“Kalix Löjrom makes you happy”, it is as easy as that. Simon Laiti is busy in his food studio at Hemmagastronomi in Luleå. He is creating a three-course Kalix Löjrom testing menu for a dinner party and looks to be enjoying himself.
– I thought we’d make a classic starter: vendace roe, sour cream, dill and onion on flatbread or a butter-fried bread.
– It’s a classic that’s probably one of my first food memories – vendace roe and flatbread, at home at the dining table with mum and dad.
– But then we’ll move on and make another sandwich, with roe of course, but charred fresh vendace as well. Vendace is also an amazing food fish.
– The final course will be a bit different and perhaps a bit more filling. We sauté onions in butter and marrow as a base, then add Kalix Löjrom – of course – but also a little grated smoked vendace. Lastly, I add some almond-potato crisps before covering the dish with a dollop of almond-potato cream. The saltiness of the vendace roe, the touch of smoke from the vendace that adds a bit of depth to the dish, and almond potatoes; it really is perfect.
The whims of nature
A couple of days later, on a Wednesday evening in early October, Madelene Berglund picks us up at the Ice and Light Village, below Filipsborg in Kalix. This evening we will learn most things about how Kalix Löjrom is used and becomes one of the most unique ingredients in the world. At the factory Guldhavens Pelagiska, a truck is reversing.
– Only four bins today, says Kent Karlsson, one of Guldhaven’s owners.
You can tell from his voice that he is not that satisfied. It started well, this year’s fishing, but since then it has just gotten worse. Four bins mean it will be one long autumn, and in October the sea is neither tranquil nor tepid.
– Why is that?
– Well, if you ask a hundred fishers out there, you will probably get a hundred different replies. But I suppose they are all answers: variations on the themes, weather and wind, seals and summers.
– So, it’s really about nature. My answer is no better than anyone else’s.
– Perhaps that’s the excitement about heading out to sea. You don’t know what’s going to happen.
– If you’ll get four bins or twenty-four.
A careful act
At Guldhaven, Madelene and Niklas Berglund have a kind of showroom. They can bring their guests here to show the professional production of Kalix Löjrom, the lightly salted gold of the sea. But they can also show how the catch is processed on a small scale, the way it used to be. This showroom is where we will get to try squeezing the fish to get to the roe.
– It is incredibly nice to be able to work with Kent like this, says Madelene as she takes us on tour and explains the procedure in the factory how the fish comes in and is separated. By-catch such as small perch, ruffe and herring end up in a separate line. Male vendace fish, over a certain size, end up in another line to become fish fillets. The coveted female vendace fish, bursting with roe, end up in a very special file of their own. They are then cleaned, and the roe is extracted. The different steps of the procedure are simple in a way. When all the fish have been separated, the female fish are squeezed to extract the roe. From every fish you get around 3–5 grams of roe, so you need a couple of hundred fish for a kilo of Kalix Löjrom. The extracted roe is then cleaned in several steps, removing residue from the squeezing, before it ends up on the salting table and then in a jar near you. From the fish being caught to the finished roe in a jar, the work has to be done in less than 48 hours, where the first 24 hours are essential to a food product with a designation of origin from the EU. Even if this is a ‘large-scale’ fish factory, working in two shifts, the Kalix Löjrom work is basically a craft from the second the fishers leave for the sea until it’s served in one of Sweden’s best restaurants.
A myth of the north
– Yes, this is definitely how you’d like to eat vendace roe, says Johan Andersson from Mathias Dahlgren’s catering. He is serving up Kalix Löjrom in a large bowl together with almond-potato crisps at Silver Lodge in Arjeplog when we visit later on in the season.
– But since times are what they are, you have to scoop your own roe up on your plate and then eat it with crisps. We can’t dip in the same bowl.
The myth of how people in the north used to eat the roe, with a spoon straight from a bucket, is probably nothing more than just a myth. It has always taken so many working hours to obtain, and it is far too valuable and difficult to catch to believe it can be that easy to come by. The trimmings, however, remain modest: you need something to scoop it up with. The most common way of serving it is on flatbread without strong seasoning, with finely chopped red onion, dill and Crème Fraiche. Nothing complicated. Having said that, the catering chefs will serve a reindeer tartare under a lid of vendace roe. Probably something of a first for many in the north. But these bowls with almond-potato crisps and Kalix Löjrom at least gives us a chance to dream we are living the legend. That there is plenty.
