Trip Report: Ski Vacation to France Part II

After eating a wonderful meal at La Cremailliere we met up with Thomas Barnier, former professional French Freestyle skier who now works as a ski instructor. Thomas met us at the top of one of the lifts of Avoriaz. Avoriaz is part of the Portes du Soleil, one the largest ski areas in the world with 12 interconnected resorts in France and Switzerland and over 650 km of slopes.

Shall we ski in France or Switzerland? Photo credit Scott Shepler.

Our group of 12 was here to ski/snowboard the alps by day and eat our way through the regional specialties, especially the cheese and wine, by night. Avoriaz (pronounced “ah-vor-ee-ah”) also sounds like it could have figured prominently in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy e.g. “on the third day look north to Avoriaz for help.” Anyway, we were greeted by Thomas who was tall, had long hair, a surfer accent in French and English, and was wearing the nearly calf-length red parkas of the ESF (Ecole de Ski Française). Thomas is the close friend of a friend of mine named Sylvain, a musician who sells vegetables at the farmers market for Denis Dutruel, my former boss.

Thomas, with his duster style ski jacket, looked like some kind of ski cowboy. Photo credit Nick Green.

Thomas began our lesson by talking about the principles of carving, of edging our skis, keeping our weight forward, flexing our legs. This group was all experienced skiers and were all familiar with carving. Thomas led us on slope to watch us carve. The sloped he happened to pick (on purpose I am quite certain) had about the same incline as a road in Kansas on its way to Missouri. Lacking any speed (mostly we were poling to arrive at the lift) we had scant opportunity to carve, though we did manage. At the bottom of the “slope” Thomas greeted us each individually.
“Aaron did you feel the sensation of carving” he asked.
“Oh yeah, I definitely felt it, lots of carving going on, I love to carve” we responded (or some version of that answer).
“No you weren’t carving, I was watching you and you didn’t carve at all!” Thomas rebuked us.

“What? I thought I was carving” says Nick. Photo credit Aaron Schorsch.

After that he had our attention (I guess he figured that since we were all accomplished skiers we would be reluctant to accept his teaching, unless he crushed our egos a little). Luckily, he took us on some steeper slopes where we could show off our carving techniques. Then he did a mogul workshop with us, showing us how to put our weight in the front part of skis and swing the backs around. He was enthusiastic and doled out compliments, but there was always his no-nonsense side with quick, unequivocal corrections at the ready.
“The moment your weight is in your heels, its too late!” he told us.
We were preparing for a guided backcountry 20-kilometer-long descent of the famous Vallée Blanche on the Mont Blanc Massif. This is an optional day trip and is for strong intermediate or better skiers and snowboarders who have some experience skiing “hors piste” (off piste, not “horse piss” as one of group wrongly claimed). Our preparation involved skiing our way through various resorts in the Portes du Soleil area, even make a good-sized loop into Switzerland and back in a day. At the French resort of Châtel we found some good fresh powder, and everyone got a chance to work on their off piste powder skiing technique. There were some spills on a steep run through some sheltered glades but mostly the group look somewhat competent.

We were mostly getting better…Photo credit Scott Shepler.

Raclette cheese is quite mild in a solid state but when melted this creamy cheese has all kinds of delicious flavors! Photo credit Lily Zhang.

We were also preparing by eating delicious sausages, lots of pastries, some beautiful salads, and Raclette (cheese scraped onto boiled potatoes and served with huge platters of charcuterie, cornichons, and pickled onions). Raclette is from the French and Swiss Alps and was originally a dish that herders made while up in the high pastures. They would place a half-wheel of cheese with the flat (cut) side next to an open fire. When the edge exposed to the fire started to bubble and melt they would scrape (“racle” in French) the cheese onto bread or boiled potatoes.

You can use a raclette machine that holds a half wheel of cheese on an incline and has a heating element that recreates the open fire. However, most raclette machines are an electric broiler that you place in the center of the table and can place small pans containing a slice of cheese (Raclette is now a type of cheese, but others will work as well) to let it melt and bubble. When eating that much cheese, charcuterie and rich food it is important to drink enough wine. The group followed that advice to the “t”.

Scott says: “Mark, can I go on the Vallee Blanche descent? Please…” Photo credit Sue Shepler.

