Sweden's Most Perfect Season is (Finally!) Here
It’s one of those shimmering Swedish afternoons when everything seems to glow from within: the boathouses on the harbor, all pulsing vermilion red; the wind-rippled bay, glittering like a million suns; and the chalk-white houses of coastal Fjällbacka, luminous under the Nordic sky.
Laughter and ship’s bells echo off the town marina. One could walk a half-mile out to sea just by hopping across schooners and yachts. (In western Sweden there’s a boat for every man, woman, child, and dog.) On the waterside deck at Restaurang Matilda, a rowdy crew is singing Swedish folk tunes, knocking back aquavit and ripping into platters of crayfish. There’s barely enough space to move.
See the gallery: In Pictures: How Sweden Welcomes Summer
If you are Swedish you will register this scene with deep satisfaction—and also, perhaps, a twinge of anxiety. For in Sweden, summer blazes through like a comet, hot and bright and ungodly fast, then abruptly disappears. For ages. Even at midsommar’s hopeful crest, every blessed gain—in temperature, in daylight, in crayfish—must be reckoned against impending loss.
And so it is that, around the third week of June, the entire country is catapulted into a joyful panic. That’s when Swedes begin their great migration—to vast inland lakes, fast-flowing rivers, and, especially, to the coasts. This delirium prevails until mid-August, when the kids go back to school: all of Sweden soaking up as much sunshine and seawater as precious time allows.
As the grandson of Swedish immigrants, I am well acquainted with the quasi-pagan rites of summer. Growing up, I’d embraced similar rituals across the Atlantic, in Maine, where days were measured in saltwater ablutions and lobster-shack lunches. But it was the cajoling of my pal Marcus Samuelsson, the Swedish-American chef—who spends part of each summer in his family’s ancestral home of Smögen—that inspired a return to the source.
With Marcus as my occasional cohort, last August I traced Sweden’s Bohuslän Coast in that familiar, happy mania, bent on wringing every drop from summer’s quickly receding tide. I would rise at 5 a.m. for sunrise kayaking; spend every golden hour outdoors; and linger, like the sun, late into the evening, until the last of its rosy aura had vanished from the midnight sky.
In contrast to Sweden’s leeward east coast—gentle, verdant, refined—the western county of Bohuslän is raw and wind-lashed, showing more granite than green. If you’re accustomed to the pine-covered Stockholm Archipelago, it can feel like another country. And it is, sort of. Conflate coastal Maine with the more lunar landscapes of Iceland and you’ll have a fair picture of Bohuslän.
With its seaside resorts just a few hours’ drive from Oslo, to the north, and Göteborg, to the south, the region draws streams of summer revelers from both cities. In fact, oil-rich Norwegians have been buying up property here at a rapid clip. (“They’re the Russians of western Sweden,” said a Swedish friend.)
Bohuslän’s resort towns may be superficially interchangeable, but there are subtle variations—primarily, the favored local catch. There’s Lysekil, in the south, with its distinctly nutty, umami-rich mussels. Grebbestad, in the north, with its celebrated oyster trade. And Smögen, midway between, with its sweet, rose-colored shrimp.
Fjällbacka, the prettiest of these communities, is known less for fishing than for two former residents. Ingrid Bergman kept a house on an island off Fjällbacka from 1958 until her death in 1982. There’s a bronze bust of the actress in the town square, which is named for her.
Bergman may have her statue, but whole walking tours are devoted to native daughter Camilla Läckberg, the wildly popular crime novelist. All eight of her books are set, improbably, in this sleepy town of 900 (the summer population swells to 15,000). I’ve read a few of Läckberg’s mysteries, and her imaginative gifts seemed all the more impressive when I saw Fjällbacka in the cheerful light of day. Really? This place? Far from Läckberg’s sinister town-of-secrets, it recalled a miniature village from a model railway.