– I think it’s one of the ingredients found in all Sweden’s best restaurants at some point during the year, says Johan Eriksson, restaurateur at Centrum Krog in Piteå. He served it himself at two-star Oaxen when he was head chef there, and of course, he bought his roe from Bröderna Perssons in Piteå back then, just like he does now.
– Yes, it can’t be changed: I’m from Piteå, and I’m faithful to my old hometown, he says and laughs.
– But Bröderna Persson not only have the designation of origin, but they also have a quality seal from the Norrbotten Coastal Fisher’s Association.
– So, they are good.
– There is definitely something extra about Kalix Löjrom. It’s always a party when it’s on the table.
People in the north are said to eat the roe with a spoon straight from a bucket.
Kalix Löjrom was the first Swedish product to receive a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) as early as 2010. It is the EU’s strongest food trademark. You might recognise the title, Protected Designation of Origin, or perhaps its French acronym AOC, or the Italian DOC, are more familiar? Because it is there, among Stilton, Gorgonzola and Manchego cheeses, Parma ham and Modena balsamic vinegar, Champagne and Bordeaux wines, that we find Kalix Löjrom. If you want to make sure that you are eating Kalix Löjrom at the restaurant or in the delicatessen, just ask to see the jar because true Kalix Löjrom has the official mark of origin on the jar. The vendace is caught by fewer than 40 professional fishermen in the Bothnian Bay, or rather in the area where the Piteå, Luleå, Kalix and Haparanda archipelagos are located. This very location is also what people believe to be one of the main pillars of Kalix Löjrom: three of Sweden’s four national rivers run into this northernmost part of the Baltic Sea, and in the brackish water the world’s smallest salmonid thrives and gets its flavour from minerals and salt carried from the mountains to the sea. The official mark of origin lets you track the fisherman who caught the vendace, when it was caught and where it was prepared. Vendace roe fished or prepared in other ways, without the Kalix Löjrom PDO, is actually considered unusable.
– I know some might not want to talk about the fact that there are different qualities of roe, but to me it’s obvious, says Simon.
– At the beginning of the short fishing season, the roe is finely grained and crispy, then it matures, and at the end of the season, these miniature eggs are at their most developed. Then you have to be even more careful, making sure the roe doesn’t break and becomes watery.
– The last roe of the season is the roe that literally just melts in your mouth.
– But another thing I really like nowadays is that you can serve fried vendace fillets, and the fishing isn’t just about the roe.
– It’s a more sustainable take on the fishing, and it’s also a fantastic food fish, as you might have noticed.
– Besides, there’s hardly any better food to eat outdoors than vendace fillets grilled over an open fire.
A day at the sea
At Guldhaven we have produced our very own roe. First, we separated the female fish, then squeezed the roe, removing the debris that sometimes results from the squeezing, then we dried and salted it – always with a salt content of 4 per cent. Vendace roe is, in fact, a fairly well-salted product. Now it is nearly time to return to the hotel and get a couple of hours’ sleep. Tomorrow, straight after breakfast, we will head out to sea and watch the professional fishermen in their environment while also taking the opportunity to get familiar with the Kalix archipelago.
Örjan Pekkari from Filipsborg captains the boat and together with Niklas and Madelene we set off for Rånön, the largest island of the archipelago. In summer this is a living archipelago paradise, but in early October there are much fewer people and hardly any traffic. Well, at least if it were not for the fishermen in the bay, trawling for fish on this autumn day. Niklas and Madelene own a house on Rånön, and as soon as we enter, we light a fire in the iron stove and get started with the lunch preparations. Niklas grills some of the male vendaces we put aside yesterday. It is a tasty dish, this very salty vendace grilled over embers. Here on Rånön, we get to be a part of an archipelago culture that has emerged here in the icy wind. Protected by a log house in front of an iron stove we eat the grilled vendace, knowing that 40 professional fishermen are out trawling, hoping to find the gold of the sea in the brackish, cold water. I am about to have my third sandwich with grilled vendace when I remember that we are going to Madelene’s for a vendace-roe dinner this evening, and it would not do to be too stuffed. It is far too early.