The descent of the Vallee Blanche is weather-dependent, and I had been in touch with our French high-mountain guides, Ludovic and Fix. Our arranged day was Wednesday and the weather was looking very promising. We had an early departure to travel the 1 hour to Chamonix. Ludovic and Fix suggested that everyone obtain skis that were at least 90mm underfoot as there was a good chance of encountering lots of fluffy fresh powder.

The entry to the Vallée Blanche is impressive and beautiful. Photo credit Aaron Schorsch.

There was a lot of excitement and nervousness in the group. To enter the Vallée Blanche requires a walk along a very narrow, steep ridge that has a fall of several hundred feet to one side and considerably more on the other side. To be continued…

In addition to skis, the other piece of sporting equipment that I brought to Sweden was my lovingly cared for, Swedish made, ultra-light fishing rod and reel, purchased twenty years ago. I knew northern Sweden would have good fishing with arctic char, various species of trout, perch, pike, grayling and whitefish inhabiting the many streams and clear lakes. With temperatures occasionally in the mid 70s and all the daylight you could ask for, fishing seemed like a good way to start the summer.

Summer above the Arctic Circle.  Non-stop daylight, occasionally warm weather, and tons of fish makes for good fishing.

Summer above the Arctic Circle. Non-stop daylight, occasionally warm weather, and tons of fish on the lake at Kutjaure in Padjalenta make great fishing for myself, Gabe, and Logan. Photo by Cate Dolan.

Following a tip from my old boss OT Utsi, Amanda and I drove about 20 miles north to a place where the roaring Muddus River empties into the much larger, dam-controlled and placid Lule River. OT said it was a good place to catch gädda (Northern Pike), which are ferocious fish with hundreds of teeth, a long body, and an aggressive attitude. Northern Pike can be found in many northern states in the US, and they have a firm white flesh and lots of bones. We discovered that gädda are not a much appreciated fish for the table in Sweden. Years ago people ate them, but now they are often fed to dogs or thrown back.

Erik Green holding a small gadda (Northern Pike).

Amanda’s brother Erik displays his first gädda (Northern Pike). Photo by Nick Green.

A few friends joined us at the fishing spot, as well as a group of 3 middle-aged men and two boys who had established a decent sized camp, complete with circus tent and motorboat. We began fishing immediately, and only a few minutes later our friend Mattias hooked and landed a thrashing 7 lb gädda. To remove the hook requires needle-nose pliers, lest one sacrifice a couple of fingers to the toothy beast. I rushed over to see what was happening. Mattias, slightly disgusted by the fish, was keen to get rid of it as quickly as possible, but I asked if I could keep it to make the famous French dish “quenelles de brochet” translated to the less illustrious sounding “pike-balls” in English. Both the other fishermen and Mattias looked at me a skeptically, confused as to why I would want such a fish.

One thing I will say about Amanda is that she learns quickly. Her first cast, after a few years out of practice, didn’t even go towards the water and actually required a little bouldering to get the lure back. Ten minutes later she was reeling in a beautiful perch, colored like a parrot (if parrots lived in kind of murky water). Perch are much appreciated for their taste and excellent texture.

Amanda catches dinner, despite first fishing on land and also a reluctance to touch fish.

Amanda catches dinner, despite first fishing on land and also a reluctance to touch fish.  I am clearly shocked from the whole incident. Photo by Nick Green.

We made a fire and roasted sausages on sticks, cooked eggplant and spring onions in the coals, and drank a refreshing beer. Later I hooked a perch and another large pike which I almost landed but it freed itself from becoming the inevitable “quenelle” right at the last moment. My arm ached carrying back our catch.

Back home I filleted the two perch and started in on the tricky and large gädda. I watched a French YouTube video about how to remove all the bones, which helped considerably. Later I found a Swedish video which is much funnier, even if you can’t understand anything he says (watch it here). After a good bit of work I finally had two large completely boneless filets, ready to be made into delicious quenelles de brochet.

That evening we dined on the exquisite perch filets. We ate them as they are traditionally prepared in France “filets de perche meuniere” simply lightly dusted in flour and then fried in butter and served with a little parsley, lemon, and new potatoes. For contrast I also cooked a piece of the gädda using the same preparation. The gädda was good, slightly crispy and browned with very white mild tasting flesh. The perch was superb, a firm texture, delicate flavor, and clean taste: the clear winner.

