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It's news to no one but is still worth recalling that, just over a decade ago, traveling to Scandinavia for cuisine was unthinkable. Noma was undoubtedly the wellspring of the New Nordic movement, and Copenhagen is still its spiritual home. But while the restaurant’s influence has been overwhelmingly more positive than the reverse, it has also unwittingly created a kind of stylistic straitjacket for what we all think of as Scandinavian dining. Now, in contrast to the tweezer-wielding chefs in the city, a new wave of cooks in the southern Swedish countryside just across the Øresund strait from Copenhagen has been favoring an approach that takes the best of that refined technique and marries it with a more rustic sensibility.
The Skåne region is a bucolic slice of Scandinavia I had heard described variously (and hilariously) as Sweden’s California or Tuscany. The reason this culinary movement centers itself here is instantly evident as you drive through sun-drenched fields dotted with haystacks and traditional villages—this is not the Sweden of thick woodland or snow-packed tundra. Skåne serves as the nation’s breadbasket, and herein lies the attraction both for chefs looking to experiment without the burden of Stockholm’s prohibitively expensive real estate and those in Copenhagen who find little appeal in the heavily industrialized farmland just outside the capital.
The heart of the region is Malmö, a city that is a mere 45 minutes from Copenhagen by train or car. Instead of a deluge of third-wave coffee shops, natural wine bars, and agenda-setting kitchens, it is filled with no-frills restaurants run by established chefs. One example is the sublimely minimalist lunch spot Salt-importen Canteen, from local chefs Ola Rudin and Sebastian Persson, who used to have a splashy restaurant but closed it to open a place with more flexible hours. They serve from noon to 2 p.m. every day in a former salt-importing warehouse. I caught the final moments of the day’s rush and sat with a table of twenty-somethings who shared freshly baked bread and a rich beef stew garnished with cilantro and raw rhubarb (a recurring ingredient that further underscored the area’s fidelity to what’s in season).
About an hour southeast of Malmö, on the shore of the Baltic Sea, is the utterly charming Hörte Brygga, a tiny seaside shack full of surprises. I arrived early, before the wooden doors swung open, and immediately began to question the young owners, who had opened an ambitious spot in the comparative middle of nowhere after years of working at top restaurants in Stockholm and Gotland. Never going to make it, I thought. Then they arrived. By the hundreds. The small cabin began buzzing like the busiest lobster roll stand in Maine on Labor Day weekend. Each family left with an exquisitely arranged wire basket containing folds of rare roast beef and lightly smoked salted cod, picked moments ago salad leaves with lilac and dandelion vinegar dressing (as in the flowers—who knew?), and local cheeses. Then there were the nutty breads that rivaled those found at top bakeries in San Francisco and Sydney, with butter that had an oddly appealing hint of rhubarb. And in a nod to New Nordic’s legacies, there were lacto-fermented pickles. Each family, couple, or greedy solo traveler (me) trotted off with a picnic and found a spot on the shore or beneath the walnut trees before dutifully returning the basket when done. Only guilt at observing everyone’s collective virtue stopped me from running off with mine.
Much of the credit for the surge of interest in Skåne must go to the pioneer who first opened shop here to help forge a southern Swedish food identity. That honor goes to Daniel Berlin, who opened his namesake Michelin two-star, 12-seat restaurant a decade ago in the minuscule village of Skåne-Tranås, an hour’s drive east of Malmö. While Berlin might still wield a tweezer, his food is less about elevating obscure ingredients than about celebrating the landscape. Eighty percent of the food Berlin serves is drawn from the three-acre plot that surrounds the restaurant. A long tasting menu that might be tedious in others’ hands becomes thrilling, as dishes with only a handful of ingredients are instead given a revelatory touch. For one, Berlin grows the cabbage that stars as the main course, hunts the ruby-red venison that it pairs with, and collects the sloe that finishes the sauce. Venturing three hours north, just beyond Skåne and deep into a swath of forest in southern Hyltebruk, I met with the latest ex-Copenhagen-based chef, Flemming Hansen, to experience fine dining at his new project, Stedsans in the Woods. Both a farm- (and forest-) to-table restaurant and an adult summer camp where guests can stay in mini-cabins and Bedouin-style tents, Stedsans strips New Nordic cooking back to its guiding principles and, in doing so, exemplifies this new movement in honest, simple cooking.
“The asparagus grew a foot overnight,” Hansen said as he laid two handfuls of the barely boiled spears in a thick puddle of fresh yogurt decorated with ramsons and wildflowers. Our chat wasn’t taking place in a sleek kitchen. Instead, he and I were standing barefoot (good for the immune system, he said) in a lean-to kitchen that at first seemed more hillbilly than hygge. “We wanted a different kind of experience, not only for ourselves but also for guests, one that would actually connect them to nature.”
Until last year, Hansen had a successful rooftop restaurant in Copenhagen called Stedsans ØsterGRO. He and his wife and business partner, Mette Helbæk, a cookbook author and stylist, were flying high in the city’s fine dining and design firmament until the allure of something a little less urban called to them. That desire evolved into this destination-restaurant-cum-camp, made up of 15 very rustic cabins, each with just a bed and a sloped window looking out into the woods. At the center of the 17-acre site is an alfresco kitchen where other guests (many of whom reverted to a blissed-out state of childlike wonder) and I convened at mealtimes to share a daily-changing menu. In that early burst of summer, it was the aforementioned asparagus followed by baked lake fish with newest-of-new potatoes and a salad of at least a dozen wild and cultivated greens. Dessert, a rich panna cotta with rhubarb and faintly pickled elderflowers, was creamy, sweet, and fragrant with a familiar sting of astringency. Everything tasted as it looked, no surprises or cerebral revelations, just abundant, delicious food, shared with generosity and without affectation.