"They're like mad scientists in there," my guide tells me, gesturing to an inconspicuous unmarked door in the back of the food hall in Malmö, where I'm eating lunch. The people in question are Nick Rosenstock and Matthias Lehner, the co-founders of up-and-coming kombucha brewery Roots, whose small but tidy operation is winning fans all over Skåne, the Swedish county just across the bridge from Copenhagen. Food and drink in the region – which contains, among others, the cities of Malmö and Helsingborg – can feel like an art, but more often, I discover, it's treated like a science.
I'm here to meet with a series of clever and exciting food personalities, from chefs to chocolatiers and beer brewers, but before I do that my guide, Eva Eilstrup, talks me through the region's various new food movements over a huge, open-faced sandwich. Or Scandwich, as is the name of the joint I'm eating at – the brainchild of a former chef who started messing around with simple, no-nonsense sandwiches built on fresh sourdough bread and topped with pickled and fermented vegetables and sauces in the hours after service. A food truck soon followed, before they opened in this food court, whose minimal exterior hides a wealth of exciting artisans, all of whom seem on a relentless search for what natural processes and constant reinvention can do to food.
We talk fermentation, too – the name given to the process of converting sugars in food into acids or alcohol, and a key part of Nordic food culture thanks to its long-standing use in preserving food. It's a tradition that's winning back contemporary food producers in the city, arguably led by its most visible food scientist, Jenny Neikell, who produces jarred kimchi, among other things, and has just written a book about fermentation. Once we've polished off our sandwiches, we're led through the unmarked door into the equally minimal space that houses Rosenstock and Lehner's labour of love – a slightly sour, lip-smackingly refreshing fermented (but not alcoholic) tea drink that's becoming increasingly popular in health food circles and beyond, for its digestive qualities as well as its taste.
Food and drink in Skåne can feel like an art, but more often, it's treated like a science
It starts, as most things in Skåne seem to, with a culture. Not in the anthropological sense; a cultivation of microorganisms, or 'mother', which kick-starts the fermentation process and turns the tea into something wilder, fresher, more interesting. During a tasting of Roots' new flavours – including one infused with seven flowers – I swallow the small, jellyfish-looking 'mother' that's settled in the bottom of my glass. Its taste is benign, but it's living – so much so, in fact, that you could use it to start the fermentation of an entirely new batch of kombucha if you saw fit.
Later, I'm at the restaurant Far i Hatten, a courtyard hangout and restaurant in the centre of the city's Folkets Park. Chef Simon Lennblad shows us around the kitchen, which is filled to the brim with jars of lazily fermenting vegetables and berries. It's a restaurant with the spirit of a laboratory. Forget Noma – in Malmö, it seems, every kitchen is a development kitchen. I try umeboshi – a Japanese salted and fermented plum dish – as well as fermented cloudberries, umami-laden bean pastes, and fermented spring lamb. "When you work with ferments, it's just about forgetting about stuff," Lennblad tells me. "Letting it be." Later, when I come back to Far i Hatten to try Lennblad's tasting menu, the evidence of this endless experimentation is present, but not obvious. The dishes aren't overloaded with punchy fermented flavours; they're subtle flourishes to a menu that's as minimal and religiously seasonal as you'd hope and expect.
Skåne's fermentation craze shouldn't surprise: it's merely a modern-day mentality applied to centuries-old food techniques of the Nordics, helped by a vibrant start-up culture – if you'll excuse the pun – inherent in the region's small cities. It's in part a microcosm of the 'New Nordic Food' movement – a dogma initiated by some of the subcontinent's leading chefs that promotes an ethical, seasonal and self-sufficient approach to food, led by luminaries including Claus Meyer, Noma head chef Rene Redzepi and Faroese chef Leif Sorensen. Where the NNF movement is all-encompassing and international, Skåne's food movements are small-scale – taking inspiration from the region's historic status as the country's natural larder, and incorporating new and borrowed techniques.