Filets de Perche meuniere with yet another dinner table appearence from the venerable swedish potato.

Filets de perche meuniere with yet another dinner table appearance from the venerable Swedish potato. Photo by Aaron.

Recipe for Filets de Perche Meuniere

4 servings
1.5lbs perch filets
Salt and pepper
Flour for dusting
4 T butter
Parsley, chopped
Lemon wedges

Season perch filets with salt and pepper. Place flour in shallow bowl and dredge filets, lighly covering with flour and shaking off excess. Heat large heavy bottomed frying pan over medium heat. Add 2T butter and when it foams add filets in one layer. Cook about 3-5 minutes until nicely browned on bottom, flip and cook 3 minutes more until browned on both sides, adding remaining butter in chunks. Serve with a sprinkling of parsley and a wedge of lemon with potatoes or rice.

The French dish “quenelles de brochet” comes from the Lyon region where the brochet (gädda, northern pike) are plentiful. Small pike can be grilled, roasted, pan fried, or poached whole and served with a beurre blanc or in white wine. Some people find this fish to have a silty taste, not unlike dirt, though apparently this is more common with very big fish (10 pounds and up) in warm muddy ponds. In any event the French created these dumplings (quenelles) hundreds of years ago by combining finely ground pike with flour, milk, butter, nutmeg, and fresh eggs. The dumplings are carefully poached and then finished in the oven, often served with a sauce nantua, made from crayfish.

Quenelles de Brochet with a safran/tomato bechamel.  They are light and airy yet solid and filling at the same time.  Must be all the eggs and butter!

Quenelles de Brochet with a saffron/tomato bechamel. They are light and airy yet solid and filling at the same time. Must be all the eggs and butter!

Translation of the recipe I used for Quenelles de Brochet

Makes 12 large quenelles
125g butter
200g All purpose flour
1 cup milk
Fresh grating of nutmeg (about 1/4tsp)

4 fresh eggs
200g finely ground (meat grinder with smallest die, or pulsed in food processor) boneless pike (or othe firm textured, affordable, white fish)

Heat the milk and 25g of the butter in a medium saucepan over low heat. Grate about ¼tsp fresh nutmeg into the mixture. When the butter has melted add the flour and stir well to avoid lumps. Continue cooking over low heat until the dough has thickened, dried a bit, and is not sticking to the sides of the pan. Let cool several hours or overnight.

Using a mixer or food processor, combine the cooled dough with 100g softened butter, the eggs, and then the ground pike. Season with salt and pepper. The mixture should be very fine with no lumps. Let rest and cool at least 2 hours or overnight.

Boil a large stockpot full of salted water. Make quenelles (spoon shaped dumplings) by using two large spoons. Use one spoon to scoop the pike mixture and then transfer it to the other spoon using a scraping motion. Continue doing this until you have a smooth dumpling with three sides. Slip the dumping carefully into the boiling water and continue with this process until all the dumplings are poaching. Poach for 12-15 minutes. The dumplings will puff up and float.

Scoop out the dumplings with a slotted spoon, drain them and space them out in a baking dish. Cover with a sauce (a béchamel made with crayfish is common (sauce nantua), but onions, tomatoes, and white wine would also be delicious). Put the baking dish in a preheated 375F degree oven for about 10 minutes. The dumplings will puff even more and then should be eaten immediately before they deflate!

You can find the original recipe I used along with a bit more history about the Quenelles de Brochet here.

Fishing in the mountains can yield some suprisingly large brown trout if you know where to fish!

Fishing in the mountains can yield some surprisingly large brown trout if you know where to fish! Photo by Cate Dolan.

Gabe's big wild brown trout served all 5 of us.  Nothing like lake to spork eating!

Gabe’s big wild brown trout served all 5 of us. Nothing like lake to spork eating! Photo by Cate Dolan.

I have worked in kitchens long enough to have experienced many different diets: vegetarian, vegan, pescatarian, raw food, gluten-, dairy-, nightshade-, salt-, nut-, and shellfish-free. While working at Saltoluokta Fjällstation, I experienced a new eating preference: vilt (wild). These are vegetarians who will eat wild fish and meats. I have never run across one of these in the US, though I have met several people who are vegetarians but will eat animals that were raised sustainably.

