How to Live Like a Scandi: Shucking Oysters on a West Sweden Mini-Break
Columnist Alexandra Pereira lets us in on how to achieve hygge, lagom and koselig, both at home and on mini-breaks across Scandinavia. This month, she takes us to West Sweden in search of fresh seafood and therapeutic archipelago breezes on a two-day jaunt along the coast.
11 April, 2022
My ambulations along the coast of West Sweden start in Gothenburg, with a table at the city's version of Noma, Koka. In a low-lit dining room, dressed up with tactile wood and stone, diners are treated to dishes the eating of which is akin to your gently and voraciously dragging your mouth across the forest floor and sea bed. I take an early reservation and then head out on a 90-minute drive towards Stora Hotellet i Fjällbacka, an offbeat Bohuslän stay. The 23-key guesthouse, right on the archipelago's edge, first flung its wonky doors open way back in 1834, when Mamsell Charlotta Hanqvist ran it as an inn and shop. Each room is designed with the intrepid traveller - or a fictional sailor - in mind. We bed down in a room whose decor is an ode to the tropics. Artworks and artefacts from Buenos Aires dot the snug attic space, while a deep bathtub offers ocean views.
A KOKA dish, left, and a street in Gothenburg | Image credit: Anders Husa / Westsweden.com
In this region, lobster fishing might be celebrated, but for us, it means only one thing: frustrating cavorts on the waves as we hunt for the black gold of the sea, a decadent dinner looking increasingly unlikely. It turns out, other than luck, you don't need much when lobster fishing. An expedition to catch some claws goes a little like this: you lay cages of bait deep down at different spots around the harbour, and wait. Even those fishing for hours, with decades of experience behind them, can still come home with an empty bucket.
The boats glide out to place their pots at the crack of dawn. We join an experienced fisherman, all of us dressed up in matching high-vis wetsuits and black boots, to sail around the harbour fringes, with few sightings of crustacean claws, but we do enjoy a cinematic oceanside viewing of Isabella Rossellini's holiday home and an up-close experience with the pelting coastal rain. Our catch isn't bountiful - the fisherman must toss any pregnant lobsters back into the swell - but we're still in luck. After disembarking, we find they've laid a sumptuous lobster dinner back at the hotel. No word on who'd caught it - or how.
Islands in the sea, Fjällbacka | Image credit: Tomseye / Westsweden.com
A new life with oysters
It's not just lobsters. Bohuslän's northern climate and chilly waters make for magnificent oysters, perfect for both home-shucking and world-class dining on seafood selections from acclaimed chefs. Most of Sweden's bivalves are exported, but our visit to Havstenssunds Ostron, a 45-minute drive further upcoast from Fjällbacka, offers a chance to try them fresh. Here, you can indulge in the carnal pleasure of carving open oyster after oyster, drinking in the sculptured granite coast of this peaceful Swedish corner as you gobble down the fruits of the sea. Rocks look like giant, black eggs. The treeline is sparse.
We meet Ulrika and Mathias, the cheery-faced, characterful couple behind Havstenssunds Ostron. They enthrill us with sea stories and warm generosity: they're the kind of people you need to hang out with for a few hours, jumping in their boat to scoff salty mollusks with oyster stout as Ulrika shares her whip-smart knowledge on oyster farming and its brilliance in the oceanic ecosystem. Their ecologically certified oyster farm fiercely protects and cultivates the Swedish population. In turn, these native bivalves, Ostrea edulis, support the local waters. Havstenssunds Ostron is Scandinavia's only fully sea-based commercial oyster farm of the native mollusk.
Native oyster tasting along the coast | Image credit: Havstenssunds Ostron
They also harvest wild oysters, in season, and seaweed. After our trip across the waves, we sip tea with Ulrika, warming cold limbs as she whips up oyster soup with seaweed fritters. As she cooks, she shares her story: she left a long career as an occupational therapist, as well as her marriage and life in the city, to get back to nature and tackle some mental health struggles along this ragged, isolated coast. Stabilised by life closer to the water, and a new love, she founded the oyster farm and created a whole new life for herself - a light, inspiring and relaxed existence.
Heading inland (ish - this whole area is archipelago, with waters running through, here, there and everywhere), we strike out south-west to check into Villa Sjötorp, tucked away on a forested island edge. It rains lightly, and rainbows keep making brief appearances. We leave our suitcases in the reception with a smart young man buttoned up in a crisp white shirt and zoom our rented Volvo back into the woods in search of a rugged two-hour hiking route he'd offered loose directions to. Then, we walk, finding a lake among the pine woods that we can't resist. We strip and swim as it rains, marvelling at the colours of the surrounding foliage: green hues against gentle ambers, with the occasional flash of scarlet. Back at the hotel, drinking tea, we inspect the gasp-worthy gardens of the villa. They roll down to battered, upturned rowing boats and gnarled tree stumps on the oceanfront.
Villa Sjötorp | Image credit: Viggo Lundberg / Jeska Hearne-Lobster & Swan / Westsweden.com
Our room at Villa Sjötorp is in turns austere and plush. Metal-railed single beds offer a decidedly Edwardian ambience, bolstered by the room's airy, high ceilings and a historic draft. Luckily, there are mitigations, in the form of heavy antique upholstery and toasty radiators. The house feels stately, with a presence that's not quite human - a somewhat ghostly vibe. There's a charge in the air. Dinners are a dress-up affair, despite the otherwise relaxed attitude, and we join a melange of glamorous locals and international visitors filling the candlelit dining room.
Villa Sjötorp | Image credit: Jeska Hearne-Lobster & Swan / Westsweden.com
Fish from the Bohuslän coast and produce picked from the fertile Västergötland forests make for excellent dinner dishes. Back in our room, a strange chill remains, despite the heating. We soon warm up tucked into our single bed, watching the shadows creep across the walls, hearing the building moan and creak as we drift into slumber. In the morning, it's back to Gothenburg, with a bucketful of magical memories of our West Sweden adventures.