As I set out on my first morning, a line had already formed outside Setterlinds Bageri, an old favorite of Bergman’s, who made pilgrimages for moist, almondy Mandelberg cake and kardemummabullar (savory-sweet cardamom rolls). On the public pier, towheaded kids gobbled bags of gummy candy. Handsome women and impossibly tanned men were hiking up the Vetteberget, the granite butte that juts 250 feet up from the town center—it, too, looked like a train-set prop. On a gentler hillside above the harbor, cobblestoned paths wound past cottages with red-tiled roofs and the gingerbread trim known as snickarglädje or “carpenter’s delight.” Geraniums filled every window box, and the Swedish blue-and-yellow flapped on every other rooftop.
This odd mix of harshness and grace—of wind-scarred rock and rosebushes—is what gives Bohuslän its stirring beauty. Its greatest assets, however, are found not on land but hiding underwater. From these cold, clean bays and inlets comes some of northern Europe’s finest seafood, not least the coveted Bohuslän saltwater crayfish, which are not actually crayfish, but plump, delectable langoustines. Their flavor is staggering, their abundance obscene. Here, the sea is everything. At shorefront snack bars, teenagers order hot dogs topped with shrimp and mayonnaise.
If you’ve come, like me, to devour as much seafood as possible, you’ll chart a course for Grebbestad, where half of Sweden’s lobster, 70 percent of its crayfish, and 90 percent of its oysters are harvested. I’d driven up from Fjällbacka to spend the day and night in Grönemad, a minuscule fishing village just north of Grebbestad. Village is too strong a word: Grönemad feels like a Viking encampment on the edge of the known world. If Fjällbacka is sleepy, Grönemad is downright comatose. In 24 hours I saw more cattle—grazing beside the town beach—than people.
Fortunately, two of those people were Per and Lars Karlsson, seafaring brothers who run oyster and lobster “safaris” out of their Grönemad boathouse, Everts Sjöbod. The boathouse is 130 years old, and inside it’s still 1884: kerosene lanterns rest on wooden barrels; knotty rafters are tangled with ropes and pulleys and fishing nets. Last May the brothers added four modest guest rooms with kitchenettes and bright pickled-pine interiors. Per showed me to one of the smaller suites upstairs, where a breezy terrace overlooks the bay. Then we went out to harvest some oysters.
This was easier than I’d expected. From the boathouse pier, Per simply dipped in his eight-foot oysterman’s rake, rummaged in the seabed, and pulled up half a dozen shallow-cupped European flats, the size and color of sand dollars. A few more rakings and we had three dozen. We took our pail onto the brothers’ small fishing boat, and with Lars at the helm, chugged out into the bay.
The coastline was gnarly and sea-gouged and fuzzy with moss; it looked like an oyster. After we moored off a tiny islet where seals were basking in the sun, Per broke out the pail and handed me a spare knife, and we set to work shucking our haul. Even in summer the oysters were full-bodied and full-flavored. Still cool from the sea, they didn’t even need ice. They also paired well with Per’s excellent homebrewed porter. “We used to serve champagne,” he said, “but that didn’t feel very Swedish.”
After another 20 slurps I was buzzed on porter and oyster liquor. It was early evening, but the sun still hung high. “So: back to the sjöbod?” asked Lars, knocking back one last half-shell for the journey.
Later that night, the sunset had painted everything crayfish-pink. It was 9:55 p.m., and I sat on my rooftop terrace reading Läckberg’s The Stonecutter. A Fjällbacka girl had turned up drowned (murdered?), her corpse entangled in a lobster trap.
Just then I heard a scream, followed by a splash. On the public pier, kids were somersaulting into the glassy bay. A Swedish family was savoring the last of the evening’s light. Laughter pealed across the water. This looked too fun to miss. I put on my swimsuit and leaped off the boathouse dock. The water was surprisingly warm, and smooth as a skating rink. When the light finally left, the family followed suit, disappearing across the cow pasture. On the water all was silent. I floated for what seemed like hours, till I could barely see the shore in the dim, then swam back to the sjöbod and tiptoed upstairs to bed.
