This Woman Is Preserving the Flavors of the Swedish Forest
Lena Engelmark Embertsén believes deeply in the power of forests. A chemical engineer by training, she spends her days foraging in Mellösa, Sweden, about 100 kilometers east of Stockholm, on her farm, Högtorp gård. Alongside her husband Ola Engelmark, a professor of forest ecology, she picks from the 400-year-old homestead's forests, meadows, and fields for raw materials, which they transform into award-winning syrups, oils, vinegars, and juices nearby at Högtorp's production facility and shop.
"What I get energy from is finding as many tastes as possible from one raw material," Lena told me. "For example, with spruce shoot oil, you have the smell of the spruce, and you know exactly what it tastes like. [But] when you boil it in water and add sugar, you get something that is dark red and tastes of red berries. It's totally different but the same raw material." She also makes a marmalade with spruce shoot, not to mention all the things you can do with the spruce flowers. "We have 15 to 20 different products just from spruce."
Many of her products, owing to their purity and sophistication of flavor, have become popular with chefs around the world; in fact, most of her business involves selling to them through a few carefully chosen wholesale dealers. Tobias Andersson, a chef in the region and collaborator of Lena's, says he loves to use her oils: spruce shoot oil, juniper shoot oil, and cepes oil, to name a few. (In 2013, the spruce shoot oil received a silver medal in the Swedish Food Mastership.) But Andersson is excited about nearly everything.
"This summer I made a sorbet of spruce shoot juice that Lena had produced," Andersson said, flavoring the dessert with cucumber, strawberries, and buckwheat. "Another favorite is birch must—apple must flavored with birch leaves. It's a unique product with a unique character and it goes well with food, especially fish such as pikeperch that we often have on our menu."
It is evident from her products' popularity among chefs that Lena is seriously concerned with flavor. But she is also obsessive about responsible foraging, and helping to preserve the biodiversity of Högtorp gård's forests.
"If you get an understanding of what real wilderness is, you also get a curiosity for how to care for it," she said. "Because if you don't care for it, it won't be there. Once it's lost, it's lost forever." She's heartened that in recent years, and especially during the pandemic, there's been an uptick in interest in artisan food, wild food, and food practices that respect the environment. "The interest in Sweden for going out in the forest and picking mushrooms and berries has increased a lot in the past years," she said. "This was survival food; this was poor man's food. In Sweden we used to think that everything made industrial was better. We lost a bit of that tradition."
She notes that Swedish diners adopted every trend that came their way—"Italian, French, hamburgers. ... Now we have chefs who are world class and proud of the raw materials we have in Sweden."
Andersson is one of those chefs. "In Sörmland we have a lot of venison and therefore always have it on the menu, and the juniper shoot oil fits perfectly," he told me. You get the "clear taste of juniper, but soft and well-balanced." He recommends serving it with heartier ingredients like mushrooms, kale, beetroot, Jerusalem artichoke, celeriac, game meat, wild duck, and pickled meat.
Given Lena's wariness of industrialized food, the operation at Högtorp gård is quite small. In addition to selling directly to chefs, there's the small on-site retail operation, and you can find Lena's products in a small handful of specialty shops in Sweden.
When it's the time of year to pick spruce shoots, Lena is joined by just one other person, her employee Ena-May. "There's only two of us picking," she said. "We pick around 500 kilos of spruce shoots year to year. Your brain goes freely and you listen to the birds. It's amazing."