On August 29th, I landed in Stockholm and caught the midnight train to Järpen. I'd come from the heat of summer in Tuscany and Rome. When I stepped off the train in Järpen, I stepped into another season. It seemed another planet. I layered on my sweaters, waited for my ride, and considered the mystery that lay ahead.
I came to Jamtland as the coda to my year-long fine-dining boot camp. As a 33-year-old man who'd long since gone to university and graduate school, who'd already had a solid career as a high school teacher, I had neither the interest, the time, nor the money to enroll in culinary school with a bunch of kids. I figured I could learn more and faster in the real world.
Off I went to Chianti to learn salumi from the great Tuscan butcher Stefano Falorni and beef butchery from his neighbor, the meat-cleaving superstar Dario Cecchini. I worked for Chef Jean Georges-Vongerichten in his hip, bustling restaurant Perry St. in Manhattan's West Village overlooking the Hudson River, and worked side-by-side with “Molto” Mario Batali at his temple of Italian cuisine, Del Posto, in New York's Meat Packing District. I secured a stage (or apprenticeship) at Noma, the Copenhagen restaurant now widely regarded as the world's best. It seemed a logical endpoint. Surely my skills were now at a level where I could be paid for my work. Surely I'd maxed out my career as a “kitchen slave.” Oh, and I was broke. But, then I heard about Fäviken Magasinet. I emailed Chef Magnus Nilsson. One more stage.
In the weeks leading up to my stage at Fäviken, I read all I could about the place and the vast, wild region around it. I read about the long history of fiercely independent farmers governing their land in a sort of democratic anarchy. I stared wistfully at glowing laptop images of sod-roofed huts of weathered, unfinished wood, of grand waterfalls, of hikers against a backdrop of unravaged forest and snowy hills. I was in love. And like any lover, I was, at first, in love with the idea of love, with my ideas of Jamtland and Fäviken, and any adult knows how fragile such love can be when it collides with reality. Was I wary? Not at all.
My first day at Fäviken turned sunny and almost warm. The lush green of the rolling meadows pressed against the white clouds on the horizon, above which loomed a sky of intense blue, one of the bluest blues I've seen. I saw the Jamtish flag across from the restaurant and immediately understood it.
I took off my shoes and took my cocker spaniel (who accompanied me throughout my journey, as she does now) and headed for the woods. For those who have never walked barefoot in the wet, northern woods, there are few feelings that compare to cool moss between your toes, cool mud on your skin, even a deep massage from sticks and stones. Once you've walked barefoot in the woods, putting on boots is like wearing ten condoms while making love. Safer, no doubt. But really...
Once I was in Jamtland, I found that what I loved most were the things that reminded me of Maine. My homesickness was becoming acute, but the similarities were undeniable regardless. The woods of pine and birch. The mossy, wet earth under the trees. The bright green meadows. The rural land, dotted with A-frame wooden houses, little villages, and farms. Cows, sheep, and horses. The cars were bigger than in Italy. The people were bigger, too. It wasn't utopia. Better, it felt like home.
What can I say about the food at Fäviken that has not already been said by some of the world's leading food writers? It is very good. As at Noma, they have a vision and they execute that vision flawlessly. The culinary vision at Fäviken happens to be a little closer to my own, which is why I decided to continue staging even after Noma. The Brummer family, which owns the vast Fäviken estate, leads regular hunting parties which provide plenty of wild meat for the restaurant, notably grouse and capercaillie, which we hung to age in the walk-in for three to four weeks. (Magnus pointed out that we were probably the only restaurant on Earth serving capercaillie on that particular night.) Foragers provide wild mushrooms like chanterelles, hedgehog, and matsutake. I picked stone-bramble berries, juniper, wood sorrel, moss for the scallop plate, and fresh garden vegetables in the hours before service. The beef is from retired mountain cows and dry aged for up to six months. Raw milk, aged butter, and alpine cheese comes from Oviken Ost. (Oh, that butter!) Only the seafood is not truly local, though Trøndelag can hardly be considered far, and the quality of the monkfish, mussels, and diver scallops is exceptional. None of this surprised me. It is why I came to Fäviken. It was a joy to work with food of such quality and integrity, and to work with such skilled chefs, Magnus as well as Sebastian Bjernalt and Johnny Fredrikson.
As in any budding romance, at a certain point, the exigencies of life were bound to cut through the mist of infatuation. Kitchen life brings its own kinds of stress and there are, sure enough, downsides to the isolation one experiences as a foreigner living alone on northern Sweden's vastest private estate, well beyond walking distance from even little Järpen, let alone Åre or Östersund. It was in my post-infatuation hangover that I was lucky enough to be introduced to Jamtland's food ambassador, the chef and writer Fia Gulliksson. Fia welcomed me into her home during a week in which Fäviken was closed (the team had gone to Belgium to put on a special dinner at the acclaimed restaurant In de Wulf). Fia quickly became a dear friend, as did her husband, Martin Alfredsson, a wonderful bluegrass musician and owner of the organic tea company Brunkullans. Almost instantly, they introduced me to a number of fascinating people, locals and expats alike, and suddenly I had a circle of friends. My romance with Jamtland entered a new phase, and I began to sense that this was a place to which I would return.
Beyond the blessing of friendship, Fia deepened my appreciation for the food culture of Jamtland. We went together to Ås to buy outstanding produce, all organic and homegrown, for the feast we would cook that evening, otherwise comprised of vegetables and herbs from her own garden and meat and fish hunted by Martin. She told me about the wonderful artisanal cheese production in the region, spurring me to visit Oviken Ost, supplier of all things dairy to Fäviken, and the more remote and idyllic, and equally masterful, Kullens Gårdsmejeri in Klövsjö.
Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Life consists with wildness. The most alive is the wildest. Not yet subdued to man, its presence refreshes him.” I hope not to draw too much attention to Jamtland. Its beauty is entirely contingent on its wildness, on the sparseness of its human population, on its isolation from the industrialized, urbanized world. Its gifts come unsolicited. I will never forget my first glimpse of the Northern Lights, as hawk owls swooped three meters overhead, scanning for lemmings. Nor sitting with friends in their hand-made sauna heated with birch wood before jumping naked through the cold waves of Storsjön and then standing in the clear, northern night before dipping again into the heat. Nor tasting the raw heart of moose, my first cloudberry, spring water right from the ground at my friends' cabin in the woods near Orrviken. Nor the austere beauty of Fäviken and of Magnus' quintessentially Jamtish cuisine. Be quiet, Jamts. Don't let the world know you're there. I'll keep the secret, too. Well, maybe I'll just tell a few friends.