Wait, what can't they eat?

Wait, what can’t they eat?

To be a wildfoodatarian in the US would hardly be worth explaining. Unless you or someone you know hunts wild game, you will have trouble acquiring wild game. So what about that buffalo burger, or fried crocodile, pheasant breast, or elk steak you ate on that one vacation? They probably all came from farms. Laws in the US prohibit hunted meats from being served in restaurants, as the animal must be inspected prior to slaughter. Wild fish is still fair game (no pun intended). The laws, put in place in the 19th and 20th centuries, worked as a preventative measure to protect wild animal populations, which had been severely depleted by commercial hunting (read more here).

Spelt galette topped with caviar, red onion, whipped creme fraiche, dill and lemon.

Spelt galette topped with caviar, red onion, whipped creme fraiche, dill and lemon.

Today it appears that the only way to get real wild meats is to go to the local Food Bank during hunting season. For example, in West Virginia, hunters can donate their deer to local meat processors who will butcher everything and donate it to the Mountaineer Food Bank. It’s an excellent program, but it raises awkward questions: why is uninspected meat okay for the poor? Could hunters earn income from sales of hunted deer – an income that could perhaps help economically depressed regions?

Warm smoked Sik (whitefish) were succulent and delicious.

Warm smoked Sik (whitefish) were succulent and delicious.

Sweden has different laws concerning wild meats, and one regularly sees moose, wild boar, and many types of game birds on menus. Wild game is served in other European countries, as well. All these countries simply require the game to be inspected and processed in a certified facility, post-hunt. Reindeer occupy their own category – as semi-domesticated animals that must be slaughtered in a certified facility – a complicated system Amanda is still trying to understand for her research.

Strangely, the wildfoodatarians I encountered didn’t require much menu modification due to Saltoluokta’s game-based menu. All of our proteins for the main courses were wild foods: moose, reindeer, smoked whitefish, trout, and arctic char. Occasionally we used a bit of pork belly, but who wouldn’t? Even our lunch menu used ground reindeer and moose meat for things like lasagna or pasta bolognaise.

Roding (arctic char) roasted over a wood fire.
Röding (arctic char) roasted over a wood fire.

It was a great experience to work with all these wild foods. Reindeer innalår (tender top round) marinated, grilled, and then finished at high heat in the oven was supremely delicious, crusty and slightly charred on the outside, tender and deep pink on the inside. Moose innalår received the same treatment but the meat is lighter in color and milder in taste while still remaining distinctly wild tasting.

Slicing reindeer innalår that has been grilled and then finished at high heat in the oven.

Slicing reindeer innalår that has been grilled and then finished at high heat in the oven.

The fresh caught and smoked sik (whitefish) from the lake were moist and succulent—excellent served with a sour cream caviar sauce and boiled potatoes. Röding (arctic char) and öring (brown trout) were often served whole, after roasting in a bath of white wine, butter, and a showering of almonds. Lax (salmon) is not easily found in Sweden, but it is abundant in nearby Norway. We wrapped exotic asparagus in thin slices of cold-smoked Norwegian salmon and served them up with a chive hollandaise.

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Asparagus spears wrapped in cold-smoked Norwegian salmon with chive hollandaise.

Northern Sweden becomes a blanket of wild berries during the summer: lingon, blue, cloud, and crow berries found their ways into the menu from accompanying souvas (salted and smoked reindeer meat) to cloudberries sitting below mascarpone cream in a tiramisu. Havtorn (Sea buckthorn) is known as the tropical fruit of the north. It is quite acidic but when sweetened can taste similar to sour orange with hints of mango or pineapple. We used it as a coulis to drizzle on desserts or add a bright taste and color to appetizers.

Havtorn (seabuckthorn) berries add a wonderful taste to sill (pickeled herring),

Havtorn (seabuckthorn) berries add a wonderful taste to sill (pickeled herring),

While mushrooms are abundant here, there is not much of a mushroom eating culture. Still we served a mushroom soup which contained a mix of wild mushrooms in addition to button mushrooms. A morel mushrooms cream sauce made an appearance alongside the roasted moose, and pickled chanterelles livened up a few appetizers.

