I am standing in the shadow of a medieval Swedish castle that looks like the building lovechild of Disneyworld and the Taj Mahal. Simon Irvine—nephew of famous lost mountaineer Andrew Irvine—is pushing a handful of hot compost under my nose.
It smells, as all great compost heaps tend to do, like digestive biscuits, hay, snapped matches, and just a hint of hot neck. As Irvine kneads this handful of gently rotting grass, leaves, and old vegetables below my nostrils, his dog Ulig rubs a curly-haired flank against my bare leg. All around us, salad leaves, beans, and potatoes plants shimmer in the gentle wind like backing dancers.
"Mind the snakes," says Irvine, "and excuse our naked patches."
He is talking, of course, about the garden's unsown beds—the spots that will soon be thick with beetroot, berries, and tomatoes. Because what makes the Läckö Slott castle worth visiting (apart from the painting of 17th century Brandenburg princess Marie Eleonora, who appears to have had nipples painted in, then out again, over the past 100 years) is Hvita Hjorten, a nearby restaurant that sits on shores of Lake Vänern.
Apparently the largest lake in the European Union and the third-largest lake entirely in Europe, Lake Vänern is one of those bodies of water so enormous that it appears to bend across the horizon like the sea—or the top of a crème caramel. I stand on the edges, barefoot and wet up to my knees, longing to make like a goose and glide out into the crystal blue water. But no: there's lunch to be eaten.
It's thanks, in part, to Lake Vänern and the way it formed during the last ice age, that the soil around Hvita Hjorten is still so fertile. Well, thanks to the lake and Irvine's sweet entropy of compost, of course. It means that head chef Katrin Ljungblom can source a wide range of ingredients right here, on her very doorstep: fish, vegetables, fruit, herbs, and even the occasional rabbit or deer. The day I visit, we are treated to a lunch of wild salmon caught on the lake by Ljungblom's friend, with roasted new potatoes, leeks, and asparagus—plus carrot foam and caramelised red onion.
It is, by far, the best meal I eat in my entire four-day trip to Sweden—and not just because it involves precisely zero marzipan.
The food at Hvita Hjorten is so good, in fact, that it has earned a place in Sweden's prestigious White Guide, as well as attracting the attention of the country's royal family. As we wait for our lunch to be prepared, I wander upstairs to find two people cleaning the bedroom once slept in by Their Royal Highnesses Crown Princess Victoria and Prince Daniel of Sweden. There's a fag butt on the balcony and a picture of a bear on the walls outside. For the first time in my republican life, I'm overwhelmed with envy.
But what we wash the meal down with at Hvita Hjorten is almost as arresting as the view: parsnip beer.
"You see," explains Ljungblom, one of those women so bursting with wholesome Scandinavian beauty that she appears to be made of polished pine, "last year we had so many parsnips—mountains of parsnips that we couldn't possibly cook them all. So I said, why don't we make beer?"
Why not, indeed. Because it is perfectly possible. Parsnips are naturally full of sugar and therefore lend themselves to brewing, like milk to coffee. So Ljungblom and her colleague Stefan Söderholm approached a local microbrewery with the idea and, I imagine, 14 sackloads of freshly dug root vegetables. The final product—"Tender and True"—sounds like something from an Elvis Presley ballad but is actually named after the parsnip species itself. According to at least one seed catalogue, Tender and True parsnips have "good canker resistance," which is precisely what I look for in a pint.
The resulting beer has just five ingredients: organic parsnips, barley malt, hops, yeast, and water. It is 5.6 percent ABV and sings with that kind of savoury-sweetness that reminds you that beer can be delicious, as well as belly-swelling.
After days of cinnamon buns, black coffee, whipped cream, and dark chocolate brownies, the sheer bouncing freshness of Hvita Hjorten is like flute music after the rumble of a JCB. I lean back in my chair, flecks of spring onion studded across my teeth like pebbledash, and give thanks to our collective canker resistance.
Forget the castles and painted nipples: I'm here for the beer.