The speciality food of Swedish Lapland is largely sourced from nature, be it reindeer meat or vendace roe or a multitude of native berries. And for the people who call this land home, sustainable procuring is a way of life. By Ruth Dsouza Prabhu

Swedish Lapland
At Nutti Sámi Siida, one can feed dried forest lichen to reindeer in an enclosure. Photo credit: TINA STRAFEN

‘A culinary tour of Swedish Lapland’ were as many words as I needed to happily consent to an 11-hour, three-flight journey across continents. I did my research and earmarked a few dishes I wanted to tick off my list, and sure enough, I managed to try them all. But what struck me as the most unique aspect of Swedish Lapland’s culinary landscape was the food’s connection with the local culture, heritage, and nature, and the fact that environment-consciousness is built into the lifestyle of the people.

Reindeer On My Mind

Reindeer meat topped my list, and my first taste came in the most unlikely of places, The Kroppsbalans Spa in Luleå. Along with a birch sap tea, I was offered some dried reindeer meat as part of my treatment package. It looked like jerky, and I thought it would taste like that too. But I was in for a surprise— the meat was dried and smoked, yet it retained some juiciness. I did not hesitate in accepting seconds.

That evening, we explored three of the six White Guide restaurants in Luleå, for dinner. The White Guide is a definitive authority when it comes to recognising efforts in gastronomy and sustainability in the Nordic and Baltic regions. Our main course at Hemmagastronomi, which prides itself on game meat and its smoking abilities, was freshly smoked reindeer sausage, with carrot puree, smoked marrow, Kalix löjrom (or vendace roe, another regional speciality), Brussels sprouts, in a red wine sauce. The several textures from the ingredients did not take away from the sublime flavours of the reindeer sausage.

Swedish Lapland
Reindeer meat being cooked at the Sámi centre. Photo credit: TINA STRAFEN

On another day, we started a lavish three-hour meal with reindeer blood pancakes in the home of Pia and Henry, owners of Huuva Hideaway, a homestay set in Liehittäjä, a tiny village with just nine inhabitants. These dense pancakes were rolled with bacon and served with cabbage and sour cream to balance the slightly metallic taste.

As we ate, Pia and Henry spoke of their Sámi heritage. The Sámi are indigenous people of the Sápmi region (spread over Norway, Finland, and Russia, besides Sweden) and a national minority. Reindeer husbandry is exclusively undertaken by the Sámi. More about this was explained to us at Nutti Sámi Siida, a day-visit Sámi centre at Jukkasjärvi where we got to feed dried forest lichen to reindeer in an enclosure.

At the centre, huddled around a fire over which our lunch of reindeer meat and bread was being cooked, we were told that the Sámi took to domesticating reindeer around the 17th century. In 2019, Sweden had 4,665 registered herders, with approximately 85 per cent located in Lapland, and 2,41,013 reindeer. Accounting for around SEK 230 million (approx. INR 1.97 billion) of the country’s economy annually, reindeer husbandry branches out in sectors of food, tourism, and a traditional handicraft form called duodji, with which tools, clothes, and accessories are made.

Swedish Lapland
Duodji is a handicraft form that evolved from reindeer husbandry. Photo credit: PERNILLA AHLSÉN

In Lapland today, reindeer herding is primarily focussed on meat production. Reindeer are not an endangered species, but they do suffer from the threat of predators as well as vehicular accidents, so a lot of attention is given to their welfare. Semi-domesticated, they roam free for most of the year and herders move along with them. If needed, the animals are herded to different sites to ensure continuous food supply. If the conditions are particularly harsh, reindeer are gently coaxed into enclosures like the ones in which we were feeding them. Their paths into the mountains, for when they give birth, are always kept open. The Sámi have proudly preserved their traditional food culture, along with their stories, and that forms a large part of the sustainable ecosystem being ensured for the reindeer.

Gold Of Bothnian Bay 

It was at Hemmagastronomi that I first sampled Kalix löjrom. The vendace (coregonus albula) is a species of freshwater whitefish (salmonidae) found in lakes in northern Europe and in the brackish water in the Gulf of Finland and the Bothnian Bay. It is the only Swedish product with Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status, issued by the European Union. So prized is this delicacy that it is served at the Nobel Banquet, royal weddings, and other celebrations.