The next morning I was off to Smögen, where Marcus was waiting. The chef is a proud son of Göteborg, but many of his prized childhood memories took place 50 miles north, in Smögen, where his adoptive father was born. Here the Samuelsson clan would gather every summer, in a rambling, three-story Victorian owned by Marcus’s grandmother. And it was here that young Marcus learned to fish and, not least, cook his catch under the watchful eyes of his father and uncles.
Smögen—year-round population 1,400—is one of Europe’s great and enduring fishing towns. Its famous fish auction, founded in 1919, still operates twice a day. Smögen is also the headquarters of Abba, the seafood conglomerate and maker of Sweden’s beloved Kalles Kaviar (fish-roe spread), whose retro blue-and-yellow packaging will be familiar to any IKEA shopper. There’s a playground in the heart of town with a slide shaped like a Kalles Kaviar tube.
Running along Smögen’s central harbor is a classic old brygge, or boardwalk—Sweden’s longest—lined with restaurants, bars, souvenir shops, and fish markets. Marcus and I strolled the brygge on our first afternoon. Inside, all the restaurants were empty, but the dockside patios were jammed. “In July,” said Marcus, “there are people all along the boardwalk, legs dangling over the edge—some jumping in, some falling in. It’s a madhouse.”
We were walking with Marcus’s cousin Karin Samuelsson, who runs a local summer-rental agency called Smögen Rum o Stuga (“rooms and cottages”). She and Marcus know half the people in Smögen, which for six weeks of the season is a summer party town, and as we walked everyone called out exuberant hellos. For a visitor used to a certain Nordic reserve, it was funny to see Swedes so voluble. Like molting crayfish, they’d burst from their shells. “Remember, for nine months we hardly even see the neighbor’s cat,” said Karin. “Then, for that short spurt of the season, we’re just relentlessly social.” She laughed. “It’s frankly kind of exhausting!”
I spent three days in Smögen with Marcus and his family, during which time I consumed half my body weight in crayfish. On the final day Marcus and I booked a crayfishing trip with Martin Olofsson, a ninth-generation fisherman. (Actually, Martin’s own father broke the streak and became a boat mechanic. But his son wised up and went back to the sea.)
Martin speaks with a warbly, sing-song inflection that, per Marcus, “is sort of the Swedish equivalent of a Maine lobsterman’s accent. As a kid I couldn’t understand a word.” He laughed. “Now I get about half of it.”
Wearing yellow slickers, matching overalls, and thick rubber boots, we set out with Martin and his crew to the crayfishing grounds, a few miles out to sea. Crayfish traps resemble lobster traps, and rest on the seabed below. Retrieving them was fairly simple: Martin aimed for his telltale orange buoys, and with long hooked poles Marcus and I would grab the lines, and then use a crank to hoist the traps. Most held at least a couple of crayfish, plus the odd crab or jellyfish. Working quickly, we’d empty the traps—the crabs clung tightly to the mesh, claws snapping at our fingers—rebait them with chunks of salted herring, and stack them on the deck for later.
It was tiring but thrilling work. After an hour we’d netted 63 langoustines. Good timing, said Martin: that morning, the market had hit a season high of $18 a pound.
Earlier, on the sun-drenched pier, I’d thought our thick yellow rain gear seemed excessive. Now, though, as the sky suddenly grew heavy with clouds, I could see what nine generations of Olofssons could teach a Lindberg about weather in western Sweden.
We were within sight of Smögen’s iconic Hallo lighthouse, yet being tossed on huge heaving swells as if in the heart of the Atlantic. Slipping and sliding across the rain-slicked deck, careening into each other as the boat rocked and reeled, Marcus and I eventually managed to toss back all the traps. Martin, meanwhile, stood firm and smiling at the wheel, secure in his element and his bright yellow raincoat.
“Jag älskar sommaren!” he shouted to me and Marcus, flashing a grin as a monster wave crashed over the hull.
“I love summer, too!” Marcus shouted back, and we all fell into laughter.
See the gallery: In Pictures: How Sweden Welcomes Summer