Finding my place. Dining at Noma.

Finding my place. Dining at Noma.

There is a place in every chefs life that holds something dear, a fantasy, a dream. When I was first learning to be a chef I was obsessed with cookbooks. I would splurge my wage on books filled with dishes from wonderful chefs that I never thought I would see or taste. I idolised fine dining, from molecular gastronomy all the way through naturalism and down to the very depths of haute cuisine I was utterly addicted. Being a chef, for me, is about feeding my addiction. My name is Josh Gregory and I am a food addict.

When I was around nineteen I found a book, there was a chef in Copenhagen that was changing the way we view food. He was looking inwards to find something new, he was foraging, fermenting and most importantly creating. That mans name was René Redzepi. Today marks a special day for me, today I get to live my dreams, to visit a place that has become quite special to me though I have never been here. Today we dine at Noma.

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We arrive at the restaurant and I can barely contain my excitement, hence the cheesey grin in the photo, James the restaurant manager, a fellow Aussie, greets us and snaps some rapid fire photos before we are whisked into fantasy land. First however the entire kitchen says hello! Jess and I felt like celebrities with all the handshakes and welcomes, an awesome beginning to what was yet to come. We sit and food arrives on mass. Canapés begin with a small bite of gooseberry and elderflower. The tart little berry loves the sprinkle of dried flowers on top and shook my palate into consciousness.

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Next whole kohlrabi arrive on stone, unpeeled, raw and kind of strange looking. “Nordic Coconuts” they are explained by our wonderful waitress Katherine. Stuffed inside were straws, we drink the cool juice of the vegetable. It is both refreshing yet has a depth of flavour like I have never tasted before. It was absolutely moorish and before we knew it each of our coconuts were completely drained.

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Hip berries and walnuts. I have never had hip berries so my interest was immediately piqued, almost tomato like in texture with a soft, floral sweetness that carried the walnut perfume wonderfully. This was finished in a few bites.

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A single bite of black currant berry and rose arrives, upon putting the little dose into your mouth the outer shell liquifies into a dreamy purée of the tart little berry. The rose gave not just the floral note but an almost spiced taste to the berry itself. I loved this little treat, it was interesting and deliciously textural.

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Moss and cep. Plain and simple. Having already tried the reindeer moss at Fäviken we were slightly less taken aback seeing it again. At Noma it arrives covered in dehydrated cep. Jess and I found the moss at Fäviken slightly tame, at Noma the cep powder exploded across the palate in a parade of earthy mushroom love. The crackling moss had great texture, delicate and delightful.

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Our next course comes in a rather weathered looking box, a biscuit tin in fact. Cheese cookie, rocket and stems. A one bite treasure, the cracker was so frail I nearly crushed it in my eagerness to devour. The rocket is wild and peppery which seemed to make the cheese shine. But blink and it was gone. I really wanted a box of those.

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A giant egg makes its way to our table, Jess and I stare as smoke begins to seep out of the edges, our chef lifts the lid and smoke whisps away leaving two pickled and smoked quail eggs. “Please eat all at once” chef says. As if I needed to be told twice. Rich creamy egg yolk is cuddled with smoke, the vinegar is a little cutaway from all that richness and the smoke is light and fragrant. Yum!

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Chefs serving food is something we don’t see enough of in Australia, by the end of our time here we had met practically the entire kitchen! Our next chef brings with him Caramelised milk and cod liver. This was a bite of the ocean. Salty and slightly nutty. The ocean proved to be a little overwhelming for Jess, but for me I found it a taste so of the sea that I wanted to eat more. So I of course ate the remainder of hers. At the same time arrived a Danish treat of Æbleskiver and greens. Usually a sweet pastry here it was served savoury, a kind of doughnut dough filled with cooked greens and topped with flowers of all kinds. The cod was great but these little treats were insane!

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Another treat from the sea, I must also mention we are still in canapé territory here and my belly is filling, Sea urchin toast. My first taste of Northern sea urchin, they prove to be much different to the ones we get at home, a little less mineral flavour and a little more richness, the addition of a duck skin cracker only added to this. The charred toast underneath also brought the humble urchin up to another level.

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From the sea to the forest floor, Cep mushrooms. They arrive dotted with a fermented beef paste. After visiting the Nordic food lab yesterday we know of the umami explosions caused by fermentation. Here the delicate ceps rose up to the power of a beef main course. Great flavours with but two seemingly simple ingredients.

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Burnt leek next. Yep looks like somebody forgot to take these ones off the BBQ. In fact what we eat is inside, the tiny leek hearts were soft and delicate. The addition of cod roe gave a lovely saltiness that sat just in front of sweet, smokey onion flavour. This was a great dish and really showcased the Nordic love of smoke and fire. Burn your leeks folks they are delicious.

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The final canapé is presented. Pike head, roasted and skewered. No cutlery, no problem! I dive straight into the cheeks, the neck meat and of course the eye. Jess fiddles around a bit before finally ripping in like a Viking warrior princess. I feel like I am having quite a bad influence on her. Perhaps when we have a restaurant we won’t even own cutlery? As for the fish it is perfectly cooked, supple and sweet. Always eat the eye!