And fermentation isn't the only old tradition getting a revamp: coffee is getting an upgrade in Skåne, too. The Swedish tradition of fika – coffee and cake shared with friends, essentially – is centuries-old. But it, too, is being taken back to the lab, so to speak, by an enlightened few who are slowly changing its perception. In Malmö, it's Filip Åkerblom, who grew tired of average coffee and started experimenting with roasting his own beans, opening Lilla Kafferosteriet shortly afterwards. He's more than a café owner: he's an acolyte of the Speciality Coffee Association of Europe, and one of the national representatives of an artisanal trend whose potential is practically limitless – Sweden is a nation of great coffee drinkers; he wants to turn them into drinkers of great coffee.
Much of Åkerblom's job is travelling: specifically to coffee-producing nations in Central and South America, East Asia and Africa, to form direct relationships with growers. This results in a suite of beans to sample at the café. Brazilian beans, he tells me, tend to be sweeter, while Indonesian favour a longer finish and a spiciness, and African beans have a sharper acidity and a silkier mouthfeel. They're terms you might have heard in coffee culture, but they're probably more akin to discussing whisky or wine.
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An hour's drive north from Malmö, in the harbour city of Helsingborg, another of the Swedish coffee renaissance's leading lights, Anne Lunell, takes me through a similar tasting at her café Koppi, using V60 filters, conical flasks and incredible precision to showcase the South American producers she buys from. Their coffee is tannic and acidic, with dried fruit notes evident, and there's the sense of being able to taste coffee in its purest form. She set up Koppi with her fiancé Charles Nystrand in 2007, and the two are students of the raw material. If anything showcases how quickly an idea can permeate in this flourishing food culture, consider this: in 2005, he made a small but important piece of history as the first of Sweden's Barista Championship winners to actually discuss where his coffee came from. Anne won it the following year.
Elsewhere in Helsingborg, a slice of the craft-beer revolution is brewing, too. Sweden's also a country of beer drinkers, and behind the bustling Oxhallen food market by the harbour is Helsingborgs Bryggeri – a tiny craft brewery producing award-winning new-school beers. Down the road, in a larger factory space, Marcus Hjalmarsson's Brewski brewery is converting scores of beer drinkers onto its fruit-infused ales. There is, inevitably, collaboration at work here: when I drop in, he's co-brewing with the team from Kentucky's Against the Grain brewery, whom Hjalmarsson met at a beer festival. Koppi, due to move their roastery to a space in the same lot, will probably partner up on an experimental coffee-infused beer, too.
At Koppi, you taste coffee in its purest form
It's not all about reinvention, though. While plenty of Skåne's artisans are playing with historic tradition, some are giving other regions' and nations' cultural exports a Nordic twist. A short coastal drive away, on the bucolic outskirts of the municipality of Höganäs, sits Holy Smoke BBQ and Chiligaraget. The former is something Londoners are plenty familiar with – a group of enthusiasts who, after research trips to the southern states and idea-sharing with barbecue chefs, are now poster boys for the cuisine in Skåne. People drive from miles away – and even from Denmark – to visit Holy Smoke's open courtyard smokehouse and eat their take on US BBQ. Chiligaraget, though, is doing something genuinely far-out: Swede Mats Hjalmarsson and Canadian Mark Wilcox – who moved to Skåne years ago and never left – are growing and breeding chillis in an adjacent greenhouse. Not only that, though, they're also playing a part in introducing piquancy – still largely unexplored in Swedish cooking – to the region's food culture, and sharing ideas in person and online with a growing community of chilli heads.
These people are all, in their own way, as my guide described them: "mad scientists". Whether they're reinventing traditions or creating new ones – fika and open sandwiches, or kimchi and kombucha – there's a sense of exploration, studiousness, and respect for produce that I've rarely seen before. It might be madness, but the method certainly reigns supreme.