A Shellfish Conversion
West Sweden, and specifically its Bohuslän coast, is famed for producing some of the world’s finest seafood. The cool, clean waters that ebb and flow around the coastline’s 8,000 islands create perfect slow-growing conditions for shellfish. Hugh Collins set out to learn more
West Sweden’s seafood has garnered praise from abroad, but it is positively revered at home. That Gothenburg’s fish market and premier seafood restaurant are housed in the Feskekorka (meaning ‘Fish Church’ due to the building’s resemblance to a Gothic church) is of little surprise.
My shellfish pilgrimage began in Grebbestad, a small town just a line’s cast from the Norwegian border. If seafood is west Sweden’s religion, then Grebbestad is undeniably its mecca. Each spring the town, which produces 90% of Sweden’s entire oyster catch and half of its lobsters, hosts the Nordic Oyster Opening Championship; I arrived to see the region’s movers and shuckers.
The Oyster Opening Contest
Stepping into the marquee, I was greeted by flutes of champagne and neatly-opened oysters on silver trays. Far from pretentious, the marquee’s atmosphere was instead boisterous, friendly and, above all, local. A young dance troupe entertained the crowd while broad-shouldered fisherman in coloured cagoules clapped each other’s backs in greeting. It was a local celebration of the town’s pride in its industry and produce.
If the crowd and atmosphere were local, the championship wasn’t. Competitors, who had arrived from Scandinavia and beyond, had now been whittled down to the final four: Simon Tönsager from Denmark, Anti Lepik from Estonia and local favourites Johan Malm, apparently the pin-up of the oyster-opening world, and Lars Karlson, owner of a restaurant and oyster bed in Grebbestad itself.
30 oysters each!
What followed was at once the strangest and tensest spectacle I’d ever witnessed. Each man was handed a wooden bucket of 30 oysters, which they meticulously cleaned and placed gently on to a tray. Then, with a ring of a bell, a roar from the finalists and a swell of noise from around the room, the contest began.
It wasn’t, as I learned later, all about speed, but rather a question of who could open the oysters with the neatest finish. Blades flashed, the crowd cheered and in what seemed like seconds it was over; 120 oysters lay perfectly opened, to my eyes at least, and the judging began.
A hush descended on the crowd as the judges arrived on the stage. Michael Moran, a world champion in oyster-opening from Galway, praised the area’s passion for oysters (from an Irishman – high praise indeed), and then with great ceremony announced the Estonian, Anti Lepik, as the winner. Tears rolled down Anti’s face as he was presented with the winner’s apron and his family accompanied him on stage for photographs.
The next morning, after a charming night at the Strandflickorna Hotel, I met two of west Sweden’s seafood priests. Men of the oilskin cloth, if you will. Adrian and Lars own Orust Shellfish, a fishing company based in Lysekil. Alongside commercial operations, they also run ‘seafood safaris’ which offer visitors a chance to understand the region’s passion for shellfish guiding them on how it is grown, harvested and cooked.
After scrambling aboard Signe – their restored wooden boat – we set off. Chugging softly past a row of buoys, Adrian explained these were their mussel ropes. Dangling in the water and swaying with the current were kilometres of rope that were home to millions of mussels. Aside from the occasional dive-bombing duck it seemed a gentle expression of aquaculture, simply letting nature take its course.
Salty, sweet and succulent
Swinging into a sheltered bay, Lars explained the fishing rights of the area and pointed out his island home – a tiny hut and mountain goats, while Adrian, an infectious man-of-action, whose ruddy weather-worn complexion clashed with the coast’s famed pink granite, pulled on a dry-suit and, with a wave and drag on his respirator, dropped into the cool water.
Bubbles trailed through the water and within minutes Adrian reappeared with a basket of oysters under his arm. Back on the boat, he explained that many of these oysters were more than 20 years old and the taste, thanks to the slow-growing conditions, was second to none. Lars opened one for me, perhaps without the finesse of yesterday’s competitors, and I swallowed it down. Succulent, sweet and salty it was a mouthful of the sea and quite unlike any other oyster I’d ever eaten.
‘Tourists only visit west Sweden once’ chuckled Adrian on the return trip to Lysekil. ‘If they come back they end up staying for good’. Leaning against the side of the boat as it danced through the sparkling water, I knew he was right. The smile of the converted was on my face. I longed to pick up my fishing net and follow them.
West Sweden: www.vastsverige.com/en/west-sweden
Gothenburg, west Sweden’s urban hub, has two airports – Landvetter and Gothenburg City. Hertz provides car hire services from Gothenburg: www.hertz.se
Strandflickorna Hotel, Lyskeil, is a charming hotel dating back to the early 1900s. It offers comfortable rooms and excellent breakfasts within a stone’s throw of the coast: www.strandflickorna.se
Orust Shellfish: www.orustshellfish.se