"I don't feel like a Viking, I feel like an explorer. But maybe it's time to cut my hair."
I'm talking to Swedish chef Magnus Nilsson over a plate of toast and eggs, sipping my coffee, just waiting for a wanton lock to fall into his egg yolk. It doesn't.
Nilsson is head chef at Fäviken, a red, wooden-slatted restaurant that shivers in the middle of 20,000 acres of pristine Swedish farmland like a pine tree, 500 miles north of Stockholm. Somehow, between running one of the world's best restaurants, foraging for hyperlocal ingredients, and raising a family, Nilsson has produced a book, The Nordic Cookbook, that is, itself, a sort of foraged feast—gathering together recipes, people, photographs, ingredients, and techniques from all over this salted, moss-covered, heavenly lit region.
"The whole point of the book is to put Nordic food culture into context," explains Nilsson, breaking open a golden yellow egg. "Most of the recipes are quite accessible."
I take it we're not talking about the blood pancakes with reindeer fat or boiled seal intestines with blubber and crowberries, here?
"I did a count and there are about 50 recipes in the book that are going to be very hard to reproduce," says Nilsson, totally deadpan. "But they still need to be in there to give context and explain the cultural phenomena. There are 680 left that don't contain reindeer or puffin or anything like that."
Is there much meat on a puffin, I wonder? Does it taste nice?
"It does," Nilsson replies. "But what's strange about those sea birds is that they taste a little bit like fish. Like herring or mackerel."
To research the book, Nilsson spent three years traversing the seas and mountains of Finland, Norway, Denmark, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland, and, of course, his native Sweden.
"The Nordic region is so geographically vast," he explains. "If you look at the food culture specifically, what differs is that most of the foods and dishes are made by people in their houses; not in restaurants. If you go into a restaurant in Madrid there's a pretty good chance you'll find a traditional Spanish everyday meal. But if you go into a restaurant in Stockholm you're not going to find the Swedish everyday meal. That's why it can seem quite inaccessible—you have to know people and be invited into their home."
I cannot think of any greater pleasure than rummaging through the cupboards and recipe books of friendly strangers. Did he discover any unexpected ingredients?
"One ingredient that I had no idea existed is in Iceland," says Nilsson, staring across the table like a salt-blasted adventurer of the last century. "It's their version of the Century Egg—they put them in crates, cover them in ashes from their own fire and it cures the egg. It was very strong, very sulphury. But it's only practiced by, like, 400 people in this one part of Iceland."
The secret of discovery, explains Nilsson, is to simply hang around and be curious.
"I went to the Faroe Islands 12 times. It's fascinating when that initial excitement dies down and you can start to notice the nuance of things," he says. "I always book in extra time during the trip, as that's always when things happen—you run into someone, start talking, and all of a sudden you're in their house having boar sausage. Then the next day, someone takes you out to collect eggs on the clifftops. If you allow yourself to be open to that, then it happens."
Being open to new experiences is one of the defining characteristics of Nilsson's career. He initially came to Fäviken as a sommelier after taking a break from cooking to become a wine writer. Although, judging by his childhood memories, food was never terribly far away.
"One of my earliest memories is slicing cucumbers on my grandmother's farm with a butter knife. I don't know exactly how old I was but probably three or four," explains Nilsson, perfectly puncturing a cherry tomato with his fork. "None of my family work in the food industry: my father is a physiotherapist and my mother buys and renovates Scandinavian-designed furniture. But we'd go picking blueberries in autumn and all that."
What, I wondered, would a chef, forager, writer, and father like Nilsson take as his five desert island ingredients? Just five foodstuffs on which to survive until the rescue ship rowed over the horizon?
"Salt, potatoes, a big bag of broccoli seeds, vinegar, and a sack of grains," answers Nilsson after some discussion. It's going to be quite a vegetarian island, by all accounts? "That's fine. As long as I've got broccoli, I'd be fine."
Although, as Nilsson explains, broccoli isn't the only place to get your five-a-day in those northern climes.
"You can actually get vitamin C from eating seal blubber. I don't know why, but it's there," he explains. "I had an expert from each region come in and help me out. The woman from Greenland was half Inuit, half Danish. She told me that when she was little, everything was made of seal: the windows were made of dried and stretched sealskin, the soapstone was oiled with seal blubber, and they ate seal meat."
The romance of Nordic food—the beaches and berries, the soaring cliffs, and bleach-timbered homes—is captured perfectly by both Nilsson's prose and Erik Olsson's photography. What, I ask, was the first dish he cooked for this wife? Did he seduce her with salmon? Beguile her with blubber?
"We've known each other for a very long time," says Nilsson, tipping his head back as though trying to trickle the memory down behind his eyes. "I was 18. But then she dumped me and moved to London. We met at a Midsummer Night's Eve party. So the first thing I cooked her was probably herring, or gravlax—those smorgasbord classics."
These days, Nilsson is better known for signature dishes like scallops cooked over burning juniper branches or an entire roasted reindeer bone, carried into Fäviken's small dining room, sawed in half with the marrow scooped out there and then.
"We actually stopped doing the reindeer bone two years ago," explains Nilsson. "I really liked the dish; I still do. But it became a problem because it was so fixed on the menu. We couldn't do other things because of it."
It became an albatross around his neck, I venture?
"Yes, exactly, although it might come back soon," he replies. Don't worry—he has plenty of other exciting ideas on the horizon.
"In Italy they have panettone, which traditionally they leavened with sourdough that's made from cow shit," says Nilsson, his eyes twinkling. "They take the bacteria from cow shit and use it to make sourdough. It's refined many many times so it's just sourdough in the end, but the origins are interesting. We're working on a similar recipe now that uses sileage with that sourdough."
Sileage sourdough, foraged berries, shaved reindeer steak, and eggs plucked from the side of wind-blown cliffs: Nilsson's cooking life is, if nothing else, adventurous. But then, as they say in Sweden, "Det kommer inga stekta sparvar flygande i din mun" or "No cooked sparrow will fly into your mouth, sometimes you just have to make the bloody effort."