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Bread in fine dining restaurants is a must but here, rather than the traditional little roll or slice of sourdough we are given an entire fresh loaf. Warm and toasty we can slather it with an acidulated butter or my favourite pork fat with crispy onions. At this point I am going to mention the service. I’m a chef so I’m constantly focused on the food, if you want details on service, ask Jess. Here service is something else, it is beyond friendly and professional by the end of our meal we felt like family. We chatted about out travels, learnt about our hosts lives, even exchanged contact details it was everything that is great about hospitality and beyond. No stuffy waiters with a gripe over wine pairing, no dress code, the service at Noma is utterly incredible. They make you feel so welcomed and so happy that you’re here, it was dare I say, perfect!

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Now back to food, a relatively new dish arrives, squid and fennel. The squid is shaved thin and served in a fennel broth so light it is like a whisper on the tongue. Broccoli adds an almost horseradish like flavour boosting the squid into a refreshing hum of seafood and vegetable. A great dish to begin our next stage of dining. The ice bowl it was served in also kept everything almost at freezing point!

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Ravioli looking shapes arrive next. They are in fact nasturtium leaves, filled with samphire and floating in an aromatic broth of rhubarb root. Again being at the Nordic food lab we could see a little fermentation happening here, the rhubarb root had a soy like depth with the nasturtium adding a creeping bitterness counteracting the saltiness of the samphire. The food at Noma is impeccably balanced, hand foraged ingredients are treated in a way that they truly shine.

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Onion and fermented pears. Now this is what we came to see. The dish is finished with ants. No that’s not a typo the dish is finished with ants. The Noma kitchen look into ingredients that can give different notes of flavour. Here the ants bring little pops of acidity paired with the smokey onion and fruity pear. I didn’t quite catch the description the first time so I just dove in without thinking, when our waitress came over and asked “how were you’re ants” I was shaken into realisation. This was a great dish, intensely savoury with the fermented pear and ants bringing harmonic sour notes. The ants can march one by one into my stomach anytime.

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Beets and aromatic herbs. Another wonderful savoury, the slow roasted beets were earthy and soft, the gaggle of herbs around the dish made every bite interesting. The dish was finished with rose oil, rose and beetroot being a combination I have never experienced paired together nicely with the rose bringing out some of the fruit notes within the beetroot.

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The next course was probably Jessica’s favourite, cauliflower and pine, cream and horseradish. Presented covered in fragrant pine needles the cauliflower had been slow roasted and basted in a pine stock. Rich and very fragrant. A sauce made with refreshing yoghurt whey softened the tangy punch of horseradish. This was a fantastic dish and definitely a highlight.

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We follow with some serious fermentation, a dish of potato and bleak fish roe. The potato is attacked with a mould which causes fermentation. This changes the flavour dramatically. They add some real earth notes combined with hop and barley aromatics, paired with soft, slightly salty fish roe this made for a seriously interesting course. A flavour that made us think as well as being pretty tasty!

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Now we have has a load of veggies, I am ready for some meat. Bring me meat for I am man. Then it arrives, locally hunted wild duck, pear and kale. The duck is fantastically pink and tastes of the wild. This duck swam in streams, flew through scrub, this duck lived, and he was delicious! With pear in many textures and a sauce of kale this dish tasted of the wild. The sweet pear and the ground, earthy taste of kale made for a fantastically pretty piece of meat.

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Thus finished our savoury courses. Dessert begins with blueberry and ants. An ice cream sandwich filled with green juniper and deliciously tart blueberry sorbet. Served alongside the sandwich are a few little nasturtium bites filled with a blueberry compote and an ant paste. The sweet blueberry, the vivid nasturtium and those wondrous little bites of sour that we now wonder how we lived without. It is a winning combination.

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We are nearing the end of this incredible experience, it has been so great I don’t think I want to leave! Our final course is a dish of potato and plum, a dish so beautifully simple that it became our instant favourite. The plum compote is rich and soft, next to it is a creamy, sweet, potato purée and a cream made from the inner seeds of the plum. The seeds infuse an almond like flavour into the cream which ties the entire dish into something truly magical. I cannot believe that we are here, this is the stuff dreams are made of.

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Now to see the team, Stuart one of the chefs brings us right into the kitchen where chefs are furiously peeling plums to make more of that amazing compote, they all pop up and say hello and we chat about the incredible lunch we’d just eaten. The development kitchen upstairs is filled with ideas for up and coming dishes, chefs dart in and out, always saying hi on the way past. This place is like Wonkaland! However we’re told Mr Wonka aka René is not in today so once again I am foiled in my attempt to meet my culinary hero. I guess I’ll just have to come back.

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We’re taken back downstairs for coffee and petit four, even the petit four are special here! First we are served a traditional Danish pastry covered in fermented barley. The pastry is rich, sweet and flaky and the barley instantly took us home with a flavour reminiscent of vegemite. Oh how we miss vegemite. To follow was a piece of puffed pork skin dipped in milk chocolate and covered in berries. An almost American snack, bacon and chocolate. We sit and chat with the waiters and waitresses, feeling completely at home. Then we realise we’ve been here for nearly five hours! Dinner service looms and so with full bellies and a few more food friends we depart. Noma is an utterly magical place and if you haven’t realised how much we loved it by this point then get the next available booking and see for yourself. The service, the food, the wonderful people. See for yourself because this place is something very special.