Cloudberries waiting for their marscapone-cream topping.

Cloudberries waiting for their marscapone-cream topping.

Avant-garde Swedish cuisine is becoming popular for using wild ingredients such as birch leaves, lichen, sea buckthorn, pine tips, bark, reindeer hearts and tongues, and many other wild foods. Ironically, in the US, it appears one might only be able to approach this experience by going to a soup kitchen in West Virginia or DC where a local hunter has graciously donated his or her deer or the National Park Service is culling the deer population.

Low temperature arctic char with

Kristoffer Åström’s low temperature arctic char with smoked carrot sauce, white wine braised cabbage, burnt butter and herbs at Cafe Gasskas in Jokkmokk.

Recently, Amanda and I joined Eva Gunnare from Essence of Lapland for an impromptu wild edibles class where we made a delicious meadowsweet saft, ate birch leaf crackers, and checked out wild salad greens. Stay tuned for a description of that meeting.

When you have a visitor from Japan who happens to be a contemporary artist and also uses food as a social medium, you think to yourself: Oh shit, I am just an anthropologist. That means I study cool. I don’t make cool.

Not to worry. Mako was happy with my long walks and brown Swedish cooking, passed down through generations, from my morfar to my mother to me my husband. Mako was also high on oxygen. After spending the past ten years moving between Malmo, Stockholm, and now Paris, she couldn’t stop gulping in breaths of Jokkmokk’s crisp air, much akin to a fish out of water – but happier.

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Mako enjoys a complete Swedish meal: meatballs, potatoes, and a few of those green things.

On the final night of her visit, I suggested we make meatballs using ground reindeer meat. Aaron mistakenly believed he had securely hidden it in the freezer where I wouldn’t find it. But I did, and with splendid result. Mako suggested we do an experiment. She would cook from a Japanese recipe, while I would cook from a Swedish or Sami recipe.

If you’re in Paris, check out the exhibition she’ll be doing based on her visit to Jokkmokk. Maybe you’ll get to taste dueling meatballs…

Here’s how I made Swedish Exploding Reindeer Meatballs:

I began by not fully translating the recipe from Bonniers Stora Kokbok. This includes key verbs and measuring instruments, but I did have a handle on all the nouns. Despite this trick, the meatballs still managed to explode. It may have been an overdose of whipping cream. Mako, however, was thrilled with the result. Admittedly, she confesses to putting bread on her butter. Thus Swedish cooking, which is heavy on cream and butter, is and remains an ideal diet for her.

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I may have my morfar’s apron on but I do not have his cooking game-face on.



  • 500 g ground reindeer meat (get reindeer meat from Alaska thanks for the tip Shannon!)
  • 1 egg
  • 2-3 deciliters whipping cream (what?!?)
  • 1 yellow onion
  • .5 deciliters bread crumbs
  • 2 cooked, cold potatoes
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • Salt and Pepper

Let the bread crumbs soak in the cream. Mash the potatoes with a fork into the cream. Stir the egg into the mixture. Peel and dice the onion (mycket fint). Work together the ground meat, cream mixture, and onion. Add salt and pepper (maybe 2 tsps salt and 1/4tsp pepper).

Heat up your frying pan and add some butter. Form your meatballs by rolling them in your hands. Put ‘em in the frying pan. Move the pan around to cook them evenly. Find lingonberries, eat, and show Ikea who really knows how to make Swedish Meatballs!

Here’s how Mako made Delicious and Healthier Japanese Inspired Reindeer Meatballs

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Soy beans, onions, and ginger wait to be blended.

First, Mako pulled out a piece of paper with Japanese characters on it. Though I understood this recipe slightly less than the Swedish one, I fell deeply in love with the results. The ginger and beans gave it a fresher taste, and reindeer meat is a lean-healthy-omega-3-fatty-acid-low-cholesterol, meat. So why add cream, Sweden? Why? Here is my guess at the recipe Mako followed.

Japanese (Rein)Deer Meatballs


  • 250 grams ground reindeer meat (need reindeer meat in Sweden?
  • 1 box of frozen soybeans
  • 1 egg
  • 1 onion
  • Fresh ginger root
  • Salt and pepper

Begin by thawing your soybeans. Cut up ginger. Peel and dice onion finely. Add soybeans, ginger and onion to food processor. Process!

