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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.