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Welcome to the family.

Josh and Jess

Dined 8th October 2013
Noma
Strandgade 93, Dk-1401, Copenhagen K, Denmark
http://www.noma.dk

Fantasy. Dining @ Fäviken Magasinet

Fantasy. Dining @ Fäviken Magasinet

This is it, our quest for the perfect dining experience has brought us across seas of soup, through caverns of canapés and over mountains of meat but there is no journey nor meal that could prepare us for the foodie trip we are about to take. Tonight we dine in the middle of nowhere, home to Magnus Nilsson, this is Fäviken.

Located in Järpen on the 19th century Fäviken Egindom estate, which consists of 20,000 acres of farmland, this restaurant is truly in the middle of nowhere. Flying into Stockholm, Jess and I take a 9 hour train just to get close to this foodie dream. More on that story here.

The estate is like falling through the wardrobe and into Narnia. Pine trees hug the road as our taxi driver speeds along the gravely surface. Game birds dart from the scrub cunningly evading sight of the birds of prey circling over head. Then we arrive, the gorgeous farmhouse a cherry red dot in the distance. I instantly get butterflies of excitement, since reading Chef Nilsson’s book I have dreamt of dining here. This is the epitome of living the dream, for me this is what our journey is about and I’m so glad we can share it with all of you. We check into our room and prepare ourselves for dinner.

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Dinner at Fäviken is a ritual; thirteen lucky diners gather in the barn for canapés where we get to know each other. This review is going to be long so get your reading glasses on folks.

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Let’s begin.

Chef Nilsson meets us at the door, a warm handshake of my trembling digits and we get to have a quick chat. He smiles and says “nice to meet you, I hope you have fun tonight.” Then it starts. Canapés, flaxseed and vinegar crisps with mussel dip. Wow! The crisp is wafer thin and completely held together by a vinegar tuille. The tuille is almost a display in aerodynamics, and the mussel dip is an oceanic emulsion that is light and fluffy. I’m drinking a beer made from rhubarb on the estate and Jess is of course on Champagne.

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Chef Magnus enters the room and silence falls, a clap of the great chefs hands and he introduces our next course. A little lump of very fresh cheese served in warm whey with lavender. “This cheese is less than six minutes old” Nilsson explains “and is best eaten all in one go.” Yes chef! Down the hatch. The warm silky cheese is completely loved by the soft fragrance of dried lavender.

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We take a seat on fur covered couches and suddenly canapés arrive in force. A signature of Fäviken, wild trout’s roe served in a crust of dried pigs blood. Now we are into it. This is Rektùn, Nordic cuisine, the food of Sweden, we dine like Vikings. The roe is delightfully fresh and pops under tongue, the blood giving a richness and almost spiced note, very reminiscent of black pudding.

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My favourite canapé is next, Pig’s head, dipped in sourdough and then deep fried, pickled gooseberry and pine salt. Oh lord! Unbutton my trousers and give me a bag of these things, I could scoff them down like Cheetos! The pig is oozingly soft, the bread crisp and gold, the gooseberry and pine add a herbaceous tart note that brought everything together. Yum!

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Crispy lichens arrive on stone with a lightly soured garlic cream. The lichen themselves held a delicate flavour enhanced by shaved fish roe but the soured cream gave them a subtle richness that kind of made them the “chips and dip” of the incredible beginnings. Served alongside these are slices of cured sow. The sow is hand chosen by chef before being butchered, hung and cured by the kitchen.

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I need to tell you, I thought I had an understanding of paddock to plate. I mean I’ve foraged, I love to learn about where the food comes from. I know nothing. What Nilsson does here is something else. It is beyond paddock to plate, ingredients are chosen daily. Whether they’re grown on the estate and picked the night before, painstakingly hand foraged from beneath layers of frost or picked from a very limited list of suppliers the chefs know and trust. If it’s not the best it’s simply not good enough. It is a beautiful way to treat food and an inspiring vision for a restaurant.

The final canapé is salted herring, aged for three years, sour cream and rusks. Yes I said aged for three years. The dining room is filled with different hanging meats, fish and hams. Despite its age, the fish has a quite mild flavour, tamed with the cream and nutty rusk.

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It is time for us to move upstairs, the loft of the barn is transformed into a stunningly rustic dining room with the main theatre being a large wooden kitchen bench complete with a chopping block. Our first course is promptly served. Scallop “i skalet ur elden” cooked over burning juniper. No cutlery, the dish arrives branches still smoldering, we pry open the shell and see the ocean gem inside. A perfectly poached scallop cooked in a broth evoking the ocean. The scallop is meaty and soft, the broth, sweet and light. Together this dish is simply amazing. An inspired use of fantastic produce and wonderful Nordic technique. The juniper adds a floral bitterness that offsets the sweet scallop meat. I love this place.