Combine soybeans, onion, and egg in bowl. Add meat, salt and pepper. Work until evenly distributed.

Heat up your frying pan and add some olive oil. Form your meatballs by rolling them in your hands. Put ‘em in the frying pan. Move the pan around to cook them evenly. Find lingonberries, eat, and show Ikea who really needs Swedish meatballs!

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Look at those vibrant colors!

For those of you in West Virginia, I think deer meat deserves this experiment as well! Why shouldn’t we be serving wild deer meatballs at our local restaurants?

– Amanda


I am often asked where I learned to cook.  My response is, in addition to my mother and Swiss-born grandmother, a talented French woman named Caroline (Caro).  Caro works as a psychiatric nurse in Geneva, Switzerland.  When she is not working she usually throws herself into some task such as replanting all her roses, building and then rearranging furniture, planting a fruit orchard, sewing costumes for her grandchildren, and cooking, of course.

Caro on her visit to northern Sweden sporting reindeer antlers

Caro on her visit to northern Sweden sporting reindeer antlers

Caro is best described as a dynamo.  She is small and slightly built, but she is a fountain of energy.  She has a loud and quick laugh with an expressive face.  Clear eyes twinkle when she talks quietly and deliberately, but they dance when she explodes in outbursts of rapid dialogue and laughter.  Possessing an often fiery disposition, she is the antithesis of passive aggressive; she speaks her mind freely and with great passion.

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Caro and I check out the buffet at Saltoluokta. The menu included smoked salmon wrapped asparagus with hollandaise, moose steak, celery root potato puree, and more. (Photo by Amanda)

When Caro cooks it is never just one dish.  She makes appetizers, main dishes, side dishes, desserts, and often several whole meals in the time it would take a normal person to make a lasagna.  The result is that there is always food everywhere: gratins, stews, tartes, soups, roasts, and amazing salads, just waiting to be served.  With her excellent sense of taste and thousands of hours of experience cooking, Caro can seemingly throw together ingredients and create a beautiful, delicious meal in very little time.  She applies this same technique to baking (sometimes with disastrous results owing to baking’s closer relation to science rather than art).

Caro comes from the land of cheese.  Fromage d'Abondance in the ageing cellar

Caro comes from the land of cheese. Fromage d’Abondance in the ageing cellar.

Throwing dinner parties is something she enjoys, and one rarely hears of someone turning down an invitation.  Even when I would help her cook, I would still be surprised with the end result, simple dishes elevated to fancy restaurant status, or dishes that just seemed to come out of thin air.  Some examples of favorites are a lamb and beef stew cooked in a Dutch oven sealed with pastry dough, Belgian endive braised overnight until caramelized, potimarron soup that tasted of chestnuts, cod fritters, choucroute garni with various sausages, ham, and slabs of smoked pork belly, cherry cloufoutis with whole cherries, grated root vegetable salad, lemon braised artichoke hearts,…the list goes on and on.

Amanda and I sitting down to dinner in France five years ago

Amanda and I sitting down to dinner in France five years ago

When cooking Caro drapes a hand towel over her shoulder and moves quickly and surely.  She seems to have little use for a chef’s knife, instead using a small paring knife.  Humming can often be heard as she assembles wonders out of inconspicuous ingredients. I was not surprised when Caro used these same techniques during her first visit to northern Sweden to experience our life above the Arctic Circle.

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Caro and Aaron ascend the hills above Saltoluokta (photo by Amanda)

Naturally, Caro and I cooked together during her visit. First she prepared us Tartiflette, the hearty French mountain dish of potatoes, lardon, onions, cream, and a creamy and delicious raw milk cheese called Reblochon, smuggled in Caro’s suitcase.  Then she joined me in the Saltoluokta kitchen and helped prepare the dinner for the guests.  She made a cabbage salad with carrots and a vinaigrette that was crunchy and fresh. For the staff she made lemon tartes and miniature tarte tatins, half dollar rounds of buttery dough covered with darkly caramelized apple.  Again everything was made without a recipe and in an astonishingly short amount of time and caused everyone to smile broadly when they tasted it.

