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Chefs in Sweden’s Malmo make exquisite dishes out of what’s locally available

Canals and centuries-old architecture delineate the center of Malmo, a southern Swedish port city with a progressive restautant scene.

LIZA WEISSTUCH/THE WASHINGTON POST

By LIZA WEISSTUCH | Special to The Washington Post | Published: February 13, 2020

Most days, chefs around the world call their distributors to order food items for the days ahead. They might order seasonal produce, or a standby ingredient for a signature dish. Not so for Erik Andersson Mohlin. He’s at the whim of his distributors. Regular menu items are as relevant to the chef-owner of Spill as a vintage Burgundy is to a fast-food joint. You see, every dish on the nightly menu is made with ingredients that were destined for the rubbish bin, often because they’re bruised or slightly overripe. But here in Malmo, a port city in Skane, Sweden’s southernmost province, one distributor’s trash is a visionary chef’s treasure.

On a weeknight this past September, that treasure took the form of prime rib in smoked-tomato, chile, pickled cabbage and carrot. My skepticism quickly vaporized. As flavorful as it was colorful, it was the kind of meal you mourn when it’s gone.

This city of 344,000 is about 30 minutes by train from Copenhagen Airport over the Oresund Bridge, a five-mile marvel completed in 2000, and three-ish hours south of Gothenburg, along Sweden’s western coast. Yet despite its accessibility, it gets far fewer visitors than those popular destinations. Over the past few years, however, in part as a result of the increased access the bridge provides, construction has boomed and an urban renaissance has begun to take shape. The creative and progressive, sustainability-focused food and drink scene, a major point of interest in most Scandinavian cities, has blossomed accordingly and helped put Malmo on the culinary traveler’s radar.

The cityscape is a tableau of old and new. The canals that ring the center of the city, built as a defense system in the early 1800s, delineate the old city. Half-timbered buildings around the cobblestoned Lilla Torg (Little Square) date back to the late 16th century, only to be outdone by the centrally located Gothic-style St. Peter’s Church, completed in the 14th century near one of the town’s canals. The western harbor, a short walk away, has seen a construction boom in the past 20 years. Once a gritty center of herring fishing, now it’s the site of sleek new hotels and Malmo Live, an event center that opened in 2015 and serves as home to Malmo Symphony Orchestra. Stroll another 20 minutes and you end up in an ultramodern neighborhood anchored by the neo-futuristic Turning Torso, a mesmerizing skyscraper that twists a full 90 degrees from base to roof. Completed in 2005, it’s Scandinavia’s tallest building.

But despite these symbols of modernity, an Old World, locally focused sensibility defines how many restaurants operate. In countless cities, restaurants brandish “local” ingredients as a badge of honor, but in Malmo they are de rigueur. At Lyran, a compact neighborhood restaurant with an open kitchen, rustic decor and a humble brick exterior that belies its posh yet relaxed elegance, the local ingredients dictate the menu. It’s presented as a simple list of ingredients, with entries such as “Chanterelles from Mushroom-Mike” and “Yogurt from our neighbor.” Chef Jorgen Lloyd carries out what he calls “instinctive cooking,” a practice that’s partially improvisational and entirely focused on low-impact dining.

One thing that stood out over the few days I spent exploring Malmo’s restaurants and bars is the way large and small food and drink businesses work together to spotlight one another. It’s a practice evident at Bishops Arms, a Swedish chain with more than 40 outposts around the country. It has all the trappings of a classic English pub, but the beer on tap veers wildly from the standard ales and lagers one expects at a pub chain. I was stunned to spot an IPA from Alewife Brewing Company, a brewpub just a few miles from my apartment in Queens. But more intriguing were the hyperlocal beers. Sure, brewpubs serving beers made in-house proliferate in most cities. But this particular Bishops Arms locale has exclusive rights to the beers produced at Minus-1, a brewing cooperative located downstairs from the bar. Eight brands brew at the facility on a revolving schedule, much like a commissary for food start-ups. And the beers are excellent. Four of the eight producers, including the women-run Secret Sisters, make beer that landed them one of the 30 coveted spots on a "best of" list from Untappd, a popular beer app.