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Continuing with seafood King crab, seared and sprayed with “attika” vinegar, almost burnt cream. This was one of Jess’s favourite dishes. The courage to serve a “burnt” sauce with such a premium ingredient is inspired. The crab is succulent and sweet, the cream is nut brown, kind of like a Buerre noisette flavour. The milk solids are lovely and caramelised and hey it’s a burnt sauce.

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Poached turbot comes paired with burnt shallots as well. The turbot is wonderfully soft with large white flakes feathering away from the fork, the onions are sweet and slightly smokey with an onion vinaigrette tying the dish together with a little acid.

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Cod and sunflower. Two ingredients, what a dish. The cod is cooked in a dry pan so the flesh is ever so slightly charred, the sunflower arrive in many textures. A paste that gives a nuttiness to the cods fattiness, fresh green sunflower seeds that were both textural and floral, and a vinaigrette of sunflower oil and juice. This dish was as if a fish had fallen into a veggie patch, it was nutty and vegetative along with being of the sea. A delight to eat.

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Palates beginning to swim with flavour combinations it’s time for another little rush of canapé sized course. A raw blue shell mussel filled with beer, dried birch leaf was a one bite flavour explosion. The mussel was so soft in texture it didn’t feel real, the beer has hoppy notes and the birch leaf brings everything down to earth.

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An insanely crisp and thin pie crust baked from pea flour is filled with eggs and seasoned with dried cods roe. The young pastry chef places the tiny quail eggs into the warmed crust as we pop them in our mouths and crunch before they simply disappear. This course seemed simple but simplicity can become extremely complex. The food here is a work of art.

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Barley pancakes filled with sour onions prove to be exactly as described, the onions are of numerous varieties including chive, onion flowers, spring onion and they are equally as enjoyable as each other. The barley is a warm toasty flavour I feel is completely under utilised in cuisines today.

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Suddenly a plate of leaves is put in front of us. Jess’s eyes bulge, I knew there would be challenges but this is leaf litter, this is natural to a whole new level. Thankfully chef explains that our next dish is buried beneath the leaves. We have to forage for our meal, the leaves are from the grounds, they’re covered with winter snow where they lay until the spring. This gives them an earthy characteristic and I’m not going to lie, they smell amazing. Underneath is the tiniest, cutest new potatoes, par boiled they have taken on the flavour of the leaves on top. They’re served with some of the best butter I’ve ever had. Cultured and of course house made, from milk the chefs milked from the cows this morning. This place is just amazing.

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Bite size courses end and in front of me is a porridge of grains and seeds from Jämtland finished with a lump of salty butter, fermented carrots and wild leaves, meat broth filtered through moss. Wow, this is insanely textural and delicious. Yes I said moss, not only does it freshen the broth, it adds a herb note unlike anything I’ve ever tasted before. The fermented carrot is sour but fruity also and the butter gives everything a cultured flavour. I loved this dish, all the foraged herbs, the texture of the grains, everything in it was magical.

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Then it arrived. A huge, roasted femur of a cow, crackly and golden. The chefs place it on the chopping block and saw, scooping out freshly roasted bone marrow. This slippery goodness is then mixed with dices of raw cows heart, flower petals and herb salt. It is placed in front of Jess as she realises what she is about to eat. With surprisingly little hesitation she dives in. I am smearing the delicious mix into slices of sourdough toast and feeling more and more like a Viking with each bite. The heart is actually not a strong taste, it has a rather sponge like texture with a little chew, the marrow is soft and rich, the flowers and herbs bring a lightness to the dish. This was my favourite dish of the evening, the taste, the texture. I loved it.

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Still dominating my Viking feast the next course arrives, quail and bird cherries. The quail of course comes from the property and is served basically whole. Perfectly cooked with a crisp head on the side. The cherries are fruity and acidic, cutting through the rich quail meat. I even got to pick my teeth with the claws. Served with no cutlery of course this is another meal I was happy to be up to my elbows in. Served alongside was a little taste of the birds liver, pate en croute, thank you very much.

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With that course marking the end of the savoury courses it was time for a palate refresher. Cottage cheese, mushrooms and spruce. Yes a palate refresher. This was one of the most unusual cleansers I have ever eaten. The fresh cottage cheese had an acidic sourness and the raw mushrooms on top gelled with the spruce in a way that was oddly refreshing. My palate did indeed feel completely cleansed.

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The first sweet course is colostrum and meadowsweet. Arriving in tiny edible egg shells the colostrum has an almost quark or mascarpone flavour with the meadowsweet acting like a soft honey. For those of you unfamiliar, colostrum is the first cast of milk from a cow either in late pregnancy or just given birth. It is packed full of nutrients and antibodies and is in fact very good for you. Ok so it’s cow breast milk, lucky it’s delicious.

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Spoons arrive topped with lingonberries, thick cream, sugar and blueberry ice. The lingonberry are tiny pops of tartness with the wonderful luscious cream. The blueberry ice is exactly like a sorbet, except contains only the sugars from the blueberry themselves. It is very intense and almost earthy in flavour.

