As Birmingham prepares to host a prestigious global chefs meeting Richard McComb goes to Gothenburg to see what the city can expect.
The temperature along Gothenburg’s seafront is -15C and I am sitting in the bowels of a replica 18th century galleon, eating my own body weight in lobster while discussing cannibalism with a Norwegian chef.
That’s pretty much how it has been now for the past day or so: weird; but brilliantly weird.
The previous night, while eating a delicious fillet of local reindeer, I was quizzed by a Swiss journalist working for a Euro “metal” radio station. The hard rock jocks have a daily slot in their schedules for a “bite” of gourmet news. For those about to rock, we fricassee you.
I was recorded for a future airwave canape by Patrick, a spiky haired, black-clad, pierced gastronomic metal-head. He asked me to describe the full-bodied Chilean red just poured for me and my fellow private diners to accompany the succulent reindeer at Thörnströms Kök, one of the Swedish west coast city’s bountiful collection of fine restaurants.
Playing to the station’s audience, I went for a rock analogy.
“It’s a big wine,” I told Patrick. “Loud. Full in the mouth. Like a glug of Led Zeppelin. Their second album, though, Led Zeppelin II. Heavy. Whole lotta love.”
I then did a “rock” salute and was tempted to waggle my tongue, Kiss-style. Patrick beamed. He was loving it; I was loving it.
“Crazy,” he said. And that’s not the half of it.
Sandwiched between these highly entertaining, and lavishly prepared dinners, I have taken lunch with the godfather of global gastronomy, Lyonnaise legend Paul Bocuse.
There may have been 150 other people in the room, but nonetheless it was dejeuner with Bocuse. I stood next to him as he slurped his way through countless oysters and ate a cream bun.
I’m sure he noticed me, especially when I virtually mugged him in a hotel corridor to get a picture. The reason for all this mad excitement is food, glorious food. More specifically it is down to Délice, an organisation you may not have heard about but will be hearing a lot more about, particularly if you live in Birmingham and enjoy good food.
Délice is an international network of food cities whose common aim is to drive up food standards, pool culinary knowledge and skills and, most importantly, spread the word that food is about far more than sticking a pillow of foie gras in your mouth.
It’s about health, human interaction, education, quality of life, and best of all, having a jolly good time.
Délice was set up by Lyon in 2007 and its membership now extends to 17 cities including Barcelona, Canton, Lausanne, Milan and little old Birmingham. One of the main events in the network’s calendar is the City under a Microscope, where one of the members introduces the other cities’ chefs to its work in the field of gastronomy, often concentrating on a major food issue.
In Gothenburg, it was sustainability in the fish industry. The two-day meeting inevitably has beneficial knock-on effects for international marketing and tourism.
Birmingham, a newcomer to the Délice table, will be the City under a Microscope in July. The gathering of Michelin-star and brasserie-style chefs, restaurateurs and marketing executives will coincide with the city’s annual Taste of Birmingham food festival. Marketing Birmingham will manage the summer’s double food whammy and kindly invited me along to Gothenburg to get an insight into the value of the Délice network.
Be in no doubt: food, and the galvanising economic and social impact it can have, is appreciated and taken extremely seriously by our European and global partners.
For entrenched cultural reasons, Birmingham is in the position of having to play gastronomic catch-up but it is a challenge that players such Marketing Birmingham and Birmingham City Council are making moves to rectify.
Everyone would accept that we have got a way to go. Gothenburg, roughly half the size of Birmingham, has five Michelin star restaurants to our three. Significantly, this top tier is supported by an enviable array of very impressive restaurants, many serving more informal, family-orientated, brasserie type fare. The average cost of a main course at Thörnströms Kök, where we dine on the first night, is about £18. The restaurant has no Michelin star and tops anywhere I have eaten in Birmingham barring a very small handful.
