Erika Lindström

6th August 2015

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Dan Dennison

6th August 2015

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Dan Dennison

Usually, when we visit people for The Gannet, it takes two or three hours. Occasionally we cross the four-hour mark and begin to worry that we’ve overstayed our welcome. Our interview with Erika Lindström – sommelier at the acclaimed Spritmuseum restaurant in Stockholm and one of Sweden’s foremost experts on natural wine – begins at midday on a radiant Sunday afternoon in late June. We meet at Spritmuseum (the restaurant is attached to a popular museum of alcohol on the royal island of Djurgården), sample some unusual ales in their specialist beer garden by the waterfront and check out Erika’s wine cellar. Then we decamp to a nearby restaurant, Oaxen Slip, for pizzas and beer1, before heading back via ferry and train (and a visit to a community garden) to Erika’s apartment in Skanstull for late lunch and a couple of glasses of wine.

Only it’s not just a couple of glasses of wine. What we quickly learn about Erika is that, as well as being incredibly passionate about natural wine, she is crazily generous. She opens one bottle of lightly sparkling rosé while she’s putting together the first dish, a simple summer salad of tomatoes, peach, apricot and mozzarella – and then, after she’s assembled another two dishes (braised lettuce with pickled green strawberries, and a traditional potato cake garnished with bright orange fish roe from the north of Sweden), she opens a second bottle by one of her favourite winemakers, Alexandre Jouveaux.

When lunch draws to a close, Erika takes us for a walk which leads to a nearby walled garden of such size and beauty that we can’t quite believe we’re still in the middle of a city. This verdant oasis, known as Groens malmgård, dates back to the 1670s; in 1983, it was converted into a biodynamic garden providing employment for young people with special needs. Erika’s friend Niklas, a dealer in non-intervention wines2, lives in the gardener’s cottage and – extending the generosity – he opens a couple more bottles for us to try.

Afterwards, in an attempt to reciprocate, we take Erika for dinner at a new neighbourhood restaurant called Bleck. Then, just as it appears that the day is finally drawing to a close, she ushers us back to her place to continue our education. Four bottles later, it is 2am: the interview has gone on for 14 hours straight (though it would be stretching it to call the last eight hours an interview). Unsteady on our feet, though somewhat less shaky in our understanding of natural wine, we stumble off into the Stockholm night.

Continued below...

When did you become interested in food?

When I moved to Sicily aged 15. I grew up alone with my father in the centre of Sweden. He wasn’t such a good cook so when I was 12 I started doing everything at home – shopping, cooking. But in Sicily I discovered what real food and wine is.

Did you move to Sicily with your family?

No I went alone but I had an aunt and cousins there. I lived in the countryside near Taormina. I went to school in Sicily and worked in restaurants making pizzas.

Tell us about the food you were eating.

I loved the simplicity of it: making fresh pasta at home and having it with tomato sauce – or just eating the tomato directly. Roasting chestnuts in the autumn with some butter and salt and drinking wine directly from the barrel: so simple. The fish in Sicily is amazing. And the bread – you buy it directly out of the oven…

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Were you living with your aunt and cousins?

No, I was living with my Sicilian boyfriend’s family. It was the father, mother, three brothers and the grandmother.

Who was the good cook?

I was. And the grandmother. In the beginning she was really sceptical when I cooked, but I learned fast. I couldn’t speak Italian so we talked with our hands and smiles.

For a long time, my cooking has been focused on vegetables. I make simple food. It makes me happy

When you moved back, did Sicily influenced how you cook now? Do you make Italian food at home?

In the beginning I did, but then I started doing my own thing. I had a garden outside Stockholm so I started planting lot of vegetables. For a long time, my cooking has been focused on vegetables. I make simple food. It makes me happy.

Are you vegetarian?

No I eat everything, but I try to eat less meat. I can’t cook meat.

Can’t or don’t want to?

I’m actually not that good at it, though I make a really good steak tartare.

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Have you been working in restaurants all this time?

Yes. I started off working in kitchens. Then I went to sommelier school in Stockholm for a year and have been working with wine ever since. My father always asked me, “But when are you going to educate yourself, when are you going to work in another job?” But I always liked working in restaurants and communicating with other people. I love service, the elegance of it. And I like to see when people are happy.

What makes a good sommelier?

To be curious and never stop learning. To listen to the guest and to be able to think in new ways. I always find it interesting when I pair wine in a way that doesn’t seem to make sense but turns out to be really good. At Spritmuseum it’s challenging because the menu changes every day. I never get to try the food before so I just have to imagine what will work.

