It blazes through like a comet. So in the happy mania of summer, Swedes soak up as much sunshine and seawater as time allows. Peter Jon Lindber explores a country living in awe of the sun. 

A nation of sun seekers

summer sweden
A view of Fjällbacka from the water

It’s one of those shimmering Swedish afternoons when everything seems to glow from within: the boathouses, pulsing vermilion red; the glittering, wind-rippled bay; the chalk-white houses of coastal Fjällbacka, luminous under the Nordic sky.

Laughter and ships’ bells echo off the marina. One could walk a half-mile 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 deck at Restaurang Matilda, a rowdy crew is singing Swedish folk tunes, knocking back aquavit and ripping into platters of crayfish.

In Sweden, summer blazes through like a comet, hot and bright, then disappears for ages. Even at midsummer's crest, every gain—in temperature, in daylight, in crayfish—must be reckoned against impending loss. “Swedes worship summer like a religion,” says acclaimed Stockholm chef Niklas Ekstedt. That started in pre-Christian times, with Midsummer’s Day. But neither the church nor commercialisation has killed that tradition.

And so, around the third week of June, Swedes begin their great migration to vast inland lakes, fast-flowing rivers and, especially, the coasts—to soak up as much sunshine and sea-water as time allows.

 

 

Summer rituals

smogen houses
"This place, a sinister town-of-secrets? It recalled a miniature village from a model railway"

As the grandson of Swedish immigrants, I’m well acquainted with the quasi-pagan rites of summer. Growing up, I’d embraced similar rituals 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 time each summer in his ancestral home of Smögen—that inspired me to make my own return to the source.

With Marcus as my occasional cohort, last year I traced Sweden’s Bohuslän Coast in that happy mania. I’d rise at 5am for kayaking, spend every golden hour outdoors and linger until the last of the sun’s rosy aura vanished from the midnight sky.

In contrast to Sweden’s leeward, verdant east coast, this western county is raw and wind-lashed, more granite than green. Its seaside resorts just a few hours’ drive from Oslo to the north and Göteborg, to the south, the region routinely draws streams of summer revellers.

 

 

“Swedes worship summer like a religion”

 

 

Bohuslän’s resort towns may appear interchangeable, but there are some variations—primarily, the favoured local catch. There’s Lysekil in the south, with its distinctly nutty mussels. Grebbestad in the north, with its celebrated oysters. And Smögen midway, with its sweet, rose-coloured prawns.

Fjällbacka, the prettiest of these communities, is known for two former residents. Ingrid Bergman kept a house on the island Dannholmen off Fjällbacka from 1958 until her death in 1982. There’s a bronze bust of the actress in the town square. 

Whole walking tours are devoted to Camilla Läckberg, the wildly popular crime novelist. Her eight 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, a sinister town-of-secrets? It recalled a miniature village from a model railway.

Read more: An A–Z guide to preparing shellfish

 

 

"Here, the sea is everything"

sea is everything
Swimming off the docks in Smögen

As I set out on my first morning, a line had formed outside Setterlinds Bageri, a favourite of Bergman’s, who made pilgrimages for Mandelberg cake and kardemummabullar (savoury-sweet cardamom rolls).

On the pier, children gobbled bags of gummy sweets. Handsome women and tanned men were hiking Vetteberget, the granite butte that juts 250 feet up from the town centre. On a gentler hillside above the harbour, cobble-stoned 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 flag flapped on rooftops.

This odd mix of harshness and grace—of wind-scarred rock and rose bushes—is what gives Bohuslän its stirring beauty. But its greatest assets are hiding underwater. From these clean bays comes northern Europe’s finest seafood, not least the coveted saltwater crayfish, which are actually plump, delectable langoustines. Here, the sea is everything.

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 fishing village that feels like a Viking encampment on the edge of the world. If Fjällbacka is sleepy, Grönemad is comatose.

 

 

The freshest catch

oysters
Fresh oysters caught with Per and Lars Karlsson

Brothers Per and Lars Karlsson run oyster and lobster “safaris” out of their 130-year-old boathouse, Everts Sjöbod. Inside it’s still 1884: candle wax overflows from old brown beer bottles; lanterns rest on wooden barrels; knotty rafters are tangled with ropes and fishing nets. Last May the brothers added six guest rooms with kitchenettes and pine interiors. Per showed me to one of the smaller suites upstairs, where a terrace overlooks the bay. Then we went out to harvest oysters.

This was easier than I’d expected. From the boathouse pier, Per dipped his eight-foot oysterman’s rake, rummaged in the seabed and pulled up half a dozen shallow-cupped European flats. Soon we had three dozen. We took our pail onto the brothers’ small fishing boat and, with Lars at the helm, chugged into the bay.

 

 

“We used to serve champagne, but it didn’t feel very Swedish”

 

 

After we moored off an islet where seals were basking, Per handed me a knife and we set to work shucking. Even in summer the oysters were full-bodied. Still cool from the sea, they didn’t even need ice. They also paired well with Per’s home-brewed porter. “We used to serve champagne,” he said, “but it didn’t feel very Swedish.”

After another 20 slurps, I was high on porter and oyster liquor. It was early evening, but the sun still hung high. “Back to the sjöbod?” asked Lars, knocking back one last half-shell.

Later, the sunset painted everything crayfish-pink. It was 9.55pm and I sat on my terrace reading Läckberg’s The Stonecutter. A Fjällbacka girl had turned up drowned (murdered?), her corpse entangled in a lobster trap.

Then I heard a scream and a splash. On the public pier, kids were somersaulting into the glassy bay. A Swedish family was savouring the last of the light. This looked too fun to miss. I put on my swimsuit and leapt off my boathouse dock. The water was surprisingly warm. When the light finally left, the family followed suit, and on the water all was silent. I swam back and tiptoed upstairs to bed.

 

Read the full feature in the August edition of Reader's Digest 

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Feature image via Tommy Alven / Shutterstock.com

 

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