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The Autumn Pincer Movement
West Coast of Sweden, north of Gotenburg

by Sarah Shuckburgh

October in Sweden is lobster season. Sarah Shuckburgh embarks on a seafood safari.

In autumn, the west coast of Sweden is the place for a gastronomic treat. The first Monday after September 20th marks the start of the lobster season, and my daughter Hannah and I have come on a lobster safari.

The coastline between Gothenburg and the Norwegian border is scattered with ten thousand rocky islands, lapped by glittering, steel-grey bays. Most of the Bohuslän archipelago is uninhabited but traditional fishing villages still survive. According to locals, this is the home of the world’s tastiest seafood - lobsters and langoustines, scallops and mussels, oysters and herrings, succulent and slow-growing in the chilly Skagerrak waters.

Gothenburg City airport is pleasingly rural, and moments after landing, Hannah and I are cruising in our golden rented Volvo through sedate Friday afternoon traffic. Almost everyone here drives a Volvo, manufactured on the nearby island of Hisingen across the Göta river. The countryside gleams in autumnal sunshine – a peaceful, undulating landscape of woods, fields and meadows of shaggy-coated cattle. White clapboard churches and brightly-coloured wooden houses nestle beneath grey, rocky escarpments. Leaving the mainland, we drive over gracefully-arched bridges, take a ferry (free of charge) across a strait, and, as the bridges become smaller and lower, we reach the remote island of Flatön.

Our hotel, the Handelsman Flink, is a cluster of yellow toy-town houses overlooking a shimmering fjord. Our room is spartan but warm, with nautical motifs on every surface to remind us of the purpose of our visit. Before supper, we have time for a blustery walk along the shingle beach, across a marshy meadow and out along a rickety jetty. From here we stare at limitless expanses of water and sky. The estuary glitters like polished silver beneath the pink and grey sunset. Across the bay loom the rounded shapes of dozens more islands, some wooded, some treeless. Hannah and I stop chattering and try to tune our jostling, urban minds to the emptiness of this extraordinary place.

Supper – and every meal at the family-run hotel - is accompanied by a tape of jolly music, and we notice that other guests know the words and are singing along. Our host, Stefan Hjelmér, explains that Evert Taune, a celebrated Swedish composer and troubadour, spent many summers on these islands and wrote songs about them. Everyone’s favourite is the eponymous Handelsman Flink – the ‘hard-working shopkeeper’, who was apparently famously lazy. His shop still exists, next door to the hotel, now stocked with vintage memorabilia and souvenirs.

Tucked up that night in our nautical bunks, we watch a television programme alarmingly entitled Deep Sea Fishing, the World’s Most Dangerous Profession. Later, I dream of giant lobsters, grabbing me with enormous claws.

Next morning, after a smörgåsbord breakfast, we borrow bicycles and explore the island, struggling against the wind up small inclines and free-wheeling down again. Rain during the night has made the landscape extraordinarily colourful - the tufty meadows luminous green, the heather unnaturally purple, the beaches almost black, the granite rocks striped with pink, the water blindingly bright. We pedal past shuttered wooden houses, painted red, ochre or white. The verges are dotted with scarlet hips and haws, and yellow sea buckthorn. Pausing on a low bridge above a sun-speckled inlet, we watch gulls perching on russet-painted boats.

After a delicious lunch of frothy fish soup, it is time for our safari. Nervously donning extra jerseys, woolly hats and gloves, and wriggling into fluorescent boiler-suits with built-in life jackets, we waddle to the boat and clamber in. Niclas, our skipper – handsome but taciturn son-in-law of the hotelier - looks cool in designer jeans and jersey.

Our vessel speeds across the estuary, weaving between barren islands of rounded grey rock, uninhabited except for an occasional lone wooden hut or lighthouse. Soon we are lurching out to sea, past clusters of yellow saucers which turn waves into electricity. The wind is bitterly cold, and icy spray lashes at our cheeks. Hannah and I fasten our fluorescent hoods so that only our eyes show, and wonder in shouted whispers why we have come.

But now and then the boat slows and we lean over the side, wielding a heavy hooked pole and struggling to catch a bobbing buoy and heave it on board. Then, gloves soaked with salt water, we haul 30 yards of rope, which becomes heavier and heavier and more festooned with weed, until a cumbersome wire cage emerges from the waves.

Most lobster pots contain only a stray starfish or crab, but on my third attempt, a blue-black lobster cowers inside the netting. One claw is missing, but it is still an impressive sight. Niclas shows me how to hold its thrashing body, avoiding the lone pincer, and then how to measure it, from eye to rump.

Hannah pulls in several lobsters, including one with black caviar clustered to its belly. The females carry the roe under their shells, but move the eggs outside for the last two months before releasing them into the sea. It is illegal to take females with eggs but we put the lobster back in the cage, a practice which Niclas says is done in Maine, to entice males to the trap.

The term ‘safari’ is a stretch of terminology. I had imagined that we would be joining a real fishing boat with genuine fishermen, but despite the discomfort and cold, this is a tourist outing. Niclas is a fisherman, but is also the hotel chef. After lifting one lobster pot, we roar on to another site, bouncing over the choppy seas, freezing waves splashing over our waterproof suits. There are no seats, and the deck slopes menacingly towards the foaming wake, with no railing. Hannah and I slither about, clutching the black rubber matting to stop our descent into the icy depths.

At a chilly but picturesque village with waterways instead of roads, and houses perched on stilts, we remove our sodden gloves to guzzle ‘fika’ – sugar-topped cinnamon buns and coffee. Then, as the sun touches the sea, we chug back to the hotel jetty. Now Niclas puts us to work in a whitewashed kitchen by the quay, plunging lobsters into a vat of boiling beer and water, flavoured with sugar and dill. After eleven minutes, we hook the corpses out, now turned from blue-black to shiny red, and perform tricky surgery, hacking shells, pulling claws, tweaking out meat. After we have mangled our catch, Niclas suggests that we relax in the sauna while he prepares a feast. At the end of the jetty, a hot tub steams invitingly, but we opt for an indoor Jacuzzi and sauna, where we strip off and sluice ourselves with ladles. By suppertime, Niclas has turned our clumsily-dismembered catch into an outstandingly delicious lobster meal.

We have caught our own black-gold of the ocean. What next? Hannah is full of ideas for gastronomic hunting along Sweden’s west coast. “Elk are culled at this time of year. They grow as big as elephants”, she says. “And next April – you get underwater binoculars and a net – let’s go on an oyster safari”.

First published by the Telegraph

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