Is that exciting or scary?

It’s exciting! Working with the same menu for months would be boring. It’s a big challenge but I’m that kind of girl. I’m bored if I don’t have new goals.

Do you focus on a particular country’s wines?

I’m open-minded. When I started as a sommelier back in 2007 I was only working with American wines – big chardonnays, really expensive bottles. At the time I thought that was really interesting. Then I wanted to learn more, so I went to Mathias Dahlgren3 and started working with natural wines. I remember a new importer came to do a tasting and I tried this champagne, a blanc de blanc by Laherte Frères, and – wow! – it was amazing.

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That was your first time trying natural wine?

Yes. So from there I started to understand more. I started travelling a lot in France and Italy and going to interesting restaurants. After Mathias Dahlgren I went to a sushi place called Råkultur4 and worked a lot with sake, which was really fun. Now at Spritmuseum I’m learning about beer as well as wine.

Do you find that some customers – usually men – feel under pressure to appear knowledgeable about wine and that you have to do a little dance to guide them through the list without exposing their ignorance?

Yes absolutely. And for me, being a woman, many people say “where’s the sommelier?” and they’re waiting for someone else. But I’m good at meeting people. I always try to ask, “What kind of wine do you like? Do you like red or white, light or something more full-bodied?” and make them feel comfortable about ordering.

“19 Glas is the best natural wine bar in Stockholm. They also serve good organic food – there’s a five-course menu but you can grab a bite in the bar.”
Erika on her favourite Stockholm restaurants – see Address Book

How do your customers, particularly those who wander in from the museum without preconceptions of the restaurant, react to natural wine?

Not so many people know about these kind of wines, so in the beginning they sometimes go, mmm, but in the end they’re often like, yeah!

Do you keep a lot of wine at home?

It’s dangerous! Of course I have wines at home, but here in Sweden you can’t buy much natural wine in the store because we have this monopoly – the government controls the sale of alcohol5 – and they don’t know anything about natural wines so they don’t have it in the shops. So whenever I go to Copenhagen, I always leave space in my bag to bring wines back.

Are there no natural wine importers in Sweden?

Yes, but they only sell directly to the restaurants. Not to me as an individual.

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So if you’re a fan of natural wine in Sweden, and not working in restaurants, you’re screwed?

Well then you can go to the monopoly and they make an order from one of the Swedish importers – and then it takes three weeks.

That’s a lot of planning ahead for a bottle of wine.

Yes, it’s not for the spontaneous. So that’s why people don’t really know about natural wines in Sweden. Also, the older sommeliers find it difficult to take all this information in and are a little bit negative around it.

At sommelier school, was there any reference to natural wine?

No. I think I’m one of few sommeliers here who actually work with it. You have to spend a lot of holiday time travelling to visit suppliers and producers – it costs a lot of money6. But I’m not living with anyone so I’m free to travel, and I have friends all over Europe so there are places I can stay. This is not only a job. You need to be passionate about it.

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Talk me through your average eating day. What’s your perfect breakfast?

Cappuccino and a croissant. In the summer it’s granita al caffè or granita al limone, which I’d eat with lots of cream and a brioche on the side.

But that only works in Sicily, right?

Yes, when it’s 35 degrees in the morning.

What about lunch?

I prefer to have long lunches and skip dinner. Often, because I’m working, I end up having lunch quite late. If I’m having dinner I eat really simply: raw snacks and cheese and some greens. Never a cooked dinner.

When you don’t mess with the grapes, the wine takes care of itself. Some years perhaps it’s not so good but some years it’s really good – it’s amazing

What’s your ultimate quick meal?

That would be pasta with tomato sauce, made with fresh cherry tomatoes, garlic and oil.

Do you have an ingredient you can’t live without?

Onion is very important in my kitchen. It’s so cheap and you can make so many things with it.

Going back to natural wines, I’ve talked to people who are very sceptical about them. One recurring complaint is that the quality is so variable.

It’s true. The quality is variable. If you take away all the medicine that protects your vineyard…

You’re exposing your wine to the elements.

Yes. When you don’t mess with the grapes, using no pesticides in the vineyard, the wine is in the natural state and it takes care of itself. Some years perhaps it’s not so good but some years it’s really good, it’s amazing – and of course there are certain producers who make consistently good wines. So I can understand both sides.
The other thing is that people are so used to the big grapes like pinot noir, chardonnay, cabernet franc, so when these small grape varieties emerge from unfamiliar areas, it can seem very strange… It’s taken me seven years to learn and understand all the differences.