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A tiny little bowl of warm curd is next. It is in fact curdled woodruff milk. The woodruff is very grassy in flavour, the curd has a fluffy texture but it is a delightful little morsel and gives the innards a little warmth needed after the frozen sorbet.

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An egg yolk preserved in sugar syrup, served on a pile of crumbs made from pine tree bark, ice cream seasoned with meadowsweet. This is dessert. The egg yolk has an almost glass like exterior that the spoon cracks through, the crumb has a treacle like flavour and mixed with the meadowsweet ice cream the result is a soft, mushy dream like substance that Jess and I just could not stop eating.

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Our final course is prepared table side in front of us. Sour milk sorbet, raspberry jam and whisked duck eggs. Chef furiously churns the milk base into a light icy sorbet that is dropped into a fluffy, frothy duck egg sabayon. Underneath is a slightly sour raspberry jam that cuts through the rich duck egg wonderfully. It’s a fantastic finisher to what has been a divine meal.

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With full stomachs we retire downstairs for a selection of teas made from foraged ingredients on the premises. A seat on one of the comfy couches and we are presented with our final course this evening. The Fäviken sweet box. A wooden box filled with cured reindeer meat pies, raspberries ice, tar pastilles, meadowsweet candy, dried berries, sunflower seed nougat, anise seeds coated in crystallised honey and beeswax, smoked toffee, pine resin, cake. Yes as if we hadn’t eaten enough, the sweet box is ready for us to dive in. I go straight for a meat pie, I’m Aussie of course. The reindeer is so strong it nearly takes my breath away, much gamier than anything I have eaten before. The candies are sweet and with my tea made with birch, the immortality mushroom, and leaves from the garden the earthy sweetness rounds out what was an utterly unforgettable meal.

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The giant sweet box is accompanied by snus fermented in a used bitter barrel. A kind of chewing tobacco, that sticks underneath the front lip. It is very peppery and tastes a little dirty, still we are in Sweden and I want to try everything. Seated on warm furs chewing tobacco, drinking foraged tea. Then it gets better. Our charming sommelier takes us outside, the northern lights are vivid green in the night sky. This is incredible, a perfect way to round out what was an unforgettable experience that not only changed my way of thinking but will change the way I cook.

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Chef Nilsson and the team at Fäviken have created something truly unique and it is an experience that I don’t think we will ever match. From our arrival on the farm, the brilliant food and the incredible night sky to finish this is a once in a lifetime destination. Make the trip, step through the darkened pine forests, Trudge the mountain path.

It’s a beautiful world out there.
Dining at Fäviken has made me truly recognise this.

Josh and Jess

Dined 2nd October 2013

Fäviken Magasinet
Fäviken 216, 830 05 Jarpen, Sweden
http://www.favikenmagasinet.se

King for a day. Day 50

King for a day. Day 50

Sunshine this morning, dapples the frosted window, light streaming through the semi open curtains. We awake with full tummies following last nights feastings, the day is upon us and once again Russia calls. The streets seem busier than yesterday and despite the sunshine the friendly breeze whistling by still has a somewhat icy stare that cuts to the bones.

We are on the metro, the deepest metro in the world, the escalator actually drops off the edge of a cliff swooping down into the abyss that is the Russian underground. Demons in long coats and fur hats duck and weave past us at ferocious speed whilst we crane our necks feeling a lot like Dante falling into the inferno. The trains lie concealed behind a border of thick steel, sliding back like the doors to some spaceship ready to hurtle us to worlds unknown. Also the language is in some alien scribbled character that Jess and I struggle to make out.

Our train somehow arrives in the right spot and we are on the Nevsky Prospekt. The Champs Elysées of St Petersburg. The busy street is filled with locals and tourists alike peering in shop windows at the multitude of items on offer. Expensive furs hang for obscene prices and Jess and I quickly realise that this place may become a serious budget breaker. However there are some great things to do for free here along the Prospekt. The metro stop drops you just outside the wonderful Kazan Cathedral. The giant bronze horseman guards the entrance to the Winter Palace stood proud on a vast pillar of stone, the horseman is an impressive sight to behold and even in the grips of autumnal frosts the gardens prove a delight to wander among.

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The Winter Palace stands alone as one of the most hideously, beautiful things I have ever seen. I know this is such a contradiction in terms but it is truly the only thing I can think of to accurately describe this palace. On the inside it holds a radiating presence that captures the very essence of Mother Russia, from the outside…it’s frickin green. Not a soft forest green that softens in the light, rather a green that looks like a lime plucked from the branch before it’s time, before the sun has transformed it into something wonderful. I suppose though if the building were a perfect green you would struggle to notice the amount of gold fixtures that deck the walls and smother the windows with their presence.

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Welcome to a place of royalty. Now a museum of cultural history, this “Louvre” of St Petersburg houses artworks from across the globe, but the main attraction is the palace itself. It’s stunning fixtures, jaw dropping chandeliers and marvellous marble. Walking through the space is walking through history. Red carpet rolls underfoot, soft sunlight beams through priceless crystal hung overhead and the scent of mahogany causes the senses to stray. The Winter Palace is completely awe inspiring, it was not until we arrived here that we’d ever seen something so magnificent. For you Russian travellers this is a free exhibit for students of all nationalities, its been a while since I was at Uni but the student card still holds weight. If not it’s a short 250 Rubles and I promise it is well worth any expense.

