We were only a few minutes into our boat trip across the Stockholm archipelago when we began to smell the smoke. In the distance was Stora (or Great) Fjäderholmarna, the largest of the four “Feather Islands”, east of the city. Small ships had been shuttling back and forth from its harbour all morning.
The scent grew more pronounced the closer we got – never overpowering, but on a still, late-summer’s day, decidedly unusual. One fellow passenger, a Russian food writer with a cigar clamped between his teeth, was quick to quip. “That’s burning beech wood: Niklas Ekstedt must be close.”
Ekstedt is one of Scandinavia’s most-lauded chefs, and we were heading towards Foodstock, a new festival he has organised to celebrate the Nordic culinary arts. Ekstedt is something of a household name in Sweden: a check-shirted, charismatic primitivist who turned away from his classical training (in the kitchens of Ferran Adrià and Heston Blumenthal) to cook exclusively over open fires.
Ekstedt’s eponymous Stockholm restaurant has no gas hobs or hi-tech ovens. He cooks only with coals, cast-iron pans and the occasional grill – and with an elegance that belies the rugged unpredictability of open-fire cooking.
“A lot of the food festivals I’ve been to have felt like they were organised by music people who now think food is trendy,” says Ekstedt, “I wanted a proper one, led by chefs.” And so he spent a year hand-selecting talents from all corners of Scandinavia and beyond to take up a two-day residency in the archipelago, with licence to express themselves and display their craft to guests.
In among the hungry hordes (and hordes they were: an estimated 10,000 people visited), the woods were filled with fire-pits, foragers and roaring foundries. Out towards to the island’s craggy coast a young axe maker, Julia Kalthoff, was carving rods of oak into axe handles, silently, as the soft breeze blew the shavings into the water.
The island has long been a summer retreat for Stockholmers. Its quaint, lush environs hosted some of Europe’s first “booze cruises” – in the 1870s, when bootleggers would run free ships twice an hour to sell brandy to the mainland.
In modern times, Fjäderholmarna is a little bit more respectable: the closest island of the 30,000 in Stockholm’s archipelago to the city, it is a foodie haven all year round, with chocolatiers, a fruit and veg market, a bakery, and its own destination restaurant, Fjäderholmarnas Krog.
Foodstock spread to Fjäderholmarna’s every corner: its waterfront cafes became aquavit bars, its craft shops hosted knife makers and old boathouses were commandeered as classrooms where luminaries such as David Zilber, Noma’s fermentation whizz, gave lectures on how best to preserve blueberries.
I wandered for two days straight, finding surprises tucked away among the trees and hills. One memorable discovery was the Saemien Beapmoe stall, where a pair of chefs from Lapland were cooking traditional Sámi dishes, just as they had been prepared for the past two millennia by the indigenous people of Scandinavia’s great white north.
Sitting on the rocks, looking out to sun-stippled cliffs with water lapping at my feet, I had a two-course reindeer lunch. First a patty, fried in its own fat on Sámi flatbread; then a slice of reindeer blood sausage spiked with cloudberries, sour cream and a few shavings of cured reindeer ham. It was a once-in-a-lifetime meal.
In banqueting halls and dining rooms, some of the world’s best young chefs displayed their own take on Ekstedt’s open-fire philosophy. Tomos Parry, head chef of London’s critically acclaimed Brat restaurant, used hay and rows of hot coals to smoke two dozen ducks; the team behind Berlin’s most sought-after restaurant, the 12-seater Ernst, gave the same treatment to fat langoustines and lean loins of roe deer.
Throughout the festival, Ekstedt mingled with the crowds, chatting to anyone who cared to stop him and making impromptu speeches while standing on the nearest chair, praising the virtues of the food and craftspeople around him.
It was this magnetism that had brought a lot of revellers to Foodstock. One such couple, Johanna and Viktor Winblad, typified the clientele. Self-described Ekstedt fanatics, they had been eagerly awaiting Foodstock all summer. “When Viktor found out about the festival, he said we should go,” Johanna told me. “I had to say no at first – because I’d already bought our tickets for a surprise birthday present!”
Johanna and Viktor had come with their four month-old daughter, as had dozens of other young couples – strollers were accommodated and food adapted for younger palates.
Despite the flames, smoke and hunter-gatherer aesthetic, Foodstock felt inclusive and unpretentious. “This is what a proper food culture looks like,” said Brat chef, Tomos Parry. “There’s no VIP section or celebrity egos here, just people in the sun enjoying good food.”
Ekstedt agreed: “Scandinavians usually find the idea of a celebrity chef kind of strange. We see ourselves as very jämlik [equal]. But because of the past few years, our profession is now taken seriously, and as a result we can set up on an island and invite people to eat our food like this.”
Ekstedt compares the modern food movement to his favourite hobby, skating: “Skaters have a do-it-yourself culture, and things are made by skaters, for skaters. I want to do the same with food, so we do things our way, for one another, as people who love good food.”
Foodstock is one of a constellation of initiatives across the Nordic region to celebrate its progress from unexpected upstart in the food world to established gastro-destination.
Since 2011, another influential event – chef Rene Redzepi’s MAD Symposium, in Copenhagen – has been the Glastonbury of food festivals; it is, however, a lot more difficult, and costly, to visit. The application process is lengthy, and a two-day ticket costs around £420, whereas a two-day Foodstock ticket is around £63, including return ferry travel from Stockholm.
The festival drew to a close on the Sunday afternoon, with guests and chefs crowded under canopies by the shore, drinking Fernet Branca and grilling whole pike perch over the coals. By this point, there was no semblance of separation between who was serving and who was being served; chunks of smoky white fish were being passed around while everyone chatted.
Suddenly, after two days of unremitting sunshine, the heavens opened and torrential rain battered the island for all of five minutes, drenching anyone not under canvas. For the briefest of moments, it felt like we were a long way from the mainland and the rest of the world – all stuck on Fjäderholmarna, but not really minding if we never went home. Doesn’t that sound like a proper festival?
• The trip was provided by Foodstock. Fjäderholmarna island is a 30-minute ferry ride from Stockholm’s Strandvägen quay, returns about £13
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