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What’s wrong with conventional wines?

Wine is big business and many wine houses don’t care what they put into their wine. The most important thing is to sell it cheaply and in big quantities. To do that, you have to keep your costs down – by using machines instead of hands, using chemicals to increase the volume of “healthy” grapes, keeping salaries low. Up to 60 substances can be added during the preparation itself, things like sugar, gelatine, egg, sulphur dioxide…7 But what’s happening in the wine world today is fantastic. People are taking more responsibility for nature and taking pride in having a healthy, vibrant and rich vineyard.

What’s the difference between natural, biodynamic and organic wines in terms of what’s added?

To be certified organic you still can use some sulphur and copper sulfate. For biodynamic wine it is even more regulated. For natural wine, you can use up to 10mg sulphites for bottling in bad circumstances, but otherwise it is as natural as it can be, from grape to bottle, with nothing taken away and nothing added.

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Do you think natural wine will become more widely appreciated?

Yes. It’s growing around the world, not just in the classic areas like Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhône, Loire – and I think sommeliers and consumers alike are becoming more open-minded. People are growing tired of consuming food and wine that taste manipulated. The natural wine movement started as a revolt and a protest against big industry. I think we all have many things to learn from them.
Of course, many of the winemakers are crazy…

Natural wine attracts eccentric people?

Yes!

On The Menu

Lunch with Erika Lindstrom
Stockholm, June 2015

To eat:

Pizza with anchovy and egg – at Oaxen Slip
Tomato, peach and mozzarella salad »
Braised lettuce, strawberries and almonds »
Swedish potato cakes with fish roe »
Mast brothers sheep milk chocolate

To drink:

Eskilstuna Ölkultur, Eskilstuna Modern Veteöl (wheat ale)
Spritmuseum + Nynäshamns Angbryggeri (white beer with lemon verbena)
Strömholms Malakias (smoked beer)
Stockholm Brewing Co, Cuvee Alexandria 14 (beer fermented with Muscat d’Alexandrie grapes)
La Combe aux Reves, Les Picolettes (Petillant naturel rosé)
Alexandre Jouveaux, Vin de Table O12 (chardonnay)
Domaine Philippe Gilbert, Menetou-Salon 2014 (sauvignon blanc)
Le Petit Brosselin, Touche pas au grisbi 2014 (red)
Radikon, Oslavje 2002 (40% chardonnay, 30% pinot grigio and 30% sauvignon)
Domaine Prieuré Roch, Nuits St George 1er Cru 2011 (pinot noir)
Domaine l’Octavin, Commendatore (trousseau)

Is part of the attraction the fact that your dealing with individuals and families rather than big businesses?

Yes, that’s what really touches me about it. When I travel, there are always family dinners where they open up amazing wines you wouldn’t find anywhere else. I visited one guy from Beaujolais who makes natural wines. He took over the vineyard from his father, and when we tried the older wines that used a lot of chemicals and additives alongside with his [newer natural] wines, it was such a big difference. Even his own father would choose the son’s wines, because the wine with the sulphur, it’s undrinkable.

You find conventional wines undrinkable now?

Yes. I think I’m allergic to them – I get spots on my skin and headaches. But also the taste of natural wine is so much better. This is real fruit that hasn’t been manipulated.

So once you cross over into natural wine, you can never come back?

Exactly.

Erika Lindström is the sommelier at the Spritmuseum restaurant. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter

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  1. It’s no ordinary beer: Erika orders us bottles of Cuvee Alexandria 14 made with Muscat d’Alexandrie grapes, the result of a collaboration between Stockholm Brewing Co and cult French winemaker Matassa
  2. He runs a company called Vinik (www.vinik.se)
  3. Dahlgren is one of the most highly-regarded Swedish chefs and his restaurant at Grand Hotel in Stockholm was the first in Sweden to be awarded two Michelin stars
  4. The sister restaurant of fine dining mecca Esperanto, where Erika also worked
  5. The government has a monopoly on alcohol in all Nordic countries apart from mainland Denmark. In Sweden, your only recourse for beverages over 3.5% alcohol is a government-owned chain called Systembolaget
  6. Erika’s travelling companions include the Noma sommeliers Mads and Yuki. “We’ve been to Beaujolais, Burgundy, Jura, Savoie, Italy, Sicily…”
  7. For a more detailed look at what’s added to conventional wines, see this New York Times piece

Posted 6th August 2015

In Interviews

 

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Dan Dennison

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