The long days of midsummer are the ideal time to visit Skåne, a bucolic coastal region in the far south of Sweden where passionate young chefs are serving the best of land and sea. Over a glorious, sun-soaked week, our contributor expands his palate—and falls in love with his homeland all over again. Text by Johannes Lichtman. Photographs by Petra Bindel
Our goal is to create Sweden’s best living room,” Erik Nilsson said as he poured our glasses of dry cider. Dressed in a collarless button-up with his red hair tied in a bun, the sommelier was telling me and my girlfriend, Sherry, about Villa Strandvägen while we ate dinner in the hotel’s restaurant. Tucked into the woods just off the beach on the outskirts of Ystad—an 800-year-old town on the coast of Skåne (pronounced scone-eh), the country’s southernmost province—the villa was built in 1899 and renovated into a seven-room hotel and restaurant that opened in 2016.
Dining at Villa Strandvägen did feel a little like being in a friend’s living room—a friend who has a better house and better food than any of your real friends, and who never wants to tell you long stories about his kids. At most, this friend will want to explain to you in apologetic tones, as Erik was doing, why he had gone all the way to Trondheim, Norway, for the salmon you were about to eat. As we would soon learn, environmentally conscious Sweden has such a passion for local sourcing (known as närodlat or ‘near grown’) that getting fish from 800 kilometres away was like the local equivalent of serving a blood diamond. The salmon tartare, served with roe and a cold nettle soup poured over it, was smokey and delicious.
“I thought you didn’t like salmon,” Sherry said. “I thought so, too. But this….” I paused. “What are nettles? I think I like the nettles.”
Skåne is a province of a little less than 1.5 million people. Aside from the urban centre of Malmö and the surrounding area on the southwestern coast, it is a primarily rural region of green hills and calm beaches, which look out to Denmark in the west and the Baltic Sea to the east. In addition to countless charming villages, farmhouse pastorals in the valley, and happening nightlife in Malmö, Skåne features some of Scandinavia’s best restaurants, all within about an hour of one another. Copenhagen, the city that put New Nordic cuisine on the map in the 2010s, is just a short train ride across the Øresund Bridge.
Skåne’s version of New Nordic relies on seasonal and extremely local ingredients to reinvent classic Swedish dishes. (‘local’ as in, “the chef picked these in the woods this morning.” Or, “over that hill lives a man called Ulf, who grows our asparagus.”) Though I grew up in the US, I was born in Sweden and attended graduate school in Skåne. I was taking Sherry on a week-long trip to show her how beautiful my old home was in summer. Since my grad school cuisine was not exactly New Nordic—mainly kebabs, macaroni, and a cheap sausage called falukorv—I was excited to get to see a new side of Skåne myself.
As our itinerary was structured mostly around eating, we decided to start the next day working up an appetite by strolling down Sandhammaren, around 26 kilometres east of Ystad, a long white-sand beach blown smooth by the wind. It’s perfect for leisurely walks in a windbreaker; it’s less perfect for the nude sunbathing one couple down the way was engaged in. But when it’s summer in the dark-for-most-of-the-year country of Sweden, you have to passa på—a phrase that roughly translates to ‘take advantage of’ and is used frequently to refer to soaking up the sun.
We stopped in the seaside town of Simrishamn, walked past the rows of colourful houses with tall triangular roofs, and ate a fika—the traditional coffee-and-sweets break that is still, happily, a part of Swedish daily life—of vanilla-rhubarb muffins, cardamom rolls, and strong coffee. Then we drove inland on a tree-canopied country highway, over rolling hills dotted with farmhouses painted a rust colour so characteristic of barns in Sweden that neighbouring countries call the shade ‘Swedish red’.
Our destination was the village of Tranås, where we would dine at Daniel Berlin. The Michelin two-starred restaurant, which has just 25 seats, is run out of a stone cottage by Berlin himself, who was recently voted the top chef in Sweden by a panel of his peers.
Before the first course, we were served ‘snacks’ for an hour: a stunningly meaty langoustine; duck tongue with bird shin; mussel fillets on tiny toast. Instead of wine, we opted for the juice pairings, which were spectacular, and all made from produce grown in the garden. The highlight was a sharply fragrant but smooth-tasting horseradish apple cider.
