Johan Widing

10th March 2016

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Noemie Reijnen

10th March 2016

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Noemie Reijnen

In the kitchen at Bokeslundsgården farm in Skåne, southern Sweden, Johan Widing is washing salad leaves and getting a chicken ready for the oven. Outside, the gardens and pastures are baking under the midday sun – the temperature has soared above 30 degrees – but in here it’s cool and dark: the walls of this traditional Scanian farmhouse are double-layered, with a pocket of air in-between, so the kitchen stays cool in summer and warm in winter when temperatures drop below minus 10.

Some details to note. One: the leaves, picked just a few minutes ago, are no ordinary salad mix – they include red kale, Siberian chