When it comes to cookbooks, I am typically willing to do whatever the writer asks of me. Order obscure ingredients online and pay more for shipping than the product? I’ve done it. Visit seven specialty and international markets to make a specific pan-Asian noodle dish? No problem. Start a dinner three days in advance to allow gels to set and flavors to meld? I am ready, willing, able.
So when I got my oven mitts on Fäviken, a new cookbook by acclaimed Swedish chef Magnus Nilsson, I looked forward with pleasure to the rigors of what I had heard was an ambitious, challenging cookbook.
Before glancing at any of the recipes, I read the long introduction by Bill Buford, author of one of my favorite culinary memoirs, Heat. He dedicates numerous paragraphs to describing the stark remoteness of Nilsson’s restaurant (also named Fäviken). According to Buford, a visit there requires employing the services of the region’s single cab driver. He tells the restaurant’s origin story, explaining how difficult it was for Nilsson to hire anyone to work at his new restaurant due to its isolated location in the northern part of snowy Sweden. Though Nilsson’s ambitious daily hunting and foraging is reverently described, I was no less confident I could cook from this book.
Next comes a foreword food writer Mattias Kroon. In it, he describes an Alice-Waters-like dedication to the local and the seasonal. To my American sensibilities, this is hardly a novel approach to cooking. I’ve become so inured to this manifesto, in fact, that I can scarcely suppress an eye roll when I hear it in restaurants—mostly because, in reality, few places actually cook according to this code. One look at a restaurant kitchen’s spice rack or the olive oil likely to be served with bread will reveal sins against the gospel of local.
But according to Kroon, and as was evident when I moved onto the recipes, Nilsson has conscribed the scope of his culinary creativity to only those foods he can coax from the miserly arctic landscape that surrounds him. His cooking must be like a haiku, where limitations and restrictions force a lean poetry into existence that couldn’t have been conjured any other way. With mere weeks as a growing season and a severely limited range of things that will grow in the first place, Nilsson must rely on a range of preservation techniques and genius twists to keep his food interesting through the long, dark winter where he lives and cooks.
That said, Nilsson’s restaurant is situated on a large piece of unspoiled wilderness where he forages and hunts regularly. He is near enough to the water that he gets daily deliveries of just-plucked-from-the-sea-bed scallops and other fish.
I, on the other hand, live on a tiny scrap of concrete in the middle of asphalt-bound Philadelphia. I have not even a window box or container garden at my disposal. In the foreword, Kroon comes out and says that the type of food made at Fäviken simply doesn’t travel. I wondered if that were the case, why anyone would go to the trouble to write a cookbook about it.
Page 25 had a somewhat reassuring headline: How To Use The Recipes. (By now, I was having considerable doubts I could even comment on a book it seemed impossible to cook from.) In this section, we learn that:
1) The recipes are vague and confusing—but it’s OK, they’re meant to be that way.
2) The instructions shouldn’t be taken literally because they are just suggestions to help the reader understand where good cooking really comes from—intuition and passion.
3) We should not even try to replicate the recipes because we are not from northern Sweden. Northern Sweden is the unlisted yet most crucial ingredient in every recipe in the book.
4) We should be inspired by the approach the recipes exemplify and actually create our own recipes from our own local ingredients.
5) “If it tastes good, it is right.” This is obviously my favorite line in the book.
Unhelpfully, this section concludes with two famous last words: “Good luck!”
Still, I was determined to find a recipe from this book I could, in spite of being warned to the contrary, actually recreate.
Some dishes looked like candidates at first glance: Beef marrow and heart with grated turnip and turnip leaves, for example. Upon closer examination of the ingredients list, what I needed was not merely a turnip, or even a local turnip, but a turnip “that has been stored in the cellar with its little yellow leaves that have started sprouting towards the end of winter.”
Even if I possessed such a turnip, I don’t think that my rowhome basement, complete with its bug graveyard and fine toxic coating of dryer lint, would be an appropriate place to store it. And even if it were, I’ve still got months to go before the end of winter and this story’s deadline looming.
I was drawn to the rackfish and sour cream recipe and could reasonably access the necessary ingredients, but I don’t have the pH testing kit I’d need to “control the pH level so that it drops quickly to below 4.46.” Even if I did, there are no instructions given regarding how to manipulate a pH level. How fast, in minutes or hours, is “quickly”? Regardless, I didn’t have the six months minimum I’d need for this preparation to “mature.”
Other impossible-to-procure ingredients include:
- The burnt-out trunk of a spruce tree
- “good, clean” moss
- 2 handfuls old autumn leaves from last year
- 1 lavender petal from last summer
After combing Fäviken cover to cover multiple times, I had to face facts. There was almost nothing in this cookbook that I could really cook. I zeroed in on a recipe for “Douglas’ Shortbread Biscuits,” which does call for homemade jam. I actually don’t make jam, but I have a jar a friend made and decided to proceed with that.
Unfortunately, though I followed the instructions to the letter, the recipe just didn’t work. Crumbly and dry, the dough was impossible to roll into the spheres depicted. I mounded them up in little craggy hills only to watch it collapse into a mound of gravel-like crumbs when I tried, as instructed, to make an indentation with my finger for the jam. Ultimately I pressed all the loose crumbs into a small baking sheet in a single, jam-dotted layer and hoped for the best.
What I decided to do next was follow Nilsson’s instructions for using his book. I could take inspiration from his dedication to making a truly local cuisine from a pretty stingy environment. Given the cold and the dark and the abbreviated growing season, he is more or less wringing blood from a stone. It makes what Alice Waters does, from her agricultural Eden of a home base in California, look easy.
If Nilsson can forge a local cuisine from so little, surely I can consciously lay off the olive oil, lemons, and avocados that often shape my home cooking–at least for this one meal.
I would like to tell you I foraged for mushrooms in the hills of nearby Kennett Square, Pa, the mushroom capital of the US, or that I donned my hunting gear and shot a deer for cauldron of venison stew. A more rugged soul might take just that inspiration from Fäviken and its chef, frequently seen in photographs swaddled in a furry pelt of something he probably recently shot and ate.
My way of interpreting the recipes was to visit a food vendor that sells only regional, environmentally friendly ingredients. I chose what appealed to me (chicken sausage, shiny red cabbage, potatoes, butter), added nothing far-flung from my pantry, and marveled at my luck. Even in December, at least in Pennsylvania, we have a feast of local ingredients at our fingertips.
Though this main course appears nowhere in the Fäviken cookbook, my dinner was more in its spirit than the shortbread cookies, which looked like a crumbly mess but tasted good. So, according to Nilsson at least, they were right after all.
Photos by Erik Olsson, courtesy of Phaidon.