An Enchanting Dinner in the Wild
In more than 15 years of covering the culinary scene in Europe and Southeast Asia , I’ve had the privilege of dining at dozens of singular restaurants, from Copenhagen to Sydney.
I even have secured all the patterns, from sub-atomic cooking to zero-squander veggie-lover kitchens; I’ve road‑tripped with big-name culinary specialist José Andrés through the north of Spain, and pilgrimaged to remote Buddhist sanctuaries in Korea with David Chang to taste vegan sanctuary food so flavourful that he actually asked the nuns for their antiquated plans.
Many of those meals were, of course, memorable, but the one that also stands out sharpest in my mind is without stars (the Michelin kind anyway), without tablecloths, without a typical professional kitchen – actually , without walls. Called Vuurtoreneiland (the Lighthouse Island), the restaurant is found on alittle windswept islet within the center of the IJsselmeer, within Netherlands . Although it’s a fairly well-kept secret nationally, all of its 50 to 60 seats regularly sell out two months beforehand in just minutes.
The meal begins before you even arrive. Guests are collected at a dock a quick drive from Amsterdam’s central station during a chic 1920s ferryboat, and served an aperitivo with a wonderfully curated picnic box of handmade charcuterie, fresh bread, seasonal crudités and homemade butter. About an hour later they’re delivered to a ship-sized fragment of land populated by some sheep, an obscured 19th-century bunker and alittle lighthouse. A path meandering between grassy knolls leads to a dramatic open-sided tent-shaped structure made up of wood and glass.
To be served a five-course meal here – variety of it foraged from the island itself and cooked over open fires – while watching the sun set over the IJsselmeer, when an hour before the cacophony of an outsized city rang loud, is both exceptional and exceptionally disorientating. Somehow everything, from the taste of the food to the landscape, is cast into sharper relief by the transient nature of the experience.
For a few of years now, chefs like René Redzepi of the world-famous Noma and Magnus Nilsson of Fäviken, in remote Sweden, have inspired others to hunt and gather outstanding seasonal ingredients from nature. Now, however, there are chefs taking it a step further and moving their cooking off the grid entirely. It’s a little but growing culinary movement; call it wild dining. It embraces the only of being in nature – fresh air, stunning landscapes and potent solitude – and enhances it with world-class cuisine.
My first meal on Vuurtoreneiland was in 2013, the summer it opened; founder Brian Boswijk and his team were still experimenting with their model. Four years later I went again, and both infrastructure and food had vastly improved.
They still cook everything over fire, but their techniques have evolved: from charring certain ingredients directly on hot coals to subtly smoking them with hay, as an example. And having created a dramatic atmospheric indoor space within the old bunker, they’re now open in winter too.
In 2017, they also enlisted a replacement chef, Thijs Steur, whose training includes stints in stellar Dutch restaurants Lastage and Le Hollandais. “Francis Mallmann could also be an enormous inspiration for us,” says Boswijk, citing the Argentinian chef of outsized talent and character who is known for cooking over fire. “And actually, Redzepi and his passion for foraging and traditional preserving techniques.”
Perhaps no episode of the Netflix series Chef’s Table captured the imagination of young aspiring cooks quite the one that featured Mallmann grilling over flames within the depths of Patagonia with the most target and keenness of Gauguin painting en Plein air on Tahiti. Mallmann – who in his 20s trained and worked at a variety of the only restaurants in France, then brought modern French cuisine back to Argentina – became the first non-European to be awarded the Grand Prix de l’Art de la Cuisine.
But despite the accolades, at the age of 40, he felt restless and unsatisfied. “I realised that I didn’t have my very own culinary voice,” says Mallmann, now in his 60s. “I was emulating the incredible cooking culture of France, and it gave me such tons , but it wasn’t me.” He slowly began to devour the tools and techniques of the Argentinian gauchos and embraced the “gestures of hearth and thus the tastes it created, and brought variety of these ashes into my restaurant,” he poetically recalls.
In 2009 – whilst the molecular gastronomy movement, innovated by the legendary Spanish chef Ferran Adrià, was peaking – Mallmann published his book Seven Fires. “It was the whole opposite of what was happening,” he smiles now. “But i feel it had been a voice that slowly captured some people and became differently of being within the fine-dining arena.”
“I didn’t invent it,” he rushes to highlight. “Like the return to foraging, cooking with fire possesses to try to to with a fascination with the collective human memory and thus the communal.” Several times a year, Mallmann hosts culinary trips to his secluded private Patagonian island drifting in faraway Lago Rio de la Plata, where guests determine the way to cook over a fire – and more importantly, according to Mallmann, to disconnect from modern civilisation. “The first day I just make everyone sit around the fire and watch it from initial spark to ash,” he says.
One recent afternoon, under the cool shade of pine and birch trees in Skåne County, southern Sweden, I gazed, similarly transfixed, at flames dancing during a contemporary fire pit: an enormous metal cauldron that might are soldered by Donald Judd. Forager Camilla Jönsson placed several trout fillets, caught during a lake just steps away, on the lip of Hell – called a Feuerring, she explained, and made by an artist in Switzerland.
Jönsson, who founded Robusta Äventyr, an organization that curates outdoor experiences during this a neighbourhood of Sweden, said that as of this spring, this lovely wooded spot near her farm is one of quite dozen sites, in natural landscapes throughout the country, across which the tourism board recently launched an innovative project called The Edible Country.
Four of Sweden’s most famous Michelin-starred chefs – among them Niklas Ekstedt and Titti Qvarnström – were recruited to return up with site-specific multicourse menus with ingredients that guests could forage for then prepare, using custom grills, and erode custom-built tables. Guests can go it alone or book extras kind of an area chef or a foraging guide.
