It's 9am and I'm in a vodka factory. This was meant to be a weekend investigating gourmet Skane, a region that swells like a gooseberry at the southern tip of Sweden. But, despite the morning light, my trip starts out more like a night on the town. The clinking of thousands of bottles, the slooshing of liquid, the capping and finally the casing is like some Bosch nightmare, with arms and rollers railroading bottles at every level and speed.
This is the Absolut factory in the village of Ahus. Ironically, this famous world-conquering brand has very humble origins in a village of a few thousand by the seaside. The beach, popular right up until October, is full of children with sand sticking to their Factor 25, eagerly demolishing sandcastles.
But this eastern side of Skane is actually best known in Sweden as the Eel Coast. There was once a thriving eel-fishing business here that is now sadly reduced to old men and hobbyists. One tradition lingers though, and like all Swedish traditions it involves food and quarts of alcohol - the eel party.
Ahus Strand is a bland hotel, but its owner Mats Svesson is a passionate, if slightly bonkers, advocate of the eel. Tall and lean, he can chatter away for hours on his chosen specialist subject. At the back of the hotel are numerous implements to catch, keep and dissect eels, things usually hidden away in the wooden sheds that now house the eel party.
First Mats gives a talk about the history of eels and Ahus. Most of it sounds absolute nonsense (although he promises me he never drinks). It's all entertaining stuff though and my 20 fellow partygoers are delighted. Talk over, Mats leads us into the shed, which is candlelit and has rough benches and wooden tables decked out with mismatched crockery and song sheets. Ominously, there is an accordionist in the corner. He was, I am told, world champion and has a repertoire of 4,000 songs.
The meal is principally composed of schnapps. The appearance of the eel - there are five eel courses - noses in only now and again. My neighbour Micky, a very amiable marketing manager, tells me: "One inch of vodka to one inch of eel". There is boiled eel, smoked eel, fried eel, hot smoked eel and eel soup. Quite a few inches then.
To the uninitiated the texture and taste resembles a greasy mackerel. Throughout there is singing where popular songs are given new, eel-flavoured lyrics. Mickey tries to translate but his English is just too refined. I remember the tune of "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" being sung to the words of "Do You Have Enough Eel Tonight?".
The sea is a good cure for the morning after. I drive across to the other side of Skane. Lakes glisten among the forests and the roads are empty. At Landskrona I pick up the ferry for the 25-minute journey to the island of Ven halfway to Denmark and home to 350 people and a burgeoning food culture.
Growing durum wheat to make pasta is not naturally associated with Sweden. But when a food technician, Lars Ossler, discovered the climate and soil of Ven was ideal for durum, he set about turning around the agricultural decline of the island. He even hand-built his own flourmill. Sadly, Lars died this year but his widow Britta keeps the enterprise running and I eat some fine chewy fresh pasta and fragrant rolls in a courtyard dappled by plum trees. The farm is no secret either and draws around 250 visitors a day during high season.
Out on the road, laden with flour, pasta and bread I spot a horse and cart. Hearing I am on a gastro-hunt, the driver Ivan, a Hungarian, offers to drive me up to the gates of nearby cheese farm Hven Getost.
Ninna Bjorne, who runs the farm, was fed-up with being a postie and turned to goat keeping and cheese making. There is a small shop selling three types of cheese, a blue, my favourite, a chevre and a traditional mild Swedish-style. All are very good so I pop round the sheds at the back to congratulate the goats. With 40 goats that need to be milked, Ninna is always keen for help. She slaps an apron on me and sets me to work alongside Ulrike the goat maid.
Back on the mainland, I make my way to Skane's capital, Malmo, and the nightlife. Although smelling of goat makes it unlikely that I will be a social success I am welcomed into the organic world of Salt & Brygga. This waterside restaurant overlooks the channel between Denmark and Sweden crossed by the Oresund bridge, which disappears into the distance towards Copenhagen. To the west of central Malmo, this area was the site of an architectural competition and is now a sexy jumble of funky modern buildings including the new Turning Torso high rise.