France is a great place to learn to cook.  The French have a long and illustrious culinary tradition, a strong contrast to the rather finicky fads that pass through the US. Learning to cook from Caro is especially fun because she eschews recipes and charges into dishes with bravado and confidence, drawing from her culinary experience and knowledge to add ingredients she already has on hand.


I arrived in Saltoluokta Fjällstation on a snowy day by snowmobile transport.  By the end of the ten minute ride, I was covered in a light layer of snow.  I was shown to my new living quarters for the next three months and set about unpacking my clothes, skis, and kitchen knives.  I will be cooking food and skiing mountains at a remote mountain lodge, hence the packing list.

A few of my new co-workers on an orientation ski trip. (Photo by Mats Jacobsson)

A few of my new co-workers on an orientation ski trip (From left to right: Sophia, Elin, Tina, Kajsa). (Photo by Mats Jacobsson)

A few hours after I arrived with my friend Sophia from Jokkmokk, the rest of the Saltoluokta crew for the spring season were brought across the frozen lake by snowmobile.  Most of my co-workers are from southern Sweden, some of them have never been so far north.  Despite the fact that my Swedish is less than good, I still felt like I was less of foreigner to these northern Swedish mountains than the Swedes from southern Sweden.  I have grown accustomed to the snow and cold, the northern culture and dialect, the Sami influence, reindeer, the northern lights, and of course skiing.  Still I am a Swedish neophyte, which means many new experiences and surprises await.

A view from our lake at Saltoloukta

A view from our lake at Saltoloukta

The next day, after a delicious Swedish style breakfast (fresh baked bread, butter, jam, cheese, sliced deli meats, oatmeal, musili, nuts, lingonberries, blueberries, cornflakes, sliced veggies, soft and hard boiled eggs, Swedish caviar, orange juice, coffee, and tea) we introduced ourselves and began an orientation, which was hard to concentrate on because I only halfway understood what was being said.  Luckily, because I will be cooking, most of the information about guests, cleaning, room numbers, and reception chores didn’t apply.  I did meet the head chef who I will be working with.  His name is Tommy and he is also from southern Sweden but has worked at Saltoluokta for the past 6 years.  He is in his late 20s, loves music, and is high energy while being very laid back.  His Swedish is fast and hard to catch, even my old boss OT said he barely understood him.  Fortunately Tommy’s English is very good.

Smoked pork belly, local cheese, mixed greens, meadowsweet vinegrette.  Tommy the chef in the background.

Smoked pork belly, local cheese, mixed greens, meadowsweet vinegrette. Tommy the chef in the background.

After a long day of lectures we all sat down to a bizarre but tasty meal of “chili sin carne” which as far as I could tell was tofu chili served with pita bread, salads, crème fraiche and lingonberry juice to drink.  One of my co-workers is a vegan, thus the vegan main course.  After dinner everyone made their way down to the lakeside, where a wood fired sauna had been burning for several hours.  We enjoyed a cold craft beer while we waited for the sauna to reach the optimal temperature, about 170˚F.  The wooden sauna was hot and very relaxing, the darkness cut only by the flickering coals in the stove.  Periodically water was ladled onto the hot stove, sending up a cloud of hot steam and encouraging us to sweat freely.  People slipped out of the sauna into the refreshing coolness of the next room, or even ventured outside to roll in the snow.  When I stepped out of the squelchingly warm sauna the cool air felt like biting into a peppermint patty.

The first few days in Saltoluokta the weather was snowy and cloudy, but occasionally smooth snow covered mountains and craggy peaks could be glimpsed through the clouds.  I set my alarm for 6 am and readied my skis, skins, and gear for a sunrise ascent.  I am lucky enough to be able to put my skis on right outside my door to begin the climb to any one of a dozen peaks.  The snow was light and powdery and the trees changed from pines to birches to dwarf birches until I emerged from the tiny forest above treeline.  The sun had not risen but there was enough light to make my way upwards, the snow lightening the surroundings.  As I gained altitude I crossed reindeer tracks and even surprised a small flock of arctic ptarmigans, their white pear shaped bodies gliding in like torpedoes through the crisp morning air.

Clearing skies reveal more mountains.

Clearing skies reveal more mountains.