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The summer gardens are a delight to walk through, the leaves on trees softening into golds and orange before floating down from above onto the damp lawns below. We walk the grounds staring at the sun spotted trees weathered with age before we walk upon the great church. The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood. The glorious holy space brings a gasp to Jess and I as we climb the steps and heave our weight against the enormous carved wooden doors. Inside is even more incredible than outside. Giant pillars of emerald green marble, frescos of saints cover the walls and pink and copper porphyry glistens along the alter. This is the church where Alexander II was assassinated during the Russian revolution. Blood was spilt on this holy space and it has left its mark both on the building and on the Russian people. An amazing place to visit when in St Petersburg.

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With the history of Russia running through our brains I’ve almost completely forgotten my stomach. Almost. The humble potato, a comforting companion to all foodies, whether they be crisp, roasted in duck fat or whipped and smothered in butter, the potato is friend to all. Here in Russia this is no exception, it is a friend to pickled mushrooms, sauerkraut, or for me a lightly spiced concoction of beans and fresh tomato. Now it may look like somebody has vomited into a babies nappy but I assure you it is delicious.

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With dinner done it is time to head home, tomorrow we take the train to Moscow.

Time to make tracks.

Josh and Jess

Welcome to the motherland. Day 49

Welcome to the motherland. Day 49

The frost licks at our window, cool and inviting. We draw back the blinds to a crisp Russian morning. St Petersburg beckons and Jess and I are eager to explore. Finally dressed in layers of warmth, it’s a pleasure to completely wave goodbye to the Miami blistering heat. The city seems to breathe, drips of colour splash on weary buildings, footsteps crackle on concrete decaying from over use. This is Russia, this is what we came to see.

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Walking the streets is paramount for discovery, history is all over here. St Petersburg, home to royalty. Enormous palaces are seen in the distance, spires of the great fortress gleam golden in the creeping sunlight. Our first stop, the Neva, bottle green water trickles past as the river winds its way in and out of the city streets. The giant Rostral Column stares down at us, a symbol of the mighty Russian empire. These columns represent the masts taken from conquered ships many years ago.

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Pigeons flock like floating ash through the park lands while we walk towards the Kunstkamera. A sort of museum of oddities, an insight into anthropological studies, medicine and the macabre. Not exactly the Russian history we thought we would see but it peaked my interest seeing defunct medical theories and floating heads in formaldehyde. The Menshikov palace housed many Russian royalty, it now lies stagnant and worn, age is evident on the St Petersburg streets. The city feels lived in, as though it has seen it all. Makes it a perfect spot for young tourists wanting to discover and explore.

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The Peter and Paul fortress is the height of Russian opulence; embossed gold structures, bronze layered features and great marble pillars mark the great Romanov Dynasty. Here they lie, marble tombs now their final resting place. This is the burial chambers for many Russian royalty and Romanov heirs. The heavy wooden doors barely budge as we enter the enormous church, giant pillars flecked emerald green reflect the glow of bronze and gold metal work throughout. Sun streams through stained glass and dazzles the white marble tombs, I cannot believe the beauty of this place. It seems not a house for the dead, rather a place to celebrate their memory. We could explore all day, it would take a lifetime to know the details of this space but the fortress houses so much more.

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Street vendors hark and cry from the streets, their carts ladled with brightly coloured matryoshka dolls, fur from far off Siberia and trinkets for tourists. The Russian tongue sounds much sweeter than the almost harsh Germanic tones we’ve been bombarded with. The path ahead takes us to the Commandant House. Once the house for royal guards, now a museum dedicated to the history of the Russian royalty and the building of the fortress. To the east lies the Neva gate, a solid wall separating the fortress from the river. Stones lay dormant against the rivers current as the Neva swells its way past the gate. Here another museum gives us some more history of the structure and the Romanov people it was designed to protect.

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During the Russian Revolution their were many imprisoned in the cells here. Trotsky, a famous Bolshevik wrote many papers on his social ideals within these walls, said betrayers were hanged here, revolutionaries were locked in solitary confinement cells cut off from the light of day. This feels a little like another concentration camp, just a quick look I think. Wooden stockades held thieves for public humiliation and the executioners block stands in the centre square. Russia holds no sympathy for those who descent.

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Though the Cold War seems long ago, their is still a presence here. Military tanks lay dormant behind rusted iron, the city streets hum with what were once munitions plants, now busy textile factories and shopping malls. There is an indescribable presence of power here. Not something tactile rather a whisper, the Russian people are proud of their city. It’s reflected in everything they do, their architecture, language and I haven’t even mentioned the food. Our afternoon finishes with the Russian staple, blini. Soft, velvety crepes stuffed with as many toppings as you can think of. For Jess a simple ham and cheese, feeling decadent after a day of palaces and wanting to wane of prison hunger I opt for sautéed mushrooms finished in a garlic cream sauce. These crepes ooze warmth, trickling through your body, a serious combatant to the increasingly chilling evening. Mushrooms, earthy and rich burst with garlic heat and I am in love, so much so that I need to cook.