Swedish Lapland
Vendace roe served with forest lichen at VillGot. Photo credit: TINA STRAFEN

How roe can be served up in multiple ways was showcased by the head chef of VillGot at Bryggeriet, James Thomson, and his team of international chefs. With a view of the frozen River Luleå, we indulged in a seven-course meal, each with Kalix löjrom in it. The meal began with a tasting of the roe, with some crackers, to understand its flavours. It progressed to some traditional Swedish dishes and then international ones. Each dish was created by a chef on the team showcasing their personal roots, and the meal progressed from cold to hot dishes. The löjrom was served up with interesting components such as reindeer heart, forest lichen, egg ravioli, locally grown potatoes, and one dish even had an Asian influence—a lot of which is seen in the restaurant culture in Lapland.

What places Kalix löjrom high on the list of must-try dishes is that it is a completely handcrafted product. There are only around 35 fishing licenses handed out each year for a short season that lasts approximately five weeks, starting at the end of September. Fishing can happen only in a fixed 150-kilometre radius and is limited to 900-1,000 tons of fish, in order to prevent over-fishing. From this is extracted around 900 kilograms of roe. Since the fish are small, the job of removing the roe has to be done by hand, and quickly. The roe is classified into three kinds based on when in the season it has been extracted. Moreover, to ensure the vendace population remains steady, special mechanical nets are used so that smaller fish are returned to the sea to complete their growth cycle.

Swedish Lapland
Kalix löjrom or vendace roe toast. Photo credit: MAGNUS SKOGLÖF

Bothnian Bay is also home to a huge population of seals that feed on the vendace; each seal eats up to four kilograms a day. Restrictions on fishing off the vendace are placed to ensure that seals get their share, but this is constantly being debated considering the losses to the fishing industry.

Berries Of Lapland

Sweden is a country that strongly upholds the ‘Right to Roam’. Everyone is allowed to head out into the forest, pick berries, set up camp, and enjoy a meal out in the open. Picking wild berries in summer is part of the lifestyle of the people of Swedish Lapland. It is also at the centre of a small industry focussed on berry products that are unique to the region. While we couldn’t really go berry-picking because the mercury was at -5°C, we did the next best thing: berry tasting by Luleå Konfektyr, a 25-year-old berry confectionary company.

Spread out on a wooden table was an array of berries, along with products made from them. We tasted wild blueberries (called bilberries) that stained our fingers and tongues a deep purple. The cloudberry looks much like an orange-yellow raspberry and works well as marmalade on biscuits, and as chewable candies. With white chocolate, it is a study in contrast of flavours. The aromatic sea buckthorn grows around the islands. Besides marmalades and jams, it is consumed as a juice with some sugar. Its tartness makes it a great accompaniment to meat and fish, as we saw across multiple restaurants.

Swedish Lapland
The cloudberry looks much like an orange-yellow raspberry and is used in desserts. Photo credit: MAGNUS SKOGLÖF

The lingonberry is perhaps the most famous and is added to meatballs and herring, which it complements well, thanks to its tartness. The dried powder goes well on granola, yoghurt, and smoothies. Consider yourself lucky if you are able to find and pick the Arctic bramble. They are not so easily found, but when they are, it is a celebration! Tourists come to Lapland especially to pick berries in their natural habitat. These are enjoyed in meals and make for wonderful food souvenirs. Berries have actively been brought into the tourism sector and feature in activities such as foraging, cooking, hiking, camping, etc.

Journeying through the delicious flavours of Swedish Lapland proved beyond doubt how invested the people are in their local produce, its accurate showcase, and sustainable processes, all to ensure longevity.

Swedish Lapland
Arctic bramble is not very common but makes for good jam, juice, and candy. Photo credit: TINA STRAFEN

GETTING THERE
Qatar Airways operates flights from Mumbai to Stockholm via Doha. Scandinavian Airlines and Norwegian Air operate flights to Luleå.

STAY
Best Western Plus Hotell Savoy: Located in the commercial centre of Luleå, this property has everything you need within walking distance. Yet it is peaceful and quiet (doubles suite from INR 21,400). Clarion Hotel Sense by Nordic Choice: A centrally located hotel, closer to a view of Bothnian Bay and the Kulturens Hus (Cultural Centre), its highlight is the Kitchen and Table restaurant by celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson (doubles suite from INR 28,000).

Related: One Summer In Sweden: Discover Skåne’s Evolving Culinary Landscape