Magnus Nilsson had tomato plants on his mind as Greg Reynolds walked the Swedish chef through the hoop houses at Riverbend Farm in Delano, where seedlings awaited their move outdoors.
Not just any tomato, either, but one sturdy enough to grow outside Nilsson’s greenhouse in Sweden, where the prospect of frost in August is real.
Reynolds had the answer. No surprise, there. This farmer grows organic produce for chefs, schools and cooks throughout the region. If anyone would know what the miracle tomato would be, it would be Reynolds.
“The Amber tomato,” he told Nilsson as he pointed to those seedlings. “It will grow.”
Nilsson took note of the early yellow tomato. His 24-seat restaurant, Fäviken, in a remote area of western Sweden, produces all of its own summer vegetables and half its winter supply in a garden large enough to feed 6,000 annual guests. The right outdoor variety would make a difference. And that’s what his restaurant is all about.
Nilsson, 32, an international star of hyperlocal cooking, was in town last week for the opening of an exhibit of his photography at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis, based on work in his recently published “The Nordic Cookbook.” But not so incidentally, he was also here to meet folks who might one day find themselves planning a trip around a very special meal in Sweden.
First, though, there was a homey farmhouse meal of locally grown food to enjoy — including sunfish and crappies caught in nearby Lake Sarah and eggs from the chickens in the farmyard — prepared by Mary Jane Miller, one of many who would bring the taste of Minnesota to life during his visit.
Nilsson had few requests for his first trip to Minnesota, but of one he was certain. He wanted to meet Beatrice Ojakangas, the prolific Finnish cookbook author who lives outside Duluth, whose volumes include many on Scandinavian cooking.
He beamed when she appeared at his side at the first public event.
“I wanted to get your autograph,” he gushed. She laughed, but the signature would have to wait. He had left her book at home in Sweden by mistake.
Nilsson had one other request. In the back of “The Nordic Cookbook,” he lists where to find specialty ingredients online. No surprise that he included Ingebretsen’s, the 95-year-old Scandinavian store on Lake Street in south Minneapolis.
At the shop, he found Gary Coleman behind the butcher counter. Noting the rope of Swedish potato sausage, Nilsson shook his head. “Swedish potato sausage doesn’t exist in most of Sweden.”
He had run into the sausage on an earlier trip to Seattle, as well. Puzzled by its claim to Swedish heritage, Nilsson searched out its history. Turns out that potato sausage is a specialty for only a sliver of residents in the Swedish province of Småland. It crossed the ocean when that tiny community immigrated to the U.S. in the 1860s.
Coleman offered Nilsson samples of Ingebretsen’s own smoked meats.
“This isn’t Swedish,” murmured Nilsson, as he nibbled on a bite. “It’s Norwegian. Swedish uses more Indian spices.”
So what about Swedish coffee, the practice of boiling the beverage with raw eggs and shells to clarify it?
“There’s no such thing in Sweden,” he said, with a chuckle. “Some use eel skin in Sweden for this reason, but it doesn’t work.”
Other surprises from the soft-spoken chef:
• He suggests drinking aged Sauternes over ice with a straw. “It’s very tasty,” said Nilsson, who is also a sommelier.
• He keeps dinner simple at home with his wife and three children (Arne, 8; Ella, 6, and Edwin, 3). Often on the table is the traditional Tex-Mex taco, by way of Sweden, which has become a tradition throughout the country since the early ’80s. (Note to parents of young children: He, too, laments the handprints that line the wall of his house.)
• Nilsson makes American-style (not Swedish) pancakes at home for his family, and his wife is a vegetarian.
• In his cookbook, he wrote about a vivid memory of making cheese with his grandparents. After the book came out, his father read the description and told Nilsson that it couldn’t have happened as described. His parents didn’t make cheese.
• Next on Nilsson’s writing agenda: the Nordic baking book, still in the thought process.
• For “The Nordic Cookbook,” he wrote the text (excluding the recipes) in one month when the restaurant was closed. He tested 400 of the recipes in his home while photographing them, working through 45 to 50 a day with a team of five.
On the final day of his visit, in front of a crowd of 300 enthusiasts who had come to hear this son of Scandinavia, Nilsson reminded them that holiday traditions from 150 years ago don’t necessarily reflect Scandinavia now.
“Why would you eat lutefisk when you can eat fresh cod today?” he said.
At the book signing that followed, Nilsson greeted each with his intense gaze and firm handshake, often posing for photos and looking as fresh and friendly as he did with the first. More than 400 books later, he still had a smile.
“They came here to see me. Why wouldn’t I be happy to see them?” Spoken like a Minnesotan.
Lee Svitak Dean is the Star Tribune’s Taste editor. Reach her at email@example.com or follow her at @StribTaste.