But long before Minus-1, there was Malmo Brewing Co. and Taproom. The colorful, high-ceilinged space was a brewery when it opened in the late 1800s and after housing other operations, it’s a brewery again. The owner is Anders Hansson, a warm host with an epic beard and a burly stature that suggests he can trace his lineage back to the Vikings. Anders, a creative type whose Technicolor Pop Art-style prints adorn the walls on the second floor, started brewing in 1983. He was 12. The beers he makes today occupy at least 15 of the 42 taps at the bar on any given night, but he’s more excited to talk about his latest undertaking: mead, a honey-based wine. Try the black currant, he urged me. Its earthy sweetness was animated by carbonation, a buoyant vivacity that matched the room’s lively vibe.

Scandinavia has become known for its molecular gastronomy, but before spherification or foams there were just the unique, fragrant fruits themselves. Sweden’s native berries and lush orchard fruits are being made the most of these days by drink producers like Anders. At MJ’s, an airy bistro with a vibe that blends Victorian grandma and Fort Lauderdale patio-chic, there are several Fruktstereo cider options on the menu, all listed along with the sparkling wines, not with the beer, as is typical for ciders. A long-standing barrier, broken.

Each of the two I tried takes the base fruit — pears or apples or berries or some combination thereof — and amplifies the flavor. It’s delivered with an understated carbonation that evokes twinkles of light in the night sky. If traditional Normandy ciders — dry and only subtly sweet — are acoustic, these are surround sound. Stereo, indeed.

Karl Sjostrom, Fruktstereo’s co-founder, is a lanky man of muted intensity with a shoulder-length ginger mane and a full beard to match. He makes his ciders using an ancient method of bottle-fermentation long practiced in winemaking. But don’t let the esoteric technicalities scare you. In fact, the company’s primary goal is to eradicate snobbishness. To that end, each cider has a winking music-related name (see: Ciderday Night Fever, Britney’s Pears).

Karl made his first batches about 25 miles east of Malmo at Hallakra Vineyard. He quickly outgrew the winery’s space and moved to a facility next to Malmo’s central train station. But his ciders are still offered at Meeting Place, the vineyard’s restaurant. The farmhouse dining room is a portrait of nature-inspired, stripped-down glamour, the kind Williams-Sonoma catalogues aim to emulate.

Hallakra, a small family farm, was transformed into a vineyard in 2003 by Hakan Hansson, a fifth-generation family member and reformed banker. Sweden isn’t a globally noted wine country, but the sandy soil here is chalky and packed with minerals like many European wine-producing regions. Unlike many European nations, however, there are no established rules for Swedish wine production, so Hakan is pioneering the style. His natural wines, most notably a sparkling and rose, are dry, light, fresh and floral. Neither the climate nor the soil lend themselves to a full-bodied wine, as there’s not much heat to bring out the grapes’ sugar levels like there is in more southern climates.

All this was explained to me by Michael and Joanna Daly, newlyweds who run the kitchen here — he as a manager and she, a trained sommelier, as the chef. On this night in September, she prepared an exquisite meal that started with a medley of salmon, burned butter, lime and sea-rocket, a whimsically named relative of wild radish.

But for all their wander-in-the-woods, honorable goodness, restaurants and bars here are far from precious. They’re anchored in a confident, knowing philosophy that food should reflect its geography, its people. The Swedes are not a flashy or dramatic people. There is no pomp or pretense in the serene landscapes, either, be it the seaside villages or fields anchored by ancient castles. The region’s food and drink are an extension of that.

It’s an MO that’s ubiquitous — unavoidable, you might say — even when a restaurant or bar isn’t necessarily trying to highlight it. I see it again, on my last evening in Sweden, at Care/Of, a moody cocktail bar with steampunk fixtures. Several drinks here involve aquavit, a historic Scandinavian schnapps — the old-school kind, not like the cloying products we Americans call “schnapps.” Caraway and dill play starring roles. It’s an acquired taste. And that night I acquired it, a change of heart brought on by the Scandinoma, a tangy mix of aquavit, lime and pink grapefruit soda, and eventually a sampling of a few of the spirits on their own. Each one was a straightforward, crystalline articulation of the savory herbs, an articulation of the earth, the place. Like everything else in Malmo.

At Meeting Place, the eatery at Hallakra Vineyard, meals prepared in the open kitchen include elegant dishes like salmon, burnt butter and lime on a bed of searocket.
LIZA WEISSTUCH/THE WASHINGTON POST

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