If Sweden, and Scandinavia generally, are at the forefront of the wild-dining scene, Magnus Nilsson of Fäviken is its pioneer, one of the first to lure urbanites to tables in remote wildernesses. More recently there has been Stedsans within the Woods, an open-air kitchen-restaurant on 17 acres on a forested lakeshore, conceived and built over the course of several years by the Danish couple Mette Helbæk and Flemming Hansen.
In Skåne alone, I discovered a surprising diversity of open-air culinary experiences, from a down-to-earth bespoke experience called Soppverket, where a couple of cooks soup and bread for you over the fire, to cocktails and dessert within the gorgeous landscaped gardens of the two-Michelin-star chef Daniel Berlin. one of the foremost cultish restaurants within the region is Hörte Brygga, a beach shack hidden during a small fishing port with both indoor and outdoor kitchens, co-owned by Martin Sjöstrand, a Magnus Nilsson prodigy.
The UK is also rich wild-eating ground, however here the wonder will, in general, need more the type of mystery spring up dinners inside the sort of the long-table suppers and “ancestral meals” one finds at summer celebrations like Wilderness, the Good Life Experience and Lost Village.
In Scotland, the exclusive assistant and stylist Amanda Farnese Heath has launched The Mad March Hare, alfresco culinary experiences that are like something out of a children’s book. Mark Andrews, founding father of fireside + Wild, has been foraging for several of his life; around two years ago he slowly began to organise open-air meals for small groups in and around East Sussex and Kent, and now one of his hottest nomadic dinners could also be a Mushroom Forage + Feast.
“We take guests on a guided walk with a mycologist and a truffle dog, and end up cooking with the mushrooms we foraged, complete with wine pairings,” Andrews tells me. The self-taught chef assumed his clients would be, as he describes it, “east London hipsters and kids in their 20s and 30s – but I’d say 90 per cent of my guests are older, more sophisticated city folk, the opposite of what I expected.”
From Skåne I drove on to Wanås, a white, step-gabled, 15th-century castle surrounded by about 9,000 acres of forest and fields that is the location of 1 of northern Europe’s largest organic dairy farms, and also of a world-renowned sculpture park. within the ’80s, Marika Wachtmeister, a lawyer who married into an aristocratic Swedish family, moved alongside her husband Carl-Gustaf and their children into his family castle.
Soon after, she began to ask her favourite artists to exhibit works in and on the estate. Although most of those first site-specific installations were shown within the castle’s English-style parkland, things officially went off-piste within the first ’90s, when artist Gloria Friedmann pushed to exhibit her piece Stigma – an enormous curved concrete wall painted red – deep within the forest next to an ancient oak.
Today, there are dozens of site-specific works hidden within the natural landscape, from Marina Abramovic’s The Hunt Chair for Animal Spirits, a ladder-like chair of metal lined with antlers, to Jenny Holzer’s Wanås Wall, her truisms carved very small in individual stones.
When the subsequent generation of Wachtmeisters – Baltzar and his wife Kristina, an architect – took over the estate in 2014, they added a restaurant and a hotel within two separate historic stone farm buildings.
For the Wachtmeisters and their present culinary experts, Henrik Eriksson and Lina Ahlin, a youthful couple who have worked at an assortment of the principal eminent cafés in Stockholm, the obvious subsequent stage was to have bespoke eats inside the timberland, among all the sensational establishments.
But then, “everything we do at Wanås is site-specific,” says Kristina, pouring wine into a crystal goblet on behalf of me. We’re sitting at a monumental wooden table positioned during a clearing dappled with golden-green light, with a privileged view of Old Sow Between Trees, a 7m-high semi-abstract head of a boar made from discarded logs and branches by the South African artist Hannelie Coetzee.
It seems to ascertain at us, almost alive, from between two oaks. “It’s what the art is all about, but also the food. Each thing we are eating today is cultivated, hunted or harvested on these grounds, then curated into an experience which can only happen right here, right now.”
Everything that “now” was surreal. it had been hard to know where to focus – on the large sculpture that morphed within the changing light like an optical illusion; on the sublimely laid table, laden with bouquets of magenta potato blossoms in sleek teardrop-shaped metallic vases, centuries-old porcelain plates on silver chargers taken from the castle and a silver tray loaded with a cornucopia of vegetables just harvested from the estate’s gardens. Or on the food itself: flavourful dry-aged beef tartare from the farm’s cows, served on a bed of cheese made at its dairy; smoked almonds, fresh yellow beans and a selection of heirloom tomatoes.
Sitting with us at the table was Anna Broms, one of Stockholm’s most beloved restaurateurs; her husband Henrik Bauer (Marika’s brother); and thus the author Malin Elmlid.
We talked about African craftsmen and Swedish cafés; about the art associated with heating great sourdough bread; and about the up and coming chases at Wanås (the domain composes driven game shoots of the untamed hog, duck, fowl, elk and red, neglected and roe deer from late August to the most elevated of January).
At times, a couple of workmanship park guests would meander by on a little, worn earth way and see us, sitting at that detailed gala; some obviously thought about whether we established a type of execution establishment. What’s more, this café without dividers and without limits was for sure a craft of sorts.
As the sun sat not too far off and the shadows came to over the woodland floor, we finished the four-course dinner with espresso in sensitive porcelain cups and custom made cake wearing raspberries and liberal lashings of whipped cream served on antiquated pewter saucers. Before long, the sky would be shining with the main sort of stars that issue here.