The problem, despite the quality of everything, was that after the snacks, I was full—and there were still many courses (and many hours) ahead of us.
About 10 plates later, in the Scandinavian minimalist dining room, I began to panic. I was eating the greatest meal I would ever enjoy—a meal that cost more than my rent when I lived in Skåne. Only I wasn’t really enjoying it.
Sherry and I couldn’t help noticing that the couple closest to us—who were also American— appeared to be experiencing none of our anxiety. It turned out the man was the restaurateur David Foulquier, owner of the New York Michelin-starred restaurant Sushi Noz, who had journeyed to Tranås specifically to visit Daniel Berlin. “This place is like nowhere else in the world,” Foulquier said happily.
Eventually, my fullness reached a tranquil level of acceptance, and I was able to enjoy the rhubarb and elderflower pudding we were served in the greenhouse at 10.30 pm, as the dark blue sky above us finally gave in to black.
When we returned to Villa Strandvägen around midnight, we found ourselves locked out—the hotel is unmanned after hours. Erik, our buttoned-up sommelier from the night before, came running from his car on his way home from work. Now dressed in a sleeveless Slayer T-shirt and denim shorts, with tattooed arms exposed and long red hair falling down his shoulders, he made sure we got inside with maternal concern that was sweetly incongruous with the lead-guitarist-for-Cannibal-Corpse outfit.
In the morning, we took a 50-minute train ride to Malmö, which, since the opening of the Øresund Bridge in 2000, has become the most important city in Skåne. With its low cost of living, Malmö is a hub for Sweden’s young artists, musicians, and writers. There are 179 nationalities represented in its population of almost 3,50,000, making it one of the most diverse cities in Scandinavia.
We checked out the panoramic view of the city from our room at the Clarion Hotel Malmö Live, a skyscraper from which we could see both the copper and tile rooftops of Old Town and the glassy new developments in the harbour. Then we took a walk through the city centre. Placid canals snake through downtown Malmö, but that afternoon their waters were wobbling from the bass pounding in the streets. It was studenten season when newly minted high school grads drink and dance on flatbed trucks, trailed by a caravan of friends and family—all honking horns and waving flags from their families’ home countries. It gave the city the feel of a drunken UN parade.
As it turned out, my previous night’s fears about Daniel Berlin being my best meal ever proved to be unfounded. Vollmers, a Michelin two-starred restaurant tucked into a side street in Malmö’s Old Town, was where I actually had the best meal of my life—and this time I ate it all. Vollmers offered us an eight-course dinner that was not only obscenely delicious but also a lot of fun.
Sofia Ström, one of our trio of personable servers, told us about my favourite dish: underbart är kort, a sautéed white-asparagus spear served with a buttermilk sauce in a crisp, wonton-style shell. The title of the dish, Ström told us, is a Swedish expression that roughly translates to ‘what’s wonderful is short’, and it was inspired by the brief one-month white-asparagus season. I had never heard the saying but based on the expressions I learned from my Swedish mother (“It won’t get any more fun than this” and “Look—the sun! Everyone outside!”), the story checked out
We met my old friend Antonia Rojas the following night at a Syrian restaurant named Shamiat in Möllevången, a lively and diverse Malmö neighbourhood of bars, clubs, and falafel joints. Shamiat took off in 2015, fuelled by a show of support for the refugees who arrived from the Middle East that fall, but guests who first came for solidarity kept coming back for the food. “Compared to Stockholm, Malmö is so small and unsegregated,” said Antonia, who was born in nearby Lund to a Serbian mother and a Chilean father, and has lived in Malmö since the age of 11. “It’s much easier to be part of a community here.”
After an excellent meal of tabbouleh, baba ghanoush, and a spicy potato dish called batata harra, we walked over to Folkets Park, a summertime hub for picnics, drinking, and dancing. At Far i Hatten, a 126-year-old beer garden and pavilion in the middle of the park, we met a couple named Anna Axfors and Jakob Nilsson, both writers.
“I always thought I’d live in Stockholm,” Nilsson said when Sherry asked how he’d ended up in Malmö. “I had read about it in novels. But when I moved to Stockholm, the city I knew from novels wasn’t there anymore.”
“Malmö is so much cheaper than Stockholm,” Axfors said. “You can live here and pretty much just work at art.”