As well as the, reindeer, in a Madeira sauce, we are served a starter of salmon pastrami with fennel, Swedish squid, parsley froth and salted cucumber and a dessert of caramelised chocolate mousse with cherry cake and frozen cherry yoghurt.
The parsley may be froth but a few minutes in the company of Camilla Nyman is enough to dispel the sceptics’ view that food is a social frippery, an elite indulgence for the iPhone and Blackberry clique.
Camilla is business development director at Goteborg & Company, set up to market and develop the city as a tourist, conference and event destination. The organisation is majority owned by the City of Gothenburg, but crucially its shareholders include the Gothenburg Restaurant Association as well as hotel associations. Food is at the forefront of thinking and the restaurant association, unlike in Birmingham, is powerful and united.
From her office at Mässans gata 8, Camilla, who has helped to organise the Délice meeting with jaw-dropping efficiency, tells me of the importance of food to the city’s healthy and prosperity.
“We have decided that food and gastronomy is one of the key things to work with. We believe it gives us a competitive advantage. Food ties in with our history, with the seas and woods and forests and lakes,” says Camilla. “We always use food to communicate, whether it is a marketing campaign or an event. Food is a concern for everyone and it is a way to get into the heart of people.
“We want to create an atmosphere where people can meet and relax and enjoy themselves. That doesn’t mean service is not up to a world-class level, but it can be informal. Food can be a bridge for people.”
When Gothenburg goes into the global marketplace to bid for new business, conferences and sporting events, it takes along one of its star chefs to tempt the commercial taste buds of potential partners.
It took along a chef to a recent international airline exhibition and did so when it successfully bid for the European Athletics Championships in 2006.
“At the exhibition, the chef serves up small dishes. It is really a way of attracting people. Everyone comes to the Swedish stand because of the great food. They talk and hang out.
“When we do it, we always take the best chefs with us. We always have good co-operation with the restaurant association,” says Camilla.
The message seems to be that if you give a good chef a profile, and work with him or her, they can work wonders for your city, as long as they in turn are prepared for some give and take along the way. It’s a lesson Birmingham could learn from. As Camilla says: “You need to give chefs opportunities to shine and be in the light.”
With Gothenburg choosing sustainable fishing as its theme for City under the Microscope, the visit would not have been complete without dropping in at the fish auction, the biggest in Sweden, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary. It was a mere -9C when we arrived just after 7am. That was warm. It was -18C when our guide, Ilona Miglavs, left home.
Ilona, a marine biologist, is responsible for education at the auction, increasing knowledge of seafood all the way down the supply chain, from the sea to the dinner plate. As Délice delegates pulled on Arctic clothing, Ilona apologised the catch was smaller and less varied than usual due to the icy conditions. The sea, quite literally, had frozen, sending the prices for premium shellfish soaring.
The city’s fish suppliers bid for the day’s top lots with characteristic Swedish decorum while Ilona showed us a stunning array of fish; large whiting, black-tongued hake, giant ling, turbot, brill, sole, witch and plaice. The latter prompted Ilona to recite a popular Swedish saying, inspired by the heavy snowfall: “When the grass is green, the plaice is nice; when the grass is white, the plaice is s**t.”
Over a breakfast of gravlax and herring, Ilona explained how the majority of Swedes, some 66 per cent according to a poll, would like to eat more fish but are held back by the price and a lack of knowledge about preparation and cooking. It was a common refrain throughout the Délice visit and was touched on by one of the guest speakers, Dr Abraham Iyambo, Namibian Minister of Fisheries and Marine Resources.
Dr Iyambo was in town to extol the wonders of his country’s fish exports, proclaiming: “If one of our raw oysters, seasoned with only a little lemon and Tabasco sauce slips down your throat, you will experience a positive assault on your sense of taste that will stun you into silence.”
He also collected an award at Kungsfenan, the annual Swedish Seafood Award, which coincided with our stay. Bocuse was also honoured with an award for maritime gastronomy.
