The message traveled down a quiet country road in the Swedish province of Smaland, from the mouth of the chef to the ears of the foragers. We need more yarrow – pass it on.
"There's a big load over here," said Dave Martin, a Briton living in Sweden with his wife and toddler. "There's like a lot, a lot. There are also bees around here."
Dave stuck an arm into enemy territory, grabbed his prize and deposited the greens in a basket already brimming with salad ingredients. Then he went in again. Our party of five, all participants of the Edible Country initiative, couldn't let a few stinging insects derail our lunch plans. Plus, we had as much of a right to be here as they did. So, fly aside, bee.
"Being in nature is very much a part of Swedish culture and our childhood," said Mina Carlsson, who works at Asa Herrgard, the hotel that runs the dining program in Smaland. "Because of the 'right to roam,' we take advantage of the outdoors. We also learn how not to die."
In Sweden, outdoor access is a constitutional right. The privilege, which dates to the Middle Ages, is as integral to the Swedish lifestyle as universal health care, generous parental leave and pickled herring. Allemansratt, which translates to "everyman's right," guarantees the freedom to ramble, even on private lands. The law applies to all types of outdoor recreationists, including foragers, who can collect plant life on most tracts of land, with a few exceptions. Among them: No Peter Rabbit-ing in private gardens or on cultivated parcels, and no venturing within 75 yards of a private residence. But as long as you follow the edict of "do not disturb or destroy," you, too, can shop in Sweden's supermarket without walls.
"We have a long history of picking edible things in nature. One is the freedom to roam, and the other is we had been very poor not so long ago," said Cathrine Rydstrom, who works for Destination Smaland, the region's tourism bureau. "Today it is still quite common to go pick berries and mushrooms, even if you can buy them in the market. It's a thing to do during the weekend and bring fika with you or barbecue." (Fika is a snack break.)
Allemansratt on a plate
Unfortunately for many of us, our plant knowledge begins with poison ivy and ends with marijuana leaves. Edible Country can bridge the information gap. The new program created by Visit Sweden, the country's tourism board, is basically allemansratt on a plate. From May through September, adventurous diners can choose among 13 stations (actually, 12-seat picnic tables) around the country and cook a foraged meal in nature. This way, they can experience the freedom-to-roam principle without the post-meal trip to the universal health care system.
The settings showcase the country's diverse landscapes, environments and vegetation. You can reserve a seat on a windmill-dotted island in the Stockholm Archipelago. A sea-grass-fringed beach on the Kattegat Sea. A forest overlooking the 19th-century Gota Canal. If you are impatient for summer's bounty, fly south to Skane, the southernmost province. If you prefer an Arctic chill even in July (and want to see reindeer and meet Sami herders), head north to Swedish Lapland, which is four to six weeks behind the south's blooming calendar
Booking the table is free; so are the inspirational (or aspirational?) recipes on Visit Sweden's website. Four Michelin-starred chefs from Sweden created menus for the spring and summer harvests, plus one for raw foodies. Since the ingredients vary by geography, each recipe notes the region: If you are down south, try whipping up perch sashimi with donkey rhubarb and wild herb salad. In the north, toss together smoked char, chanterelles, juniper berries and wood sorrel. Each recipe also includes a brief overview of the main foraged ingredients. The section on sweet cicely describes its growing habitats (rural settlements, roadsides, parks) and leaf shape. No pictures are included, so try not to confuse "large, triangular and repeatedly fluffy" leaves with tufts of sheep's wool.
The reservation comes with just a table; you won't find a cooking stove or bottle of olive oil stashed in a tree hollow or under a rock. However, participants can choose assistants (living and inanimate) for a fee. Individual hotels and outfitters run the tables, so the prices and inclusions differ by location. Asa Herrgard, for instance, offers a cooking kit with a Primus gas stove, lighter, cutting board, utensils, table settings, mosquito repellent and water for $16, an ingredients basket for $21 and a chef for about $53 an hour. In Arjeplog, Pernilla and Ingemar Lestander can provide you with a foraging guide (two hours for $16), a fishing pro with a license ($27 for two hours) and a chef ($16).
Torn about whether to hire a Swedish expert or go it alone? Maybe this will help you decide: Ground elder, which appears in several recipes, belongs to the same family as hemlock.
On a July morning with a startling blue sky and a determined sun, we set off from the front porch of Asa Herrgard, ready to bushwhack for our meal. Several dainty steps later, we arrived at our first foraging spot, a berry patch on the hotel grounds. The bushes popped with gooseberries and red and black currants. We easily filled several wooden bowls, losing only a few to Yvla, the Martins' daughter, who had redirected the fruit to her mouth.
Our group piled into the back of an ATV piloted by Pontus Sjoholm, the hotel's chef and our foraging maestro. We bounced along an unpaved road, passing sheep-grazing fields that unspooled toward Lake Asa, which was popular among sauna enthusiasts. (Sweat and plunge, on a loop.) We hopped out, baskets in hand, to collect yarrow and lucerne, which tastes like peas.
"We need 20 to 25 clover," Pontus instructed us, plucking a purple-flowered specimen along the edge of the road.