Six years ago, when Bjorn Stenbeck started this Slow Food, organic, seasonal and completely recyclable restaurant he was mocked. It shows the distance Swedish food culture has come in a short time that the place is now celebrated throughout the country. A meal of smoked and salted reindeer, pan-fried plaice with dill butter ending with rhubarb tart doused in crème fraiche is just the perfect evening.
Ryanair (08712 460 000, ryanair.com) offers return flights from Stansted to Malmo from £110.
The Rica Hotel, Malmo (00 46 40 660 95 50; rica.se) offers b&b from £110 per night. Ahus Strand hotel (00 46 44 28 93 00; ahusstrand.com) offers doubles from £90 b&b. Hotel Gasslingen in Skanor (00 46 40-45 91 00; hotel-gasslingen.com) offers doubles from from £110 b&b. Further information: See skane.com, malmo.se and visitsweden.com
The eel coast is best sampled at the Ahus Strand Hotel where you can have your eel party and, time-allowing, Mats Svesson will even take you out on the boat to do a bit of eel fishing.
Contact: Ahus Strand Hotel (00 46-44-28 93 00; ahusstrand.com)
Southeast Skane grows most of Sweden's apples. As you would expect, they aren't grown only for eating. The production of cider and calvados are also a speciality of the region. There are plenty of pick-your-own orchards in the area or stroll around the village of Kivik on 23 and 24 September when it is taken over by all things apple-related; cider tasting, apple arts and more take place during the annual festival.
Contact: see visitsweden.com for further information.
4. Jams and chutneys
Olof Viktors Café has been voted the best café in Skane, lying in the south of the region in Glemmingebro. It's a charming bakery, deli and café that also sells its own jam. The plum tomato is excellent with goat's cheese and the strawberry and rhubarb jam is fabulous with scones.
Contact: Olof Viktors Café (00 46 411 52 20 20; olofviktors.se).
In the four weeks following 10 November, Swedes go goose crazy. Dinner begins with giblet soup followed by baked goose and spuds and finishing with apple pie. Skanors Gastgifvaregard in Skanor is famed throughout Sweden for its goose dinners - it serves 1,500 during the season.
Contact: Skanors Gastgifvaregard (00 46 40 47 56 90; skanorsgastis.se).
6. Organic food
Salt&Brygga is on Malmo's waterfront with the Oresund Bridge in view and the latest landmark, the Turning Torso skyscraper, behind. It is all about provenance here, everything is organic - right down to the waiter's shirt. Local and seasonal ingredients are cooked up creatively.
Contact: Salt&Brygga (00 46 40 611 59 40; saltobrygga.se).
Mollevangstorget is a square which shows the ethnic diversity of Malmo at its best. Here there are a host of delis specialising in Chinese, Italian and Middle Eastern cuisine. The finest of them is Peter Martensson's deli, Mollans Ost. It is packed with underrated artisanal Swedish cheese - go for the blues, which are especially pungent.
Contact: Mollans Ost (00 46 40 193 545).
8. Bread and pasta
The island of Ven is small, tranquil and full of sunny beaches and foodies. The durum wheat pasta and bread maker Britta Ossler has an idyllic courtyard shop where you can buy fresh pasta and breads, while down the road the goats of Hvens Getost will provide the cheese to go with them.
Contact: Ven Trafiken (ventrafiken.se) operates a ferry service every hour and a half from Landskrona to Ven. Return fares cost £6 for foot passengers.
This is the only spit-roasted cake I've come across. Popular for birthdays and weddings this is a massive meringue tower, where layers of egg white are gradually added until it resembles an exposed wasp's nest. It's crunchy, chewy and sugary. Fricks Spettekakebageri, Billinge, has been specialising in Spettekaka since 1918. You can sit in the rose garden and have a sweet treat.
Contact: Fricks Spettekakebageri Billinge (00 46 413 54 20 62; fricks.se).
A real smorgasbord is a culinary delight. Your first plate will be different types of herring - in mustard, pickled and curried; the second plate; cold meats; third is hot food (those famous meatballs) and the fourth is dessert. The smorgasbord at Margretetorps Gastgifvaregard, Hjarnarp, in north-west Skane is the most famous in Sweden.
Contact: Margretetorps (00 46 431 45 44 50; countrysidehotels.se).Reuse content