I set my sights on a small peak and reached the top by 7:15 am, just as the sun was beginning become visible.  The weather had cleared and I was able to see rows of mountains all around me, with a long valley winding off towards the west.  A winter paradise surrounded me.  I savored the view and investigated future climbs with my binoculars before setting off downhill on my skis, leaving symmetric squiggles in the soft snow.

Heading up in to the mountains.

Heading up in to the mountains.

When I am not skiing I am usually in the kitchen, cooking wild foods for hungry guests who are either returning from, or going, skiing.  The Saltoloukta restaurant serves local mountain foods, like reindeer, moose, arctic char, trout, and smoked whitefish.  Most of the food is served buffet style, so guests are sure to eat enough food, even if they have skied all day.  Cooking for a buffet is a new experience. For me, it is more like catering than the line cooking I am used to.  Instead of preparing each diner’s meal separately, everything is cooked together.  The kitchen here is full of big pots and pans, with almost no small pans.  My other cooking jobs have been the opposite, lots of little pans so that each guest’s meal can be prepared to order.

We bake our bread fresh each day, for both breakfast and dinner service.  I will be adding some diversity to the baking program, making naturally leavened (sourdough) boules, and open crumb “pain rustique.”  Some interesting culinary highlights have included a sea buckthorn (a yellow, tart berry, similar to a cranberry but tastes tropical, almost like passion fruit) butter with herbs, homemade vanilla ice cream with warm sweetened cloudberries, Danish rye bread baked with sunflower seeds and yogurt, salmon colored trout from the lake sautéed on lemon sea salt, sous vide moose top round, smoked reindeer heart with aged cheese, pickled chanterelles, and herb crostini.  We also served souvas, which is Sami word meaning smoked, but generally refers to salted and cold smoked reindeer meat.  The souvas we serve here I prepared while working at Utsi Ren.  It is delicious, lightly sautéed with onions and mushrooms and doused in cream (a common Swedish food treatment).  Souvas is very popular dish in northern Sweden owing to the fact that it is already seasoned, travels well, can be prepared quickly and tastes fantastic.  It was interesting to hear that my coworkers from southern Sweden weren’t familiar with it.

"Suovas" salted and smoked reindeer

“Suovas” salted and smoked reindeer

The first three weeks of work at Saltoluokta fjällstation are “family week” and the first week is the busiest week of the season.  The Stockholm region has “winter vacation” right now, so families book a week at the mountain lodge where adults can ski, snowshoe, ride snowmobiles, ice fish, sightsee, eat, drink, take saunas, and generally be merry while their children have outings scheduled every day with similar activities.  We had 45 children and 37 adults this week, which meant lots of work for everyone.  Saltoluokta takes on extra staff to run activities with the kids, while the rest of us learn a new a job while at maximum capacity.  While I only work in the kitchen, the rest of the staff rotates through different shifts including serving, reception, cleaning, and breakfast.  Reception seemed to be the most exciting of the tasks, as many of my co-workers have never worked a reception desk.  To make matters worse, the rooms are numbered in an almost inexplicable fashion.  One of the people I work with, who is a very talented linguist (she fluently speaks Swedish, Finnish, English, and French), confided in me that she had only one guest check in during her shift at the reception desk.  She explained where his room was located and gave him the room number.  A few hours later she was on her way somewhere else when she found him taking up residence in a completely different room.

This is the top of a small mountain about 1300ft of evelvation above the lake.  The descent takes 15 minutes.

This is the top of a small mountain about 1300ft of evelvation above the lake. The descent takes 15 minutes.

The earliest I start work is at 11 am, which gives me ample time to have a leisurely morning, or more often, scale a new peak and ski back to my door.  My day supposedly ends at 8 pm, but that has not happened yet. Usually I finish cleaning the kitchen at 10 pm.  The 100 yard stroll from the kitchen to my room is usually lit by stars, and occasionally aura borealis.  I have seen vivid displays, where the shimmering green lights seem to emanate from the north but flow all the way across the sky to the southern horizon.  Magical rivers of light that seem to inspire awe and wonder in all who see them, much like Saltoluokta Fjällstation itself.

The northern lights (photo by Mats Jacobsson).

The northern lights (photo by Mats Jacobsson).