After we reached our clover quota, I noticed Pontus and Dave squatting in a dense patch of greenery and joined their hunt for fir tips. The season was nearly over for young fir tips, so we had to touch-test a lot of tops.
"If it stings you," Pontus said, "it's not good to eat."
Dave's eyes widened. Pontus corrected himself: If the fir tip tastes bitter.
Picking fruits, nuts and other plant life off trees is not permitted under the freedom-to-roam policy, because of the potential harm to the living organism. However, because we were on the hotel's property, we could harvest hazelnuts. I gently plucked about a dozen green-fringed cups containing the smooth, white nuts – nature's thoughtful packaging.
The lunch spot was a short hike in, across a carpet of spongy moss, down a slight hill and over a creek to a clearing of sky-eclipsing pine trees. The red spruce picnic table was set for an Anthropolgie catalogue shoot – or a troll's wedding to a fairy – with wildflowers in glass vases, tree trunk place mats, a canopy to catch raindrops and shaggy blue rugs to warm bottoms on benches. Candles in glass jars hung overhead, ready for a darkness that would not come until after midnight.
"I thought it was going to be a small empty bench in the forest," said Simon Bishopp, who was traveling through Sweden with his wife and the Martins.
Not in Sweden, which has achieved the unthinkable: making clogs and flat-pack furniture fashionable.
Food that's fresh, bright and pure
While we were sighing over the setting, Pontus was deep into cooking. He had lit a fire and gas camping stove and, with his octopus arms, was stirring, cutting, de-stemming, boiling and frying. We pitched in with the prep work, dicing bread, extricating hazelnuts and chopping up juniper berries. After about an hour in the kitchen, we moved three steps over to the dining room. We sat down as one big happy family for our first course: a salad of lucerne, clover, hazelnuts, yarrow and fried bread cubes. And our second course: pike and parsnips smoked in junipers with potatoes, wild onion, Jerusalem artichokes and a confetti drop of herb salad. And dessert: wild berries drizzled in a homemade caramel sauce.
I cleaned my plate, and not just because I was trying to be efficient and roll eating and the dishes into one act. The food was fresh, bright and pure – no preservatives, no pollution, no faking the seasons. Plus, Pontus used a lot of butter. I am pretty sure I had plant stems and berry skins in my teeth, a smile that complemented my dirt-streaked cheeks.
"Your lunch is behind the church," Pernilla said, handing me a basket.
Pernilla and Ingemar have close ties to the land and lakes of Arjeplog, the Lapland town about an hour south of the Arctic Circle. They lead fishing trips and other outdoor excursions throughout the year. In the winter, Ingemar also cuts wood, works as a carpenter and sells fish to the car companies that test their vehicles in the region's extreme weather.
"You have to do everything if you want to survive here," he said.
Pernilla placed several laminated cards on the hood of their car and reviewed some of the ingredients we were going to select for lunch.
'Not dirty, earthy'
"You can eat red clover raw in salad, drink it as a tea or fry it with a little butter and salt," she said.
On the way to the church, we picked some herbs on the road between the Hornavan Hotell and a boat dock. We gathered sorrel, which the couple would cook down into a sauce for the Arctic char, and tufted vetch, which also tastes like peas, the chicken of the plant world. Pernilla handed me a sprig to prove her point. We pulled fistfuls of rosebay willow, yarrow and lady's mantle.
"It takes like the ground," she said of the latter herb. "Not dirty, earthy."
For the prickly nettles, Ingemar slid on a glove. Pernilla didn't have hand protection, so she narrated. "You take the small nettles. The younger, the tastier."
Pernilla pointed out rowan ("tastes like almond") and red berries that she dismissed as too sour. "Some people try to make wine with them, but" – she made a face – "no." We were too late for the dandelion buttons. However, when the plants are in season, Pernilla recommends frying and sweetening them with honey. She said they go down like candy. I excitedly discovered mushrooms, but she squashed my umami dreams: The fungi are only good for burning as a mosquito repellent.
Our picnic table sat on an island in Lake Hornavan, amid an electric-green forest and a sliver of a beach. Arctic char and trout inhabit the country's deepest lake. Ingemar brought a fishing rod, but he was also realistic and tossed in some fillets from home, too.
Our beverage, however, was guaranteed. Pernilla filled a pitcher with lake water, which she claimed was cleaner than tap water, and threw in a few birch leaves for a hint of flavor. The water was naturally cold and tasteless, in the best way possible. Ingemar also rinsed our herbs and flowers in the lake, which I was grateful to see after noticing several dogs in the area.
"You have to like nature to live here," she said. "We try to take care of what we have and be gentle to nature."
Lunch was ready. We gathered around the picnic table for an herb salad with a honey and oil dressing, smoked Arctic char lightly doused with a sorrel and creme fraiche sauce, boiled potatoes, nettle soup and fire-baked flatbread. The wind kicked up and I wrapped myself in a blanket and ate more bread to warm up. Ingemar boiled coffee on the fire. We downed several helpings, because we didn't want to insult nature.
Leave behind the leftovers
After the meal, we all helped clean up. I asked Pernilla what I should do with the leftovers. "Take them back to nature," she said.
I threw the plants into the forest, contributing to a future meal.