IN BÅSTAD, a ritzy beach town a 90-minute train ride past green fields and windmills up to the northwestern tip of Skåne, we veered from our gluttonous itinerary to focus on some serious relaxation. We stayed at Hotel Skansen, an early-20th-century seaside hotel with chic modernist upgrades, an indoor day spa, and a classic kallbadhus—the Swedish take on the open-air cold-water bathhouse. Skansen’s kallbadhus is at the end of a dock leading into the sea and offers the chance to indulge in three Swedish pastimes: swimming, saunas, and nudity.
We walked out along the dock and watched the sun dipping towards the still water at 9.30 pm. In three weeks, the harbour would be overflowing with wealthy revellers, in town for the Swedish Open tennis tournament, but tonight, as the sky turned pink, besides a few teenagers on the tennis courts, we were the only ones out to see the long, lazy sunset.
We dined the following afternoon at Norrviken, the botanical gardens just outside Båstad where seven gardens, along with ponds, fountains, and carefully trimmed hedges, surround a palatial villa. At Orangeriet, a restaurant on the grounds in a former orangery, we ate a super-local meal of veal brisket and cucumber soup. Our server, Frederik Backner, pointed out the places in the gardens where various ingredients grow, such as apples for our premeal apple-elderberry juice.
Our last stop was the home of my family friends, Astrid Sandberg and Christer Bogren, halfway down the western coast in the village of Lerberget.
Sandberg and Bogren are the best hosts I know and, as such, have nearly alcohol-poisoned every guest I’ve ever brought around. One minute you’re enjoying great food, drink, and conversation; the next minute you realise you’ve been telling everyone about your childhood for quite some time. I warned Sherry to drink carefully.
“Do you know what’s the most Swedish thing you can do?” Sandberg asked as we sat on their veranda looking at the dark blue waters of Øresund. “This,” she said, closing her eyes and tilting her face up to the sun.
The hosts prepared for us a traditional midsummer dinner of meatballs, herring, salmon, crème fraîche, dill, beer, and aquavit—three days before the actual midsummer, since we would miss the holiday. Halfway through the meal, when a lightning bolt flashed over the coast of Denmark on the horizon, I asked if we should go inside. A brief debate ended with the fact that it was summer –time to passa på.
Thirty minutes later, thunder rocked the table. We grabbed the plates and cushions and ran inside, just ahead of the storm.
“That,” Sandberg said, as we caught our breath, having squeezed every last moment out of the weather, “is the second most Swedish thing you can do.”
How to Explore Skåne
Getting There and Around
Qatar Airways (qatarairways.com) operates flights from Delhi to Copenhagen via Doha. Take the train directly from the terminal to Malmö Central Station. The trip lasts about 25 minutes and takes you across the scenic Øresund Bridge, which links Denmark to Sweden. From Malmö, you can catch a connecting train to pretty much anywhere in Skåne.
Villa Strandvägen (doubles from INR 40,627; villastrandvagen.se), in Ystad, offers high levels of cosiness and excellent food. The Clarion Hotel Malmö Live (doubles from INR 16,509; nordicchoicehotels.com) is just a few minutes on foot from the train station, castle, and Old Town. There’s a popular restaurant and nightclub on the top floor. Hotel Skansen (doubles from INR 9,358; hotelskansen.se), on the Båstad waterfront, is a chic spot with an impressive spa. A long dock leads from the hotel to an open-air cold-water bathhouse.
Daniel Berlin (tasting menu INR 19,020; danielberlin.se), a Michelin two-starred restaurant in the village of Tranås, offers a unique experience that starts in the early evening in the garden, moves into the dining room, and stretches into the night in the greenhouse. My vote for the best restaurant in Skåne goes to Vollmers (tasting menu INR 17,879; vollmers.nu), located in Malmö’s Old Town. The menu at this intimate establishment, which was awarded two Michelin stars, changes frequently with the seasons, but always includes original takes on Scandinavian classics. A trip to Malmö wouldn’t be complete without sampling some Middle Eastern cuisine, and Shamiat (entrées INR 456– INR 1,065; shamiatrestaurant.se) is a great spot to drop in for a Syrian meal. Lunch at Orangeriet (entrées INR 1,141– INR 1,597; norrvikenbastad.se) offers an idyllic view of the Norrviken gardens.