Yes, we eat pickled herring and cured salmon.
We’ve mastered a gazillion ways of cooking, frying, sautéing, poaching, pickling, baking, broiling, and flambéing them, with easily one unique recipe for each day of the year. We even eat stinky fermented herring called surströmming. Upon prying open a can, its sewage-meets-vomit stench is so pungent that flies buzzing around get disoriented and hit the table.
Needless to say, Sweden does fish and shellfish exceptionally well (and in the case of surströmming, questionably well). So much so that the country proudly embraces any seafood-related stereotype thrown at it.
But Sweden has a secret weapon in the form of West Sweden.
This region is its own maritime version of the Serengeti, where you can find Sweden’s own Big Five: shrimp, oysters, crayfish, mussels, and lobsters.
The cold clean waters of the North Atlantic Ocean act like a natural fattening room for shellfish. They grow more mature with fuller, richer flavors, which makes them the best in the entire region.
Seafood safaris called shellfish journeys take you from sea to plate by way of old fishing boats. This means hauling lobsters and langoustines from the depths and harvesting oysters and mussels from sea beds.
Finding these crustaceans in their natural habitat requires some serious village-hopping along West Sweden’s Bohuslän in villages such as Lysekil, Ljungskile, Fjällbacka, Smögen, Marstrand, and Grebbestad, whose names sound nothing like their written form.
In the tiny, Instagram-friendly fishing village of Smögen, fisherman Martin of Smögens Fiske & Skärgårdsturer goes out every single day to drop wooden fish traps—rather, flick traps effortlessly with his fingers—into the ocean to harvest tons of langoustines.
A pit-stop on a rocky island in the Bohuslän archipelago to crack into freshly caught langoustines, which have been steamed onboard fisherman Martin’s boat.
Shrimp remains the most important shellfish to Swedes, so much so that shrimp has its own Swedish proverb. “Att glida in på en räkmacka” means “gliding in on a shrimp sandwich.” It denotes anything done effortlessly, because on traditional open-faced sandwiches loaded with shrimp, they slip and slide off, skidding on large dollops of mayonnaise.
Ninety percent of all oysters in Sweden are harvested in waters surrounding the coastal village of Grebbestad. To harvest oysters, walk ten steps out the door and onto the dock of 19th-century boathouse Everts Sjöbod. You don’t even have to hop on a boat because you can rake your own oysters right up from its dock steps.
Inside Gothenburg’s Feskekörka (“Fish Church”) is where you’ll find bearded chef Johan Malm—crowned several times as the Nordic Oyster Opening champion and currently this year’s silver medalist—shucking oysters at Restaurang Gabriel. The quickest way to insult him is to add hot sauce to his Grebbestad oysters, which are best enjoyed without any toppings to fully appreciate their North Sea fattening room flavors.
Every May, Nordic fishermen and bearded Vikings alike descend upon Grebbestad to crack open oysters at breakneck speed for the annual Nordic Oyster Opening Championships. With air charged with anticipation and uncharacteristic roars erupting from otherwise reserved Swedes, you would think you’d stumbled into a WWF wrestling match.
You know you’ve got the best mussels in the entire country when the Swedish Royal Family has you on speed-dial whenever they’re cruising through West Sweden. Klocktornets Musselbaren (“The Mussel Bar”) in Ljungskile runs mussel harvesting safaris to owner Janne Bark’s mussel farms, where he sustainably grows them on ropes.
Janne Bark tosses freshly caught mussels in white wine, garlic, onions, parsley, and chilis over open flames to create his signature “Moules Frites” mussel pot.
No other shellfish is more celebrated than the crayfish in Sweden. In its honor, special parties called kräftskivor are thrown on balconies, in backyards, and on waterfront docks all across the country during late summer. Once reserved for aristocrats and the ultra-wealthy in the 19th century, the tradition has morphed into wearing paper hats and bibs with crayfish motifs, and downing aquavit while belting out drinking songs.
Running since 1910, Gothenburg’s traditional fish auction at Fiskhamnen is the largest in Sweden and is packed with fishmongers haggling and bidding over the Big Five as well as other seafood.
West Sweden’s own elusive “leopard of the Serengeti” is the lobster also locally known as “black gold.” Lobsters are heavily protected from overfishing by the government so they have enough time to reproduce, making them the most seasonal divas of Sweden’s Big Five.