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The nearest market is flooded with locals, all I need is some Russian staples. Cabbage, bacon, garlic and just because I’m a little French chef a hefty dose of butter. Our apartment kitchen proves a little haven for me, I haven’t cooked in a while so I’ve been feeling increasingly lacking in my skills. Begin by frying the bacon, the sizzle of fat hitting the pan brings sweet nostalgia only further indulged by the smell of fresh chopped garlic. The Savoy cabbage is slice as fine as these dodgy knives will allow, sous chef Jess hacks at the chopping board with a giggle, we haven’t cooked together in a while so it’s a treat. The cabbage hits the pan and water goes on to boil, what are we serving this treat with? Well it’s not exactly Russian but it’s what we feel like, hot buttered noodles. With the cabbage softening in butter and bacon fat the pasta is cooked and a quick toss brings it all together.

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Dinner is served.

Josh and Jess

Two days in transit! Day 47 & 48

Two days in transit! Day 47 & 48

Bring on the travel, we leave the Germanic party central of Munich behind, we’re actually heading back to Zurich so we can fly out tomorrow. The bus beckons, fluorescent green, bumpy and noisy. Our driver in fact doesn’t speak a word of English but we muddle it through, my German accent is terrible and Jess’s is worse. Thank heavens we are in Russia for 6 days!

The hills roll by once again as we trek along the autobahn, the bus this time is in fact much quieter, I guess everyone’s hangover has well and truly settled in. The countryside of Germany is picturesque, the steep roofs of wooden houses pop over trees, the farmland is lush and shaggy cows crane their necks as we whizz by. The border of Switzerland is just ahead. The bus screeches to a halt and several strict looking officers board. Passports. Ok no worries I’ll just get them, the officer glares down the bus, dragging a scruffy looking blonde kid out to check his credentials. Wow, we thought the Swiss were fairly neutral! All documents cleared and finally we’re allowed into the country. Grab the tram and get us to our hotel.

Now if I described our airport hotel as a technicolor blur I wouldn’t be exaggerating much, this place is pretty bright! However a comfy bed and an early flight makes up for any blurred vision.

Ok flight time, we get in ridiculously early, I mean it is before 7 o clock. Check the bags and climb aboard Swiss air bound for St Petersburg, Russia. Visas are checked and a couple of hours later we are in. The former Soviet Union. First things first, it’s frickin cold! The crisp Russian air swells to greet us as we exit the plane, jumpers are grabbed and scarves are slung around necks. Now let’s get to the hotel, taxi! Ah here comes our driver, he’s got a taxi profile around his neck, he’s in a uniform, sort of? He grabs our bags and we walk out to his car. I say car, what I should say is clapped out, dusty Toyota corolla. This is in fact a “gypsy” cab. Started by Russian citizens looking to make a quick buck. How far is it my man? Oh great he speaks about as much English as we do Russian, but we are moving towards the city so I guess that’s a good sign.

Then the meter hits a thousand. Ok this is a scam, great we’re in Russia, we’re in some skinny dudes car that seems held together by lollipop sticks and chewing gum and now he’s ripping us off. Thankfully I have quite a deep Aussie voice. Take us to the metro mate. Staying calm of course. He pulls over, goes to help us with our bags, then the car rolls away. Ah handbrake pal? Once we’ve payed our exuberant fair, luckily it was only around $40 Aus we jump on the insane metro system.

Our bags way 22.4 kilos each, I know this because a deceptively sweet looking Swiss flight attendant made us repack them when we were a few hundred grams over. Dammit!! Now we drag our bags up and down the millions of stairs within the metro, get on a train, get off at the wrong stop, scream at each other, get on another train, shove our way through increasingly hostile looking locals, get on an escalator, drag our bags up another flight of stairs, blame each other for the bags being so heavy… You get the picture.

Finally beautiful St Petersburg opens up before us, a short walk to the hotel proves to be the final hurdle before we wander up inside to a comfy bed and some much needed apologies.

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Nobody said travel was always easy. Lucky it’s so much fun.

Josh and Jess

Brighter horizons! Day 46 part 2

Brighter horizons! Day 46 part 2

After a seriously saddening morning spent in Dachau, Jess and I need some serious cheering up. Some German pastries and a trip to a castle might do the trick. Back on the train and I am scoffing gummi bears like a well oiled German machine.

We are headed for Nymphenburg palace, a stately manor with stunning floral displays and all the opulence of the German royalty one can imagine. Unfortunately we have no idea where it is. So we are off the train in a place called Laim and wandering amidst the city streets. I’ve probably said it a hundred times but Munich really is beautiful. Trees are turning into an autumnal orange glow, the cobblestones hums beneath your feet and the houses sit almost angelic with their roofs pointed towards the sky. It’s like walking in a snow globe.

