Twenty-three years ago, my husband and I spent a year in Sweden. We had been planning to go to Moscow, but with Cold War squabbles our visas were denied, so we changed our plans at the last minute and set up housekeeping in a diminutive two-room apartment near Stockholm’s Gärdet Field, where the royal sheep graze. Our year in Stockholm was spent in Dickensian penury and newly-wed bliss. Indulgences were few—an occasional film, and a weekly visit to the Vete-Katten, a café where we lingered over rich, dark Swedish coffee and slices of Princess Torte, with mounds of whipped cream draped in marzipan. Back on the street we pored longingly over the menus posted outside the city’s great restaurants, but we could do little more than dream of the crayfish, prawns, pike, oysters, cured salmon, flounder, and sauced herrings they so enticingly described.
That is, until we met Tommy Henriksson. Tommy was a fishmonger at Melanders Färsk Fisk (Fresh Fish), a stall at Saluhall, the beautiful food halls housed in a late-nineteenth-century brick building at Östermalmstorg. He took a shine to us and little by little introduced us to the wonderful bounty of Swedish waters. We pan-fried fresh herring and ate it on crispbread; we turned ground scraps of pike into pâté. Occasionally we splurged on Tommy’s exquisite Skagens Shrimp Toast, crowned with the tiny golden roe of bleakfish. I still have the scrap of paper on which I scribbled his instructions for Norwegian-style cod: Put cod steaks in a lightly buttered skillet along with a generous handful of salt. Cover and cook over high heat for 5–6 minutes. Grate fresh horseradish to taste over the fish and cook for 5–6 minutes more. Who needed fine restaurants when we had Tommy?
Fast-forward twenty-three years. Last summer my husband and I returned to Sweden, this time with our twelve-year-old daughter, Leila, to introduce her to our past. The exchange rate was better and our pockets fuller, so we were able to indulge. We began our journey in the West Coast city of Göteborg (Gothenburg), which has been transformed from the provincial town we knew into a gourmand’s delight, with three Michelin-starred restaurants. At Restaurant Fond Chef Stefan Karlsson prepares extraordinary deep-fried crayfish with black-pepper glazed carrots, served with an orange cream sauce. The crayfish, dusted with panko crumbs, are ethereal, and bear no resemblance to the leaden fried fare of so many seafood restaurants. His mother’s luscious berry pie had us nearly licking our bowls to get at the last essence of raspberries, blueberries, and strawberries infused with wild strawberry vodka. Less refined but utterly charming was the tiny restaurant Gabriel in the Feskekörka (Fish Church), Gothenburg’s monument to fish, a market where each day’s catch is displayed in appropriate glory. Gabriel’s is a paean to herring: marinated with dill, in wine sauce, in sour cream sauce, in mustard sauce; and to shrimp and crayfish, their bright pink and red antennae spiking the air as they spill over their platters. And here was the perfect opportunity to introduce Leila, already a sushi lover, to the particular pleasures of Scandinavian fish.
From Gothenburg we drove south to Åhus, where we sampled pressed veal tongue and fennel-scented seafood stew at the surprisingly sophisticated Åhus Gästgifvaregård. In central Sweden we sipped elderflower nectar and tasted excellent handmade cheeses like the Bredsjö Blå (Blue) made from sheep’s milk. Then it was time for Stockholm. We discovered that the formerly tough neighborhood of Södermalm has become newly chic: you’ll more easily find a latte than a traditional brew at Wayne’s Coffee, and sardines rule over herring at Sardin. So we felt some anxiety about Vete-Katten. After all the stories we’d told Leila, would the whipped cream still billow, the mazarines still melt on the tongue? We were relieved to find that the café still flourishes, its Princess Torte as lavish as ever, though the elegant Royal Copenhagen china has given way to sturdier stoneware.
Sufficiently fortified, and glowing from our nostalgic encounter with the past, we made our way to Östermalms Saluhall. As we caught sight of the banner for Melanders Färsk Fisk, our hearts raced. There they were, all the many varieties of salmon we remembered—fresh steaks and filets, smoked, cured, and marinated. There were the pike and the mussels, and the fresh herring. The entire kingdom of shrimp seemed to be on display, from sweet, fingernail-sized bay shrimp to briny giant prawns. But no cod. What had been poor man’s food is now a rarity, having been over-fished for too many years. We looked for Tommy. We asked the shopkeeper where we might find him, only to learn that he had died four or five years ago—the shopkeeper wasn’t sure when.
Food ranks among the transitory pleasures: a fine meal is arguably the most fleeting art form. What made our year in Sweden a gustatory delight was Tommy’s fish. Had we kept in touch with Tommy? Not after the first few years, and only then with Christmas cards. And yet we felt bereft. Returning to find the Saluhall a little tonier but otherwise miraculously consistent with our memories, but without Tommy’s face among the hundreds there, left us mournful. For it’s not the food itself that carries meaning, but the context in which it’s shared, the spirit behind the gift of a meal, or even of a recipe. In this way food becomes the stuff of meaning and memory. I may never be able to make Tommy’s Norwegian-style cod again, but I will, in a sense, still have Tommy.