—guts and blood, skin, bones, roe, all of the meat. To take care of the whole animal is perhaps something the Swede has recently taken back from the old farming society, but it's something that's always been done within the Sami culinary tradition."
A lot of herbs go into Sami cooking, Elaine tells me. "Angelica, mountain sorrel, and tolta [Alpine sow-thistle]. Angelica is probably the most important herb—it gives you all the vitamin C you need. I use it in starters and main courses as well as desserts."
Her husband Thomas is a reindeer herder, and the restaurant serves plenty of reindeer dishes, mountain fish, and dishes with berries, mushrooms, and plants foraged from the surrounding area.
Elaine develops the dishes at the restaurant drawing from her childhood experiences and what she learned during her time as a cook. "I like to taste things and it's a constant process," she says. "I think about different plates and combinations, and I try until usually succeeding on the first attempt."
Dishes from the menu at Hävvi i Glen include reindeer blood pancakes with sauce made of suovas (salted and smoked reindeer meat) served with a compote of delicate birch shoots, cloudberries, and lingonberries.
There's mountain char with salted fish eggs, sea buckthorn and angelica cream, Jerusalem artichoke and grated bottarga.
There's fresh scallops with truffle, souvas chips, browned butter, fried kale, and lingonberries.
There's smoked reindeer heart with buttered beets and blueberry Bordelaise sauce, topped with—wait for it—crispy deep-fried moose muzzle.
If you're not ready for deep-fried moose muzzle, there's also juicy moose burgers with home-made brioche bread on the menu, suovas on sourdough, reindeer pizza, and trollkorv—i.e., "troll sausage"—a special smoked Sami sausage made of reindeer meat, served with slow baked celeriac, chanterelles, and crispy bacon. The offerings are extensive and you can choose a full tasting menu with wine or a simple lunch.
"I think and sleep food" Elaine says, "I live food and always try to use the traditional Sami flavors, but in a modern way—to make modern dishes that fit into our present, but always with respect for the traditional Sami methods. The combination of the traditional and the new shows me the way forward."
Elaine harboured an interest in food early on, mostly thanks to her grandmother, with whom she grew up.
"Grandma lived high up on a mountain, and there was no electricity, no roads, no running water apart from a cold water spring. It was two-and-a-half kilometres to the nearest neighbour, and we had an earth cellar where we kept food. I learned to fish, we picked berries and mushrooms, and used what we could when in season."
Living off what nature could provide, they conserved foods to store in the earth cellar to enjoy for the rest of the year. Elaine knew she wanted to be a chef since she was about four years old, and went on to spend years working in restaurant kitchens. But in her professional life, she never found the sort of cooking that she had grown up with.
"After ten, 15 years," she says, "I gave up my job as a chef because I didn't find what I had grown up with and what to me was real cooking: genuine, delicious, and cooked from scratch, using produce that I had foraged, hunted, or fished myself."
Elaine and her husband Thomas met 12 years ago at a Jämthund dog show. They didn't know each other at the time but it turned out they lived in the same district by the same mountain. Soon after, they fell in love and had a baby. A few years and another baby later, they got the idea to start a restaurant offering Sami cuisine in a new way, where they would use the produce the fells had to offer, and also show visitors their culture and way of life. For visitors who want to know more about the Sami year, the restaurant offers packages that, among other experiences, lets visitors come along to see how reindeer herding works day to day.
The Sami year begins in May, which is the big month for calving. The females return from the forests and go back up the mountains. "We have major problems during calving," Elaine says, "mainly with bears but also other predators. In early July, we gather our reindeer to our summer grounds, where we mark the calves at night. It's cooler there, with fewer insects. Our Sami village has about 5,500 reindeer and about 3,000 calves are born each year. Of these 3,000 calves, 33 percent are taken by predators by September."
Then the reindeer graze freely. They gather the reindeer in September to be brought in for slaughter—mainly large bulls are slaughtered before rutting.
During October the reindeer are gathered again into pastures for slaughter. In November, the reindeer are herded for winter, down into the forests where it is easier to find food.
The Sami village is divided into smaller groups, and each family looks after their reindeer.
Predators are a serious problem. "In the forest we mainly have problems with wolves, lynxes, and wolverines," says Elaine. "We let our reindeer graze in the forest until April, when we move up to the mountains again."
What does the reindeer mean to Hävvi? "The reindeer means everything to Hävvi," says Elaine. "Without it, we wouldn't exist. We always follow the reindeer wherever it decides to go. Sometimes we have to change our plans last-minute to adapt. Reindeer herding is the basis of the entire Sami society and obviously for us, too—so we respect and hold the reindeer in very high esteem."
All that respect and hard work comes through in the Elaine's food. The dishes are both comforting and surprising, full of fresh flavours, rich textures, and unusual combinations. And that reindeer meat is both seriously delicious and sustainable. If for some reason you ever find yourself driving around the mountains of Jämtland, Sweden, make sure to stop by.
And fellow middle-of-nowhere Jämtland restaurateur Magnus Nilsson is a fan, so, duh, you know it's gonna be good.