While the Åland Islands are an autonomous part of Finland, the 29,000 residents of the Baltic Sea archipelago speak Swedish. Throughout its history the islands have been handed over between Finland, Sweden – and even Russia – time and time again.
But while identity may be a complicated issue in Åland, food is not.
Even as a child growing up in the Åland Islands, Michael Björklund always knew exactly where his food came from.
“When you live on a small island you live right there with the animals, the fish, and everything. You know exactly how you're going to raise an animal, kill it, and how you're going to prepare it and then eat it.”
And that connection to nature and the environment is a pretty good foundation if you want to become a chef.
“You learn the basics and every step along the way,” Björklund explains. “And my parents also had a food background, so I've been working in the kitchen my whole life.”
He catered his first dinner, for 65 people, when he was just 11 years old. And today Björklund is one of the most famous chefs in the Nordics.
“I learned the art of smoking food in Finland, and I learned the Swedish way of cooking in Gothenburg, where I worked with several star chefs,” Björklund recalls. “And then I worked for a while with fine-dining, but I didn't like it. I like good food with real ingredients for nice people who come into the restaurant just to have fun. And that's what we do best in the Nordics.”
'It's not like a regular restaurant'
In 2002, Björklund moved with his family back to Åland – “it's the best place you can be as a kid” – and four years ago he opened Smakbyn, ‘Taste Village'.
“We started thinking about how to do something special on Åland. It's a very small island, and we know all the producers – they're our friends,” Björklund says.
That close connection from producer to plate is the foundation of Smakbyn.
“It's not like a regular restaurant; it's more like a small village,” Björklund explains. “You can come learn where the meat and fish comes from and how it's prepared. You can speak with the chefs and then sit down and eat very nice things from right here on Åland.”
That means plenty of fish, lamb, pork, and vegetables. The key, he says, is to keep it simple.
“Our menu is very basic, but we use the best ingredients,” Björklund says. “Our perch fish is the best we can get, and we fry it with butter, perhaps with the great asparagus we have here on Åland. And we have our fresh home-grown nypotatis, and butter from the local dairy here on Åland, made just like in the olden days. You can taste the difference.”
It's the classic Nordic way of thinking and cooking – using local products whenever possible, following the seasons and enhancing sustainability. But of course that means the winter menu can be a bit of a challenge.
“In the winter we don't have much to work with. We have carrots and turnips but not fresh herbs or things like that,” Björklund says. “But we use what we can get. The Baltic herring is wonderful in January, for instance.”
'I don't like tossing food'
And Björklund's respect for natural resources and sustaining the environment extends beyond fruits and veggies on his restaurant's plates. He's rethinking what types of fish can be eaten and enjoyed anywhere.
“There are a lot of Baltic fish that we don't really eat here, like bream and sculpin,” Björklund explains. “The fishermen just throw them away. But I don't like tossing food.”
Rather than wasting the undesired daily catch, Björklund and his fisherman friends are turning to other cultures to find those who do appreciate it.
“We've realized that customers from Poland, Romania, and Latvia tend to like that kind of fish. So maybe it's possible to still make good food from it, sell it, and export it as something nice,” Björklund muses. “It's a project I'm working on now; it's not so big yet, but we're trying.”
But even as the chef embarks on his own new culinary endeavors, he worries about the future of the Nordic kitchen.
'What we do, we do very well'
“Nordic food is special in its simplicity, and Nordic chefs are incredibly skilled,” he says. “They can do anything. But many culinary schools are closing down. They're not getting enough applicants. It's a bit of a problem.”
Part of the issue is that young aspiring chefs are thrown into stressful restaurant environments before they're ready, he says.
“Some start culinary school when they're very young, and it's a three-year commitment. That's a long time for a young person,” he says. “And then they see behind the scenes at a restaurant, and people are screaming and running around, and they say, ‘Oh, shit, this is crazy.' They get scared.”
And Björklund admits that to succeed in the business you do have to be a little bit… different.
“It's crazy work,” he states.
“But it's rewarding. Especially here on Åland. When you come here, you can really taste Åland. We might be small, and we can't do everything – but what we do, we do very well.”
All photos: Smakbyn