'At -26C you don't have time to wait for a steak to be done': Meet the Swedish chef who insists on al-fresco dining, whatever the weather

 

Ever come across the phrase barbecue winter? No, me neither – or at least I hadn't until I heard the Swedish chef Niklas Ekstedt talking on the radio about grilling meat in the snow at -20C and making it sound like the most normal thing in the world. Swedes, you see, have no qualms about the temperature, and they take their outdoor living seriously.

For them, the right to grilla (barbecue) is almost constitutionally enshrined, along with the right to roam – allemansrätten – which sees them strike forth across their vast, largely uninhabited country no matter the weather. All those forests mean firewood on tap; not for them a snatched petrol-station disposable jobbie. Even the coldest days will see them bundle up to make the most of their few hours of daylight; after all, a sandwich doesn't cut it in mid-winter.

Ekstedt, who is from Jämtland, situated about halfway up the country, says the days he spent grilling anything from reindeer to potatoes under "a crisp, clear Scandinavian open sky" were the most memorable of his youth. He has become an evangelist for cooking over open flames. "Fire is magical for us in the winter because of the darkness," he adds, alluringly.

Which is why, on a foggy day in early January, I come to find myself on the edge of a frozen lake in Jämtland's main ski resort of Åre watching Ekstedt squat down in front of a snowy fire pit, examining a piece of steak to see if it's done. The meat, which was pre-seared in a pan, is suspended from some nails on a specially fashioned wooden board, which is balanced next to the flames so the steak can cook gently. We can afford this slow burn because it's merely -11C or so, but Ekstedt remembers much colder days when he was younger. "At -26C you don't really have time to wait for a piece of steak to be done. You need small pieces: we fried thinly sliced meat with onions and cream."

Our steak, which I'm wimpishly grateful is beef, not reindeer as proposed, is the main course for a snowy, lakeside banquet, which began with hay-smoked trout: cooked first, in a cast-iron pan, over the fire, then placed over some smouldering hay. As a teen, Ekstedt, who was born in nearby Järpen but now lives in Stockholm, where he owns two restaurants, would have hopped on his snowmobile to lug everything up to the lake, but we are pulled up by a snow quad, which has extra caterpillar tracks for traction.

He's excited to be back and enjoys playing tour guide. "This little mountain here, I've probably ridden that 10,000 times. That's the church where I got baptised. And that's where I want to buy my house; it's the cutest spot in Åre, and it has its own lift. But first I'm buying a snowmobile."

Ekstedt prepared trout, roe and pickled mushrooms (Jonas Kullman) Ekstedt prepared trout, roe and pickled mushrooms (Jonas Kullman)
Today, our driver is Rickard Fredriksson, who runs a travel company called Explore Åre; he's already been up to the lake to set up a barbecue made of half an old oil drum. We've just missed the view: I'm assured there's a mountain beyond the trees, but an ethereal mist has descended. The light, which is fleeting so close to the Arctic north, is soft; the snowy firs a perfect contrast against the orange of the fire. The logs, a mix of easy-to-light birch, and pine, are roaring.

Before we can eat, we must fish, in one of Jämtland's 17,000 lakes. This one is barely distinguishable from the snow around it. Winter came late here this year, but the ice is still strong enough to walk on. I grab the ice drill and, holding tight, start winding it round and round. Rickard makes it look easy but it takes some grit to break through to the dark water, which I do with an icy splash.

I let out my line, watching the flashing green light on the maggoty hook disappear through my perfect circle. And there it is! A bite! I wind up my line, tentatively, to find a silvery Arctic char about to breathe its last. (Up here, where people buy an extra freezer to store the local favourite, elk, there are no vegetarians.)

Kolbulle - a salty bacon pancake - cooks on the fire (Jonas Kullman) Kolbulle - a salty bacon pancake - cooks on the fire (Jonas Kullman)
Ekstedt pulls apart a trout he has cooked to serve on a giant crispbread, arranging chunks with roe, some fried to a gentle pink, the rest lightly salted, and some pickled mushrooms, preserved to last the long winter months when little grows. We eat, curled up on a reindeer skin, which is as vital for winter picnics as the logs to cook over. Dressed in multiple layers, most of which were designed locally, from my Lundhags jacket to my Woolpower jumper, I'm perfectly toasty. (As the adage goes, you don't need warm weather, only warm clothes.)

Before pudding, which is a sourdough waffle with booze-steeped cloudberries – so called because they look like baby cumulus clouds – I'm tasked with making a kolbulle, a salty, oily, bacon pancake that Jämtlanders have eaten through the ages. It's taken seriously in these parts: the next day at Ekstedt's old family home, where his parents' friends still live, I pick out the odd word from a heated discussion about exactly how salty the meat should be. My biggest thrill comes from flipping it higher than Niklas himself; all those years practising with pancakes in the kitchen finally paying off. It's eaten, like so many Swedish dishes, with lingonberries. Coffee brewed in a kettle on the fire washes it all down.

