Nordic cuisine has taken off, and Sweden's capital has its share of pleasures, guilty and otherwise
Call it the Noma effect. Before the world's No. 1 restaurant turned up, no one paid much attention to Scandinavian cuisine. It was a poor cousin to the rock stars of the south, the feted food scenes of France, Italy and Spain.
But then Rene Redzepi's flagship Copenhagen restaurant flung open its doors in 2003, rose to the top by 2010, and the world took notice. Scandinavians can do food. Local, tasty, interesting food.
"And now for maybe the first time ever, Sweden has food tourists," says Freddie Linse, a passionate foodie who runs culinary tours of his home town, Stockholm.
"People are becoming interested in Nordic cuisine."
That's why we find ourselves today at Hotorgshallen, a bustling underground marketplace in the centre of Stockholm. It's not a traditional tourist destination – the people roaming through here are locals doing their daily shop, picking up the best fresh produce the city has to offer from some of its most passionate purveyors.
There are centuries-old food purveyors here, nestled among the up-and-comers of the Stockholm scene.Ben Groundwater
There's a group of eight of us crowded around the counter at Saluplats Husman, a deli specialising in traditional Swedish meats. We're trying falukorv, a sausage that according to Freddie is "like mac and cheese for Swedish people – we grow up eating this". The red frank is being sliced up and served by a guy called Ola, who knows his local meats: everything from air-dried pork to reindeer fillets sits below him in a glass case.
So what is Swedish food? Most people could name meatballs, and maybe Ikea-issue hotdogs. And at least one of those dishes will feature in our tour today – but there's much more to the local cuisine than that.
Today we're going to be trying everything from elk sausages to artisanal chocolates, Michelin-starred, freshly baked breads, high-end cheeses, pickled fish, and an abomination of a late-night snack that involves a sausage, prawns and mashed potato.
For now, it's time for cheese. We're still in the marketplace at Hotorsghallen, now crowded around the counter at Klara. How much do they like their cheese here? The guy behind running this store is known as "Dr Kase", or Dr Cheese – I know this, because he has a tattoo on his leg that says "Dr Kase".
Dr Kase runs us through the gamut of local produce, from vasterbotten, an aged, parmigiano-style cheese, to farfars parla, an expensive artisanal creation produced in southern Sweden on a farm with only 60 goats. This is a seriously good cheese, and we're all reluctant to move on to the next counter – in fact our numbers have swelled somewhat as local Swedes gather to taste the free samples.
It is, however, time to move on, out of Hotorgshallen and onto the Stockholm metro system to the suburb of Vasastan, an upmarket area that has turned into a hotbed of Nordic culinary talent. There are centuries-old food purveyors here, nestled among the up-and-comers of the Stockholm scene.
Our first stop is one of the former, a restaurant called Tranan that has been serving traditional Swedish cuisine since 1929. "The most famous dish here," says Linse as we all sit down at a round, wooden table, "is not even on the menu. Everyone just knows you can get meatballs."
Tranan is a formerly notorious beer hall, a place that began serving warm brews to blue-collar workers at 6am, and which was ordered by police to have large windows so that the passing constabulary could look inside to see what was happening. Today it's much more refined, and the meatballs with mashed potatoes and lingonberries are sensational.
The beer is pretty good as well.
Back out on the street, we still have five stops to make. Next up is Tennstopet, one of Stockholm's oldest pubs, a former haunt of the city's writers and artists, a one-time hangout for KGB agents, and now the premier venue for a pint of beer and a game of darts. It also specialises in "Old Man's Mess", a salad of pickled herring, onion, egg and potato that's perhaps an acquired taste.
And there's more to eat after that – at a place called Bakery & Spice we'll eat bread that's supplied to the city's Michelin-starred restaurants. We'll have salted caramel chocolates at Chokladfabriken. We'll take "fika", the traditional Swedish coffee break, in a 13th-century dungeon at a place called Rorstrands Slott.
We'll also have the dubious honour of trying every Stockholm resident's late-night guilty pleasure: tunnbrodsrulle, or "flatbread roll", a kebab-type arrangement filled with two sausages, prawns with mayonnaise, and mashed potato. All together.
It's actually, surprisingly, not bad. But you probably won't find it at Noma.
The writer was a guest of Emirates and Food Tours Stockholm
Emirates flies daily from Sydney and Melbourne to Stockholm, via Dubai. See emirates.com/au.
Hotel Hellsten is an excellent mid-range accommodation option, with comfortable rooms in the city centre starting from $157 a night. See hellsten.se.
See + Do
Food Tours Stockholm offers the choice of two tours: the Nordic Experience, which the writer did, and Culinary Sodermalm, a taste of the foreign cuisines influencing Stockholm. Each tour runs for about 3½ hours, includes all food and the services of a guide, and costs $110.
Five Scandinavian restaurants for your bucket list
Rene Redzepi's game-changing restaurant focuses on original, local Nordic cuisine. While a dish of beef tartar and ants might seem a bit of a challenge, this is the world's No. 1 eatery for a reason.
Set in a small town in the middle of nowhere, this rustic Swedish eatery is still a world leader, specialising in modern takes on traditional Nordic cooking styles. The chef, Magnus Nilsson, hunts and forages for the bulk of his ingredients.
Restaurant Frantzen, Stockholm
The Swedish capital's finest restaurant, holder of two Michelin stars, has a slightly more modern approach to its cuisine, with Asian flavours creeping onto a menu littered with more rustic dishes like confit of pig's head.
This Danish eatery falls somewhere in the centre of tradition and innovation, with local ingredients enhanced by modern techniques – check out the razor clams in edible "shells" painted with squid ink.
This newcomer was bestowed two Michelin stars on its debut, and continues to serve solely organic or biodynamic produce in a beautiful setting. A meal here involves 26 courses – turn up hungry.