The largest ski resort in Scandinavia is located in Europe’s newest culinary region, where Michelin grade restaurants lie beside petrol stations and the royal family eat alongside local workmen…
I washed up my supper, picked up my suitcase and left the apartment, walking downhill to Stockholm’s Central Station. I was on my way to the night train, heading north to Östersund. The sunlight line is in Gävle, and we passed through before semi-darkness reached Stockholm. It meant, therefore, we ‘skipped the night’. Pulling in as the sun rises, I was greeted by Fia Gulliksson. We met in London two years ago, during recordings for the Skavlan talk show. She was over in the UK to revitalise the Pantechnicon building in Belgravia, transforming it to a Nordic-Japanese culinary tower, with restaurants on five floors. Fia is Östersund’s local hero, responsible for inserting her town onto the UNESCO list of Creative Cities. When her friend, Magnus Nilsson, opened his Fäviken restaurant in the region, Netflix, PBS and magazine critics were flown in from across the world. Before long it had two Michelin stars, voted Europe’s second-best restaurant. Walking through town, Fia was stopped almost every metre. She took me to a hotel for breakfast, then it was down to work at Gomorron Östersund: a shared office space for over ninety companies. When their new centre opens, they’ll house up to a thousand businesses under one roof. For a city of under 50,000, the transformation is amazing. I was whisked to the outskirts of town, recording links for a documentary. Then, an hour or so later, picked up from the studio, given lunch at a restaurant downtown, and we began our drive west.
Our destination was Flammans Skafferi on the Norwegian frontier. We’d stop first at a food producer, then at a textile mill. From there, it was on to the village of Järpen, where Fia pointed out a green-roofed cottage: Magnus Nilsson’s place. Half an hour later and we swung by a teachers’ party and cruised into Åre, the largest ski resort in Scandinavia. This is where Zlatan Ibrahimović, Sweden’s most exported footballer, hangs out. We were there during the Euros but he was out of play with a knee injury, so there was a flurry of excitement when we saw the distinctive ponytail disappear behind the gates of his luxury pad. In one of the smart hotels, we had a drink and a slice of Skagen toast. Then we pushed on to the spectacular Tännforsen waterfall and, with jazz on the stereo, finished up in Storlien. The frontier was closed and Fia’s friend, Lena Flaten, was confined to her restaurant on the Swedish side, despite also running a hotel in her native Norway. Storlien has a population of just 70 people, so she serves gourmet pizzas to whoever passes through. That evening, it was the local workmen. During the ski season, it’s the Swedish king and queen. The royal family have a cabin overlooking the village, and Lena told me they either order takeaways or come down in person to sit under blankets (Queen Silvia likes the fire). We stayed overnight adjacent to the restaurant, drinking into the early hours.
Lena Flaten: head of Flammans Skafferi in Storlien
The next morning we took breakfast outside, looking out at a sunrise over the snow-topped mountains. Snowmobiles were parked up until winter and, after a walk up the hill, we switched on the radio and headed back to Östersund. After an hour, Fia announced that we’re stopping for lunch at a friend’s restaurant. She flicked up the indicators in Duved, swung past a petrol station and came to a halt outside a red block of flats with no visible advertising. Miraculously, as with Lena’s little wooden cabin, as we sat in the carpark, looking across the road to a winter clothing shop, we were handed a selection of clean, delicate masterpieces. This is Trägårn, and it’s a result of Fäviken’s planned breakup in 2019. When Magnus Nilsson moved on, his staff dissolved into the region. Tightly trained world chefs began transforming local cafés. Trägårn, for example, is run by a former Fäviken employee, and the five-strong team under her care includes a chef from Cornwall. After the final tastes of lunch, we finished up the trip via one more deli, a replenishing of the salted liquorice supply, and a moose hunt on the backroads, before driving back through Östersund to arrive at Fia’s complex on the other side of town (it’s complete with a boathouse looking out at the lake: the front windows open towards boats anchored for concerts). Here, there was just time for dinner, cooked by her husband, Martin, before I was driven to the station for the night train south.
Before 2010, the only arrivals were a dribble of skiers. That changed with Fäviken and, for a while, the rich descended. When the restaurant disintegrated, however, along with its 3,000 SEK (£250) menu, the rich stopped coming. But Fäviken’s chefs stayed on. And with no one to serve but the locals, it meant putting the spill off from Europe’s second-best restaurant on the side of a backroad. Healthcare isn’t free in Sweden, and the state relies on private childcare. Swedes have embraced capitalism, vocally refusing descriptions of a welfare state. So why, then, do its citizens vote every year for the Social Democrats and happily throw 60 per cent of hard-earned wages at each other? Perhaps this is the answer… so that their money can be shared to such an extent that in one restaurant by the customs post, freshly foraged, gourmet pizzas can be enjoyed by both kings and workmen in the same evening, seated around the same wooden table. This, surely, is Sweden’s capitalist equality put happily into action.
This article has also been published in Epigram.