In search of shellfish in West Sweden
A seafood safari that flexes some serious mussel
Saturday 21 September 2013
Ahhh, safari. You just can’t beat it. The open space, the big sky, the chirruping birds on the wing. The precious thrill of anticipation. My guides had promised we’d bag and eat two of the “Big Five” that day; I’d skipped breakfast to leave room.
We reached our hunting grounds and the engine died with a rattling cough. Below us the prey was gathered in its hundreds, its thousands, like so many babes in the wood. The moment had come. With a deep breath and a wink, Adrian dropped over the side and away. Rather him than me, I thought, as he sank below the waves; even that fat seal nearby looked cold.
It was autumn, the season for seafood safaris – yes, that’s right, seafood safaris – and forays after West Sweden’s “Big Five”: oysters, mussels, lobsters, crabs and prawns. Certainly the weather was suited to prawns. A shawl of rain drummed the hoods of our survival suits and, sandwiched between low banks of blackened cloud and the spitting surface of the sea, the air itself seemed washed with grey.
While Adrian rootled among the oysters on the seabed, blowing bubbles in a silver trail around the fishing boat, his business partner Lars talked me through their mussel farm here off the coast at Lysekil. A pair of green ropes snaked 200 metres across the open water, kept afloat by blue buoys and tied at regular intervals with shorter pieces of rope hanging vertically below. And that was the farm. Mussels are fond of rope, it seems; Lars lifted a dangling section to reveal countless tiny molluscs attached to the line by their beards.
Mussel farming struck me as money for old rope – these two stretches alone supported 100 tonnes of clingy shellfish – but Lars heaved a sigh that suggested the life of the aquaculturist is not all strawberries and cream. Take predators: water birds, for instance. Eider ducks are partial to a mussel or two, but in the act of yanking them from the ropes they knock free hundreds more.
Adrian bobbed and gasped beneath us, struggling to pass up a basket of 20 palm-sized oysters. Water dripped from his pink nose as he wrestled aboard and shrugged off the scuba tank; it was satisfying, somehow, that Adrian’s face was plump and mussel-smooth while Lars had the folds of an oyster shell. The two put their heads together after meeting at a “mussels conference” and now divide their time between cultivating shellfish and running safaris to show tourists the process from sea to dish.
They certainly know their oysters. Adrian inspected his haul; that shell was four years old, he said, that one around six. Dredging is illegal here, so Adrian spends four hours a day at the bottom of the sea, picking 4,000 oysters by hand to sell all over Europe. The shellfish in the Skagerrak, this freezing pinch of North Sea in the claw of the Scandinavian peninsula, is ranked among the world’s very finest. The low water temperature means the fish grow slowly, developing a deeper flavour over a longer period; harvests are best during the nippiest months, when glucose builds in the flesh to give it extra sweetness.
With prey bagged, Lars pointed the boat towards a rocky outcrop where a solitary cabin perched. This little island had been in his family since the 18th century, I learnt.
On jumping ashore, Adrian busied himself with a bucket of mussels and a camp stove, chopping vegetables into a pan and adding slugs of white wine from a lemonade bottle. Lars stood on the rocks shucking oysters. This native, flat-shelled variety is bought for six times the price of the blander Japanese oyster more common to restaurants and pepped up with lemon or chilli. We ate them with nothing added. They tasted of salty minerals, of seaweed and the seaside.
Pausing between my tenth and eleventh oyster, I noticed some animal droppings among the stones. “Rabbits,” Lars said, with deadpan seriousness. “They swim from the mainland to eat the mussels.” And when we sat down in the cabin to plastic plates of steaming shellfish, I could see why they went to the effort. (I later discovered there aren’t really any swimming, mussel-eating rabbits – the droppings belonged to rare-breed goats that Lars keeps on the island.) We used empty shells to pincer orange meat the size of thumbs from a broth heavy with the juice of carrots and onions.
At that moment, while we crowded around a candle set in an old boat propeller at a table made from a green door, somewhere miles from the sea a Brylcreemed banker was lifting an oyster from an iced platter in a chrome-filled champagne bar. “Do you eat oysters every day?” I asked Adrian as I pictured the parallel scene. “Of course,” he replied, stoking the cast-iron burner in the rickety wooden cabin. “We can’t afford to eat anything else.”
British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) flies to Gothenburg from Heathrow and from Manchester (flights from the latter operated by Sun Air of Scandinavia); SAS (020-8990 7000; flysas.com) flies from Heathrow; BMI Regional (0844 417 2600; bmiregional.com) flies from Birmingham; Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) flies from Edinburgh and Stansted; Norwegian Air Shuttle flies from Gatwick (0843 3780 888; norwegian.no). Lysekil is a two-hour drive north from Gothenburg.
Strandflickornas Havshotell, Lysekil (00 46 523 79750; strandflickorna.se) has doubles from Sk1,595 (£159), including breakfast.
Bryggan Hotel, Fjallbacka (00 46 525 31060; brygganfjallbacka.se) has an excellent restaurant and doubles from SK1,590 (£159), including breakfast.
Shellfish safaris are run all year, although the prime period is between September and November. A morning’s safari with Adrian and Lars (00 46 706 731731; orustshellfish.se) costs SK795pp (£79.50).
Most of Sweden’s oysters come from Grebbestad, near the village of Fjallbacka. Pers Karlsson (00 46 525 14242; evertssjobod.se) runs oyster and lobster safaris from a 19th-century boathouse; tours cost from Sk790pp (£79).
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