Having spent two years in upstate New York’s famed Hudson Valley, I thought I had seen the best farm-to-table restaurants, seasonal farmers’ markets and agricultural sustainability. As idyllic as the Hudson Valley is, if I were a vegetable, I would want to live on the Swedish island of Gotland.
Recently we officially launched the first season of the Baltic series of our Culinary Discovery Tours by boarding our bus and heading out for an authentic farm-to-table day in magical Visby, Sweden.
Our first stop was Lilla Bjers Farm, 10 minutes from the port, where we met Margareta and Goran Hoas, pioneers in the Gotland organic farming scene.
Lilla Bjers Farm has been in the same family for generations. After Margareta and Goran had their first child 15 years ago, they needed to decide whether they wanted to sell the family farm or become farmers. Goran was born on the farm and was inclined to sell, but Margareta, who comes from upland Sweden, thought it would be romantic to move their young family to the farm and live off the land. Shortly thereafter , Goran’s father became ill with ALS, and they felt that his illness was linked to the enormous amount of pesticides used on the farm. So they committed themselves to organic farming, and the rest, as they say in Visby, is history.
When we arrived, we were warmly welcomed by these passionate yet humble farmers. After taking a few minutes to tell us about the property and their mission, we were invited to tour the asparagus patch, where this spring’s harvest was just recently completed.
Apparently, once asparagus is harvested, it must be left to bolt and go to seed for next season’s crop. Lilla Bjers Farm is famous for their asparagus, and we were promised a taste later in the day. We were told that asparagus season at Lilla Bjers Farm starts on April 13 – Goran’s birthday– and ends on June 17 – Margareta’s birthday. Made sense to us!
As we strolled through the farm, workers were harvesting everything from red leaf lettuce to brightly colored beets and carrots. Even our sous chef, Veneesh, got his hands on the newly harvested carrots. The fields were lush with peppers, lettuces and the hint of young plants that will mature as the summer progresses.
Next we headed to the greenhouses that were spilling over with herbs and peppers. Our guide talked about each of the herbs and let us pluck the leaves and savor the intense aroma. Tarragon is a specialty of the island, and we were treated to a leaf to try. They make a tarragon vinegar at the farm that is shipped all the way to Stockholm.
Three lemon trees had just arrived, and it seemed that there was nothing that would not grow at Lilla Bjers Farm. Even the roses were happy to live here.
The most recent addition to the farm is a new restaurant. The menu changes daily, and the commitment is to seasonal and local products and producers. We were told that every element of the restaurant was sourced locally, and since opening, the restaurant has been a great success.
In the chicken yard across from the restaurant, the guinea hens, chickens and roosters were feasting on the cucumbers and dill stalks discarded by the restaurant prep chefs.
Before leaving, we stopped into the little store that the farm operates. By design, Lilla Bjers Farm caters to Visby restaurants and local families who shop there daily. The restaurant uses a majority of the produce, so there is no plan to distribute their products further. The store is stocked with fresh produce, preserves, salts, nuts and breads.
I purchased strawberries for the Swedish pancakes we planned to make later in the culinary center and dill for the Swedish meatballs.
To ensure we capture a “taste of Visby” in our pancakes, we will use saffron, originally brought to the island from Constantinople by Viking traders.
After a good-bye hug and a wave from Margareta and Goran, we boarded our bus. I told them to keep an eye out for my colleague, Chef Noelle Barille, who will arrive with our next group in about 10 days! By then, Goran tells me, the melon plants will be popping from this magical, mineral-rich island soil.
Our second stop is Ejmunds Gard, which translates Ejmunds Farm, where at the end of a long tree-lined driveway, Maud and her fifth-generation cattle-farming husband are transforming the face of Sweden’s beef industry.
Inspired by the Kobe beef craze, Ejmunds Farm is raising the most prized meat in Sweden. We were greeted by Maud and her amorous chocolate lab, Stella. After a discussion about the philosophy and history of the farm, we began a tour of the property. It was clear these cows were “living the good life,” feasting on potatoes and enjoying a lot of space to roam – even when indoors.
The Canyon Ranch staff would be impressed to know that there was a large green bristle brush, hanging like a punching bag, for these cows to scratch themselves on. After their shyness wore off, they treated us to quite of show of nuzzling and scratching.
We spent some time in the barns talking about hay production and cattle farming and watching the cows enjoy the warm July sunshine.
Before we left, Maud showed us the experiment they recently launched – a truffle patch! They purchased hazelnut trees from an up-island source that had successfully harvested a species of black truffle in the 1990s. They are attempting to cultivate these black “stava” truffles on the farm – with the help of some good fertilizer from their furry friends!
After saying good-bye to Maud (and Stella), we headed to Visby for a short walking tour and lunch. There was a summer festival, so we were warned that it would be a busy day in “the big city.”
We strolled through a beautiful park that used to be the port.
Picnickers were lounging under centuries-old trees, and because of the extended spring on Gotland, the flowers were overflowing out of their pots and the roses were climbing the limestone ring walls that surround the old city.
Lunch was at the famed 50 Kvadrat, hosted by chef and owner Fredrik Malmstedt, the award-winning innovator (along with his wife) of modern Swedish cuisine.
We were seated outside on a delightfully warm afternoon and served fresh baked breads and the local Sleepy Bulldog Ale. The first course was asparagus (from Lilla Bjers Farm) and a thinly sliced smoked beef from Ejmunds Farm. Chef explained that he is trying to introduce Visby to non-traditional cuts of meat. Because of the abundance of great beef on the island, most people eat only the prime cuts and grind the rest into burger. He’s not trying to inspire an offal trend; he’s just introducing cuts like hangar and skirt steak to a population that has heretofore feasted primarily on rib eye and tenderloin!
The second course was another non-traditional cut of beef from Ejmunds Farm and baby vegetables from – you guessed it – Lilla Bjers Farm. Several of us paired this dish with the sommelier’s recommended Spanish tempranillo. Its deep red fruits and mellow tannins were perfection. Dessert was rhubarb and strawberries on a bed of panna cotta, adorably presented in a preserve jar. After autographing his fabulous cookbook, “A Taste of Gotland,” Chef Malmstedt gave us good-bye hugs, and we were escorted back to the ship to rest before our cooking class.
I took a short detour to a recommended cheese store called Wisbyost where I picked up some island specialties: a Salambar berry preserve, truffle salt, salumi and saffron salt. Then I headed to the culinary center where Chef Vaneesh had a display of all our local purchases to use during our class.
At 4 pm our intrepid group of foodies reconvened for a class in the culinary center. We made authentic Swedish meatballs with a sour cream sauce and cranberry coulis, saffron pannkaka (saffron pancakes) and mulled wine.
I also demonstrated how to make gravlax at home. We discussed what we saw that day but also what was to come in the markets in Riga and Helsinki – the land of salmon (and gravlax).
A great time was had by all as we celebrated the farm-to-table lifestyle of Gotland.