Nymphenburg palace is a couple of kilometres away from where we are, lucky our walking shoes are on and we stroll through the parklands towards the palace. The palace glitters in the distance as we are greeted by its lush gardens and lightly gravelled pathways. Swans and signets dip and dive amongst the many water features outside of the palace as we take in the enormity that is Nymphenburg palace. For just 5 euro you can take a tour of this fantastically preserved monument, we take the stairs into the greeting hall. The ceiling is impeccably detailed in incredible artwork with crystal chandeliers catching the sunshine streaming in through the giant windows. This is money, this is living like a King. The timber furnishings brought in from Paris reflect a napoleonic style of decor and of course a little Bavarian flair thrown in.

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We grab some great photos inside and outside as Jessica gets to feel a little of the life of a princess. The hall of beauties features some wonderful period portraits that Ludwig was fascinated by. Paintings of women from all classes, from a shoemakers daughter to the daughter of a King, beauty is reflected in all walks of life. This exhibit is a wonderful display of German culture and history. The outside gardens are immaculate, and well kept, any tourist could easily spend a day just taking in all that this site has to offer. However for us it has been quite a long day, home for some incredibly posh two minute noodles and maybe a little German choccie I snuck in for Jess.

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Time to sleep like a king, too bad I have the budget of a pauper.

Josh and Jess

The darker days. Haunting history, Dachau. Day 46 part one

The darker days. Haunting history, Dachau. Day 46 part one

 

The Munich morning is filled with sunshine, light streams through the soft curtains of our hotel room, but something dark hangs overhead. Today Jess and I are going to one of the darkest blights on German history, the concentration camp at Dachau. This isn’t so much something that we want to do, more something that we need to do, to remember those that lost their lives in the atrocities committed during World War Two. The history here is haunting and horrible, yet I find it an interesting and important site to visit when you’re in Munich. This may not be our happiest post on the blog but you want to see what we see, so here it is.

We of course, though it feels a little odd, take the train to Dachau. Being a student of history myself my head is flooded with the image of the poor souls forced aboard trains and trucks bound for the concentration camps. It is both an incredible experience and a horribly somber one. There are few smiles as we walk the walk thousands did through the iron clad front gates. You might notice that Jess and I aren’t in any of the photos here, I think it feels wrong to be pictured like happy and smiling tourists in a place where sadness hangs from the very walls.

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The giant, hostile courtyard now widens before us. Roll call. Our feet crunch on bare white stone beneath as we timidly step out into the courtyard. Prisoners were often forced to stand here for hours on end, often until they simply collapsed or died from malnutrition. Registration. We walk through like, “new arrivals,” the former maintenance building where prisoners were registered, given a class, beaten, stripped of their belongings and thrown out into the yard. The brutality of the SS is palpable in this building, now a museum, it houses many prisoners personal items, stories and history of the camp.

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A walk through the museum gives all the history and stories of the camp. Torture and terror was a way of life here, prisoners were starved, beaten and murdered on mass. Touching the walls within is a hideously tactile experience as the mind wanders as to who stood here and what was their fate? Walking out of the museum takes you in to the bunker, the prison site of the camp. Inmates were housed here for punishment, tiny cells with little to no light, hanging cells where prisoners were tortured by being hung by the wrists for hours on end. This is a horrible experience, one can feel the pain within the walls, names are scratched with fingernails into stone, wood is splintered viciously with blows from inmates driven insane by their own existence. It is a truly intense piece of history that brings many to tears.

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The bunker leads to a walk along camp road. We feel as though the camp is pulling us in, I can all but see prisoners marching and hear them discussing their woes as they trudge along the harsh stone road that runs between the barracks. Walking into their housing is seeing truly the soul of this camp. Tiny bunk beds stack tight along walls, polished lockers that guards ensured were scrupulously cleaned daily as a form of psychological torture. A speck of dust would lead to a flogging or worse. There feels as though there could be no happiness in this place. And there wasn’t. The memorial at Dachau shows you everything, the campsites, the death houses, the infirmary where ill were experimented on or simply left to die there couldn’t possibly have been any light in these prisoners lives.

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Leaving the tiny housing behind we step into the yard and head for the fence. Twisted, rusted barbed wire threatens at every turn, long deep canals covered in razor wire surround us and the guard towers stare with rifle mounts still in place. There was no escape here.

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We cross the bridge to possibly the worst site of the memorial, the crematorium. This is where prisoners were murdered and the dead were disposed of. I say disposed because that is all these poor souls were seen as, refuse that needed to be dealt with. We stood where hundreds of bodies were piled high waiting to be burnt, nails hang from wood where nooses were once raised. Unsuspecting prisoners were lured into the “showers.” We walked through to find it was in fact a gas chamber used for the murder of inmates. This is a brutal walk. The feeling of sadness is indescribable. Walking through the forest we find the execution block, thousands of bullet holes imbed into the wall where prisoners were stood and shot, there is no let up here. This is Dachau and this is a death camp.

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It’s time to leave this place, the memorial is so saddening and yet we feel a sense of accomplishment walking this walk. This is living history and it is incredible to feel something so powerful. The memory of these poor people who were wrongfully imprisoned, tortured, starved and murdered will remain within German history and within our hearts.

A day in Dachau will stay with you forever.

Josh and Jess