The minister has led a successful war on illegal and unregulated fishing in Namibia since his nation won independence in 1990. The fish industry, previously in disarray, now represents Namibia’s second biggest export but the population has still to grasp the full potential of the sea’s natural larder.
“Ordinary people need to learn more about seafood since they are hesitant to take on the task of preparing a fresh fish meal from scratch,” said Dr Iyambo, who conceded red meat “reigns supreme” in his nation’s diet.
“Cooks live in their comfort zones. Fish they do not know about are outside the zone and will therefore not form part of their regular mealtime recipes.”
The minister said chefs, due to their knowledge and skills, were in an influential position to spread the gospel of fish – as well as helping to ensure there were sustainable stocks for the future.
Håkan Thörnström, the chef/owner of Thörnströms Kök, believes dinner at his restaurant should be memorable, “maybe like the Nobel Award ceremony or a royal dinner.”
But that doesn’t mean precious fish stocks should be exhausted by the gastronomy industry.
“Chefs need to put effort into using lower [ranked] fish in high quality preparations. It doesn’t always have to be turbot or halibut as long as it is good quality fish,” he told a meeting of chefs. “Let the main ingredients be the focus.”
Fellow Gothenburg chef Stefan Karlsson runs Fond restaurant, awarded a Michelin star in 2001. He also knows a thing about Nobel bashes, having devised the menu for prize banquets. He backs the Swedish trend for using cheaper, more plentiful yet good quality fish, and supports, for example, the Tuesday tradition of serving herring with mash potatoes.
However, he knows there is still a long way to go in convincing the next generation of the culinary and cultural importance of fish. Crestfallen, Stefan revealed: “I have a big problem because my daughter likes the fish fingers at school more than my fish at home.”
There was no difficulty getting anyone to eat fish, particularly the Birmingham Délice contingent, when we met for the final night’s dinner on board the East Indiaman, a painstakingly reconstructed replica of a trading ship that sunk in Gothenburg’s harbour inlet in 1745, possibly because the Spanish crew were off their chops on schnapps.
Below decks, the Gothenburg Restaurant Association laid on a world-beating seafood feast, tables groaning under the weight of incredible fresh lobsters, langoustines, prawns and monster crabs. It would have been rude not to return for a plate refill, so we did, perhaps too many times.
There followed a fish stew, of burbot and roe. And no, that’s not a typing error. Burbot, not turbot, is an ugly but tasty member of the cod family. It ticks all the boxes for sustainability in Sweden, where it is plentiful and inexpensive. You’ll have a job replicating the dish in the UK though, where burbot is thought to be extinct.
So the gauntlet – or should that be oven glove? – has been thrown down and Birmingham has a little over four months to prepare for the arrival of the Délice chefs.
Food-lover Mike Whitby, the leader of Birmingham City Council, said Birmingham’s national reputation for culinary excellence was a driver for economic growth.
“Prestige in this sector performs a vital function in supporting the city’s attractiveness for conferences, major events, inward investment and business,” said Coun Whitby.
“Although already having a formidable reputation, we are dedicated to furthering our presence on the international stage, which we hope to achieve through the Délice good food network. The recent event in Sweden ensured that we were able to promote Birmingham’s credentials ... and provides us with further opportunities to showcase our talent and expertise in this sector.”
Ivor Marsh, who is heading up the Délice project for Marketing Birmingham, was in Gothenburg with Luke Tipping, executive chef at Simpsons in Edgbaston. He said: “We found there was a real buzz at the Swedish event around the impending trip to Birmingham in July, with top international chefs signing up to meet their peers and members of the public during their UK visit.’’
* Richard McComb flew to Gothenburg as a guest of Scandinavian Airlines (SAS).
* The lead in price from Birmingham International to Gothenburg, via Copenhagen, is £126 one way incl taxes; £231 return incl taxes.
* For more details, go to www.flysas.co.uk