Most Swedes would wait for a slightly sunnier day to fish over the ice – the best coming from March through to May, which Jämtlanders view as a fifth season. But it's been a lot of fun and I leave resolving to dig out the family picnic rug as soon as I'm back in London.

Slow burn: A beef steak is pre-seared in a pan (Jonas Kullman) Slow burn: A beef steak is pre-seared in a pan (Jonas Kullman)
What's funny is how odd Swedes think I am for making so much of something that's so commonplace for them. Later, over a drink in our home for the night, a waffle-house-turned-hotel called Buustamons Fjällgard, up yet another snowy track in Åre, Ekstedt says simply: "Outdoor cooking for us Scandinavians is so basic because we've always done it, in any weather!" Even his kids, aged nearly five and nearly two, eat lunch outside every day at their Stockholm kindergarten. Except when it's really cold – "Like below -17C."

It's snowing heavily the next day as we drive back through Jämtland's capital, Östersund, to catch our plane, so the big lake there, Storsjon, is deserted. But on a typical weekend it would be packed with people ice skating, Nordic skiing, pushing babies all snuggly in well-padded buggies, and, yes, eating. Tables on the edge of the lake have mini grills built in for people to bring their own food to cook.

It's easy enough to get to Åre, either via Stockholm, or direct to Trondheim in Norway, just two hours away, but if you want the taste of smoke with the comfort of four walls, Ekstedt has it covered. His eponymous Stockholm restaurant recreates that cooked-over-an-open-flame flavour by, yup, cooking over an open flame. "I wanted to do something Nordic and based on Swedish traditions, but not just copy [the Danish restaurant] Noma. I wanted it to be more than just the new Nordic," he explains. "So I made the restaurants based on technique that originate from our lifestyle in Sweden."

The trout is cooked first in a cast-iron pan, over the fire, then placed over some smouldering hay (Jonas Kullman) The trout is cooked first in a cast-iron pan, over the fire, then placed over some smouldering hay (Jonas Kullman)
Head chef Gustav Otterberg does not use any electricity or gas to cook his dishes, which on the night I eat there range from smoked oysters and avocado to a delicate piece of hay-smoked sole, served with langoustine seared first in butter before being smoked in a "stone-age microwave" – Otterberg's latest invention, a box warmed with smoke funnelled through chimneys from the main fire pit with embers thrown in for good measure – and four types of onions: pickled, puréed, fried in rings and smoked.

There's also more steak, again strung from that nail-studded board (made of pear wood to withstand high temperatures) and served with smoky tomatoes, which hang, strung like a red pearl necklace, high over the flames. A make- it-yourself saffron tortilla, which arrives with baby pots of chilli-spiked orange curd, crushed meringue, alcoholic cloudberries, and brown-butter ice-cream, finish everything off.

Like the sound of that? Well, Ekstedt is hoping to open a restaurant in London next year. Until then, there's plenty of winter left to wrap up and fire up even in Britain, snow or no snow.

Outward bound: The full Swedish experience

If you're feeling inspired, the local tourist board, Visit Östersund, has set up a new website to help you book anything from ice fishing to a spot of ice driving: with lunch outside, of course. They'll even help you organise a trip to Jämtland via Ekstedts restaurant in Stockholm. adventuresonice.co.uk

With Explore Åre you can whip up a full banquet, or keep things simple with a kolbulle, one of those bacon pancakes. And if you snow-shoe to your destination, you won't need to worry about all the oil in those kolbulle either. exploreare.se/snoskovandring

Or perhaps you're interested in living like the Sami, Scandinavia's indigenous reindeer-herding population. You can try it all with Nulltjarnsgarden, a company that specialises in experiences from smoking elk to cooking mountain fish. nulltjarnsgarden.se

Another option is to have dinner with a local family from Östersund, which is the capital of Jamtland. From March, the local tourist board, Visit Östersund, is launching an initiative that will encourage visitors to hook up with hosts who are keen to show off their favourite outdoor-eating spots. The host families promise to make a "typical Swedish outdoor meal", using local produce from elk and moose to reindeer and fish. visitostersund.se/activities

Arts and Entertainment
Lou Reed distorted the truth about his upbringing, and since his death in 2013, biographers and memoirists have added to the myths
musicThe truth about Lou Reed's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths
News
people
News
Ed Miliband received a warm welcome in Chester
election 2015
Life and Style
Apple CEO Tim Cook announces the Apple Watch during an Apple special even
fashionIs the Apple Watch for you? Well, it depends if you want for the fitness tech, or the style
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Bid / Tender Writing Executive

    £24000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in Manchester, Lon...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Executives / Marketing Communications Consultants

    Competitive (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a number of Marketi...

    Recruitment Genius: Marketing Executive

    £20000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This well established business ...

    Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester

    £25000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester...

    Day In a Page

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own