Chill flood-lighting sharpened every contour on the grand Hanseatic buildings of the waterside, rendering them pristine and forbidding. Between them, the residual gloom slopped and swirled: black water, a few gently rocking masts, dead leaves melting into mud and puddles. The grey skies of the short day had been graduated only in their wintry menace.
Never mind: inside Stockholm's high-performance restaurants, the invention is luminous. I was there for just one dinner, but it was a memorable one, created by two of the city's pioneering chefs: Niklas Ekstedt and Jonas Lagerström. The meal was served in Ekstedt's eponymous restaurant where every act of cooking is carried out by naked flame: fire pit, smoker, wood oven, wood stove. No doubt the fire drills are punctilious and the chimney arrangements byzantine; what hit us on entry was the mingled smells of sauna and medieval banqueting hall. There was nothing pointlessly modish about all of this: all of Ekstedt's dishes, often from foraged ingredients, had a kind of rustic, smoky glow to them which exerted an atavistic appeal, intensified by the almost careless presentation. Jonas Lagerström's dishes were 'cleverer' and more ingenious, drawing on the molecular tradition – though without needless pyrotechnics, which in any case might be inadvisable in a kitchen where open flames leapt hungrily. Both chefs talked briefly to us, looking agreeably dishevelled, as if they'd been foraged themselves.
The 'Amuse' dishes which arrived prior to the meal included 'lichen and roe deer' (from Ekstedt: it turned out to be a kind of savoury candyfloss for adults) and a gratifyingly coarse 'Ember baked squid and unripe black currant'. Jonas Lagerström's two equivalent dishes brought raw beef and caviar together in a glisteningly soft parcel of liquorice; a pink 'bagel' turned out to be a crunchy then sticky confederation of foie gras, pumpkin and passionfruit. Better still was the more straightforward starter dish called 'Last Summer', which bathed fermented gooseberries, clams and tomato with unspecified greens (someone guessed lovage) in an irresistible broth. And so it went on, via lamb with miso and 'blood grape' and smoked reindeer with salsify and quince to a bubbling and extremely smelly cheese dish with birch-flamed apple and kale and a dessert with red beets, freeze-dried soy sauce and chocolate.
I was in Stockholm with a group of Gigondas producers who paired these dishes with some of their older wines, often served from magnum. On paper, it looked like a challenge. In fact the generosity and stuctured vitality of the grenache-based reds, now time-softened but neither loose nor fading, was just what the wild flavours needed.
Waiting to leave Stockholm the next day, I leafed through a book-length collection of Scandi chefs' dishes interspersed with Nordic landscapes. One dish, called something like 'Spirit of the Forest', stopped me in my tracks. The plate contained little other than brown scrapings, though it was surrounded by the kind of vegetation that you might find embedded in your car bodywork should you skid off the road into a peat bog. The scrapings were made of deer heart, beaver gland (it didn't say which one) and crushed ants; preparation time (including a curing or pickling of both gland and ants) took a month or more. Cooking or culinary anthropology? I'm not sure, but it's beyond Gigondas. I'd need a shot of vodka. Or two.