On the way to Lisa’s in-home restaurant in a boat taxi from Vaxholm, we see a brilliant rainbow stretch across the horizon. After arrival we drink a pink cocktail with flecks of green. Then on the way home the sky turns light purple as the sun finally sets at 10 pm and the illumination lights turn on at the castle.
Summer in Sweden is sensory bliss, with the eyes feasting on white or wooden boats on the blue water, the salty smell of the sea mixed with roasting coffee and baking bread. With farms spread across this sparsely populated country, fresh vegetables and berries join the abundant local cheese. When it comes to sounds, it’s the absence of harsh ones that strikes many visitors. In this polite, well-organized land there are no honking horns, no fights in the street, no mothers screaming at their kids. It’s all so…civilized.
I wasn’t sure what to expect on the food front. Would there be enough passion to create memorable meals? Beyond meatballs and the Swedish Chef from the Muppets, what is Swedish food anyway? After my hotel’s abundant smorgasbord (a Swedish word by the way), my first real meal is in Vaxholm, after riding the ferry less than an hour from central Stockholm. The capital itself is a collection of islands, one of them containing buildings that went up nearly 1,000 years ago. When you branch out from there, you cruise through an archipelago of 70 islands, many of them uninhabited. There are only some 11,000 people in the whole area, with 5,000 of them on the main island that serves as its capital. Of course I order some meatballs.
After strolling around town—which doesn’t take very long—we check into the one and only hotel there: Waxholms Hotell. It’s better than it needs to be with zero competition and has a terrific view of the fortress. The citadel that stands now went up in the early 1800s, replacing the original from the mid-1500s to protect Stockholm from invaders. Together the two repelled Russians, Danes, and the Polish, but this newer version never got fired upon. Now you take a ferry ride over that’s so short it moves by cable. You can walk around the outside and explore the parade grounds in the interior.
Vaxholm gets a million or so visitors a year, most of them day-trippers making an excursion over from the capital. There’s a bit of shopping and it’s fun to drink a beer outside looking out at the boats going by on the water. The real highlight for me though was not what I expected: a tasting menu in someone’s home. It’s no ordinary home though, it’s a restaurant run by a talented chef, the Lisa Husmor Lisa.
It all starts out on a good note when she mixes up a house cocktail in a pitcher. I am trying to take notes on what was in it but probably missed something. That’s because there are about a dozen ingredients including wild violet juice, lemon, rhubarb, elderberry, lavender, pimpernel, syrup…with local vodka and French champagne. Even the finger food accompanying this is a work of art, so after we sit down to eat dinner, it’s not surprising to get a succession of beautiful plates like this:
Each dish has a story because each ingredient is picked with care. This is not a case of a blowhard chef inflating the importance of the craft, but rather a woman who really loves what she’s serving talking about the importance of getting the right items to elevate the whole. She refers to how Swedes typically stored food for the cold months (sweetened, salted, pickled, smoked, or dried) then goes into an aside about how a farmer two islands over is smoking his meats in a more careful way than others, resulting in an elevated taste experience.
She talks of seeking out specific farmers and locally sourced products, but in a genuine and excited way because she’s a fan, not in the crass way many restaurants are now jumping on the “locally sourced” bandwagon because they think it’s a profitable trend. In a casual manner so quick we almost miss it, she tosses out how she makes her own butter, her own cream, and her own smoked cheese.
We eat herring that has marinated for two weeks before being smoked and see how it perfectly pairs with a beer made from half wheat, half barley. There’s beef that has been aged four weeks cooked with onion fried in duck fat and baked carrots in cumin and “goat cheese that a lady makes on the next island over,” accompanied by an earthy Sicilian red wine. There’s a perch fish dish with elder flower sour jelly, dill oil, and a sauce of champagne and baked cream.
By the time we get to course six we’re feeling stuffed, but it’s hard to pass up a Swedish sponge cake dessert like this, with brown butter, garden berries, whipped cream, licorice meringue, and—as with all the dishes—a few edible flowers.
After returning home on the water taxi and having sweet dreams, we head over to a famous Vaxholm attraction to stuff our faces again. The pastry fika at Hembygdsgårdens Café is legendary, the customers sampling from a decadent display of pastries while looking out at the water. Some of them are so pretty it’s kind of a shame to eat them.
When it is time to haul our over-carbed, over-sugared bodies back on the to ferry to Stockholm, it’s an easy trip back. We cruise past island mansions, cargo ships, and pleasure sailing yachts making the most of the summer, long before the water starts freezing again.
To see more on the region, visit the Vaxholm Destination website in English.