It’s fall, and local Swedish produce reaches its peak season with the autumnal gold in the forest and the harvest in gardens and greenhouses. With the ongoing threat of climate change and the waste of natural resources, awareness about what we eat and drink has increased at rapid speed. Right by St. Eriksbron in Vasastan, the restaurant Gro is a haven for green-eaters, where seasonality and local availability rules. Their set menus change according to availability of produce, and they come in ‘omnivor’ (fish and meat) and a ‘vegivor’ (just veg.) versions. Behind the concept, and the stoves, are the chefs Henrik Norén and Magnus Villnow, both of whom have a passion for sustainability and locally-grown greens. Gro stands for germinate, to grow something, and it’s not only what you put on the plate that matters, but also what you pour in your glass. The person who knows the most about that is Gro sommelier and restaurant manager Klara Earlingh Magnestrand.
“I believe that there’s an already ongoing trend of sustainability, and it’s something that has come to stay. What works in the long run and what is good for both the earth and for people. If you make food with what’s close to you and do not cheat, the results will come. Same with the wines, I hope and think people are tired of cheating and that this is more than just a trend”.
Klara started her restaurant career in her native Norrköping, but it wasn’t until she moved to Stockholm and started at Svartengrens a few years back that she discovered what would become her (metaphorical) bread and butter – wines without additives.
“At Svartengrens, I met people that actually cared for what they were doing. The product you are selling to people matters, and it’s so much more than just food, it’s what you mediate and how you do it that matters too, just like any other art form”.
Klara has now found her special place in life, and it has resulted in a lot of energy, soul and heart at Restaurant Gro. I met up with Klara for a tasting of some natural wines, and to have a talk about her views on the debate on climate threats and sustainable food and wine.
Please elaborate a little about the philosophy behind Gro.
“The idea of Gro is to put greens in focus. Although we serve both meat and fish on our ‘omnivor’ menu, we try to focus on the greens and use as much as possible, if not the entire ingredient in the dishes [to cut down on waste]. We follow the seasons and cook good food with what is available, and from as close to us as possible. When it comes to my part, the wines, you can either accept the simple answer: We do not use any additives in our food, nor in our wine. Or, like some, you can start the ‘natural wine debate’. At first I thought it was quite hard to be questioned about it, but now I think it’s fun when people ask, both because it’s fun to talk about wine and because it’s fun to teach adults, who thought they already knew everything, something new. The wines at Gro are also very good together with the food we cook. Vegetables and natural wines are a great combination”.
Building a list of wines, for a menu that is constantly changing depending on what is available, comes with some challenges. How do you go about it?
“This was a problem for me at first, especially with the drink packages of course. It could take days before you found a wine that matched, and after just a week it was time to change it again. That’s how it was at the beginning, but it was still possible to learn in the kitchen and get the flavours, so now I work in the kitchen every night! Sometimes things appear on the menu that can make me think ‘have they put this course here just to mess with me?’. But we have very good communication between us, if it’s something that really does not work, we can always change it. However, it is still important that the food and the wine are a good match”.
Are there wines that you always have on the list or is it constantly changing?
“I don’t really have anything set on the list. Obviously you have favourites and some wines that are ‘Gro-wines’, meaning that they work well for almost anything we do food-wise. But no, everything comes and goes. It’s one of the few advantages of having minimal inventory, the wine list is constantly alive and never gets boring to work with, because you have no place to store anything”.
What’s the biggest challenge, produce-wise, to pair with wine?
“It’s always a challenge, and what sometimes is the hardest to pair, can also be the best you have ever matched. A while ago, we had a course where the second dish in our vegetarian menu consisted of beetroot, almond sauce and dried capers. Sweet, salty and sour in one. I even had to reach out to our importers with the recipe to get a match. And in the end, I found it, together with Charlie, my fine salesman at Dryckesbutiken, and it was a Riesling, from a producer in Wüttemberg, Josh Beurer, and it was just beyond good. It almost became a part of the dish. The dry and spritzy character of the wine mellowed the almond sauce, and I almost felt sorry for those customers who did not pick the drink package from the menu and so missed out on this unassuming combination. So to answer the question, basic sauces, almonds and pumpkin praliné might be some of the toughest produce and dishes to match”.
And, then, what would be your favourite dish/produce to pair with wine, and why?
“Almonds and pumpkin praline! Jokes aside, it’s a lot of fun when you find a wine that can lift butternut squash or a pumpkin praline (mixed pumpkin, similar to butternut squash) to become really divine. It’s always the most unexpected combinations that you succeed with and that you get the most satisfaction from of course. For example, we are currently using an orange wine from a producer in Serbia called ‘The Collective’ with our vegetarian main course, which consists of broccoli and goat cheese, and it’s just damn delicious! It’s always fun when you get served a somewhat odd wine and it turns out to be amazing, it’s a great feeling to get our customers that new experience”.
What else, in addition to wine, do you serve?
“In order for it to work well at Gro, we have to keep the options low, we don’t have a lot of space and especially not in the cooler. We usually stick to three to five different varieties of beer and just as with the wines, we will change when we want to. Mostly local beer, but also some from other microbreweries around Sweden, like the really nice fruit beer from Örebro. We make a dry martini with gin from Stockholms Bränneri and pickled elderberry, it is one of the few cocktails we can do because it is possible to mix and put in the freezer. We have also tried some of the non-alcoholic drinks, tested a little different kombucha and keffir water, but it has been a bit picky and tricky”.
Can you follow the Gro philosophy in the drinks list without having to consult the chefs or are they a big part of the sommelier choices too?
“I have free rein and although both Henrik and Magnus think it’s fun and sometimes have even joined me in the tastings, I think they appreciate being able to let someone else take care of it. However, I don’t mind them being a little involved. Before I started at Gro, they were putting the wine list together for a period of time, and they knew what they were doing”.
What’s your own personal taste in wine? Do you store or are you a more of a direct consumer?
“It’s a bit like answering what my favourite song is, it’s impossible. Of course, I’m happy to drink natural wines, but I would not refuse if anything else is offered. I do not want to make a scene or miss out on a good glass of wine. I can really appreciate a glass of some juicy red, and if I’m not in the company of friends of the more classical school, I don’t mind drinking something more reductive and stubbornly super funky. I also have a soft spot for Etna, those great wines from Sicily. White and Orange wines may also be so ‘natural’ that it is not possible to see through them, and I can admit I’m a real sucker for a fat and buttery Chardonnay. I think the most important thing when drinking wine is that it’s got to be good and above all, nice, good company is also important to me. And no, I cannot save wine”.
Please tip three wines not to miss this fall.
“I would like to tell people to keep an eye on the Central and Eastern European wines, as you interviewed Pontus from Wine Waves a while ago, it is really exciting stuff. For example, the orange wine 2014 Fodor Olazrisling from The Collective. The 2015 Romanissa Casot from Matassa is just magical with great perfume, both for big gulps and fancy dinners. And to prolong this summer a little more, I would like to mention 2015 La Roche Bézigon a Chenin Blanc from J.C Garnier. It’s almost like drinking honey water, so good!”.
Words and Images: Pär Strömberg