29 September 2012

A Dinner in The Woods: Fäviken Magasinet

Near the end of our dinner at Fäviken Magasinet, two chefs sawed through a cow's femur.  This bit of theater happened in the middle of the dining room.  There was no preamble and no explanation until the marrow had been picked out and plated with diced calf's heart and wildflowers.  We were told to salt it ourselves and spread it on crackers.  It was a delicious few bites of food, but the magic of the restaurant isn't constrained within the normal bounds of taste and smell. 
There, in an 18th century barn, we were treated to a dark, beautiful, nearly wordless dissertation on Autumn - from the dense vegetables to the fading light to the woodfire and our bed under the eaves.  Fäviken is a total experience.  One arrives, explores, eats, sleeps, wakes up, has breakfast and leaves... baffled, excited and with a new concept of what a restaurant can be.  Namely, environmental.  As a final petit-four we were given a plate of tiny raspberries, lingonberries and blueberries.  The fruit was small-globed and cold from the night air.  It had just been picked.
In the Swedish northlands, eight hours drive north of Stockholm, Fäviken isn't actually as remote as you might be told.  There's a town about ten minutes drive from the restaurant, with other restaurants and shops - but it still feels far away from everything.  Once you arrive, you're there until the next morning. We slept, with the other guests, in the same old barn as the dining room, tucked into little rooms.  It's somewhat luxurious, though everyone has mud and mown grass on their boots, and a tractor grunted in the misty morning air.  The setting is an old hunting estate, built on an even older farm.
All of us guests were excited about the food, but even more so about sharing an adventure.  Part of the point of the place is that it's completely overwhelming; the bedrooms, the shared sauna, the long drive north, the wet meadows outside, breakfast in the morning - it's a total experience, and immersion is unavoidable.  Nobody quite knows which door to go through, how to dress or what's going to happen.  It's mysterious, but easy - the meal takes on the tone of a dinner party.  There were only ten of us. There's one seating, every course is served to everyone at the same time.  I've never been in a restaurant where the whole room says goodnight to one another, or where everyone says hello again at their breakfast tables. 
The dinner actually began in a kind of drawing room, with a hearth and wooden armchairs.  Guests sit next to each other and kindle conversation.  The barn is built of old, heavy timber.  The decor is a mixture of forest-Swede icons: a thick fur coat by the stairs, a large-tooth saw by the liquor, bundles of herbs hung to dry on the walls.  We we given glasses of wine and - almost without being aware that dinner was beginning - a sudden trickle of amuse-bouches.  The chefs brought us the food and cooked some of it right before us.  They emerged with plates and pride, gave us explanations, asked us questions.
Fäviken would be fun even if the food wasn't great.  But it is great.  It's so good that we wondered if it was the best we'd ever eaten.  The problem with comparing it to other restaurants is that other meals seem so staid in comparison.  Our dinner was a procession of thoughtful surprises. Above, a ball of what was called "pig's head."  It was so tender that it could have passed for melting butter. The fried outer crust burst between the teeth, the flavor was intensely porky.  Just before this, we'd had toasted lichens, dusted with dried trout.
Putting down two little dishes of barely congealed cheese, a chef told us proudly that it was "just five minutes old."  This immediacy is a common trait of the kitchen's.  A leaf of kale, barely steamed was "dying on the plate."  A boiled turnip had been dug up "just now, during dinner." Magnus Nilsson, the restaurant's star, told us that his scallops - cooked in the shell over juniper embers and eaten with your fingers - are often mistaken for being overcooked.  "They're not overcooked," he said.  "It's just that they are still contracting, because they're so fresh.  If you wait a few seconds, they soften up."
Before the meal, we'd taken a long walk around the fields and into the trees.  We'd seen the kitchen garden, under an old stone wall.  The sheep had trotted over to meet us. The same aromas that end up on the plate - spruce, reindeer moss - begin in the dripping woods.  That turnip had been served under a bed of "last autumn's leaves," which had been collected in the springtime when the snow retreated.  The kitchen boils them with the roots, and then piles them on the plate together.  We were urged to search for our vegetables - like digging in forest loam - then slather them with butter.  It was a warm, earthy dish that went beyond taste.  Something of the chilly wilderness had come in with the leaves and the turnip, harvested just then in the dark outside.  We were being given a taste of the seasons - both last year's and right now.
Magnus Nilsson grew up not far from Fäviken Magasinet ("magasinet" means something like "store") in the heart of sub-arctic Jämtland.  He's unassuming, gracious and young.  When we first arrived, he was trying to fix the stereo system.  After dinner, he sat with his guests as we drank tea and duck-egg liquor.  The guests began the night in awe - in Scandinavia, Nilsson's become a culinary demi-god.  Fäviken is currently ranked 34th in the world by a (somewhat improbable, but much mentioned) authority.  By the end of the evening, he seemed like a friend or a neighbor.
Though he's exceedingly humble, Nilsson does have a dramatic streak.  He chopped cauliflower with an ax and put glowing embers on the table.  He likes to play with twigs, sticking them into food to make little antlers and using them like toothpicks.
There are more courses than we could really count - the food begins in small morsels, like tiny wild treats found in the woods, then builds to larger plates before subsiding again into sweets and sleepiness.  There were beautifully briny tastes of seafood - along with the gigantic, convulsing scallops, there was monkfish singed right in the kitchen's birch coals and served with spruce jelly. Skate with shallots, "fingered" so that it looked like soft pieces of white asparagus.  A langoustine tail, so delicate that it fell apart on the plate, served with caramelized cream (a wonderful thing, gently burnt and milky flavored at once).  This tiny morsel of pea-flour crust, pea-flower and pea-cream enveloped a juicy, steamed mussel.  It tasted equally of the coast and the garden.  Mussels also turned up at one point as a kind of remoulade with flax-seed crackers.
The meal had more fish than meat, but there were some bloody exceptions. Trout roe was cupped inside a dried crisp of pig's blood. The bone marrow and heart dish was the loudest exclamation, but the most endearing was one of the first: a few strips of cured pork belly, "from last year's fattest sow."
Nilsson has a knack for the jokily gruesome.  Pigeon arrived like this; singed talons, breast and split head.  "You can use the twig to pick out the brain," we were told.  "Really, if you want to chew on it, you can eat the whole head. Except for the beak."  The smear of buttered lingonberries provided an extra jolt of bloodiness.  It was one of the last courses, and arrived to laughter.  By that point, the room had been thoroughly won over.
The desserts were concise and fun.  The most memorable was a sugar-cured duck's egg yolk with a kind of crumble.  The crusted, shiny orb got broken into the dry grain, releasing the yellow liquid inside.  "Mix it together to make a little dough," the sommelier said, "then have it with some of this meadowsweet ice cream."
The nicest thing about Fäviken is that, even with all the complicated preparations and surprising flavors, it's really a very simple place.  When I woke up - hours before the nine-o'clock breakfast - I took another walk.  My boots got wet from the dew, the mountains around were hidden by fog. The birches were bright yellow in the cold morning light.  It felt and smelled like fall.  Most of what we ate the night before - aside from the salty seafood - had come from right there.  Trout is fished in the pond. The meat is butchered in another barn, the vegetables are grown in the garden. The berries, spruce and birch come from the woods.  Taking that morning walk, I felt like I was still experiencing the meal.
Our favorite food at Fäviken?  To tell the truth, it might have been the butter.  It was so rich that the color was almost orange.  The taste was of summer grass.  It's made from mountain cow milk, old Swedish breeds.  Our host agreed that it was delicious.  "You're lucky to have it, actually," Nilsson said.  "The brothers who make it don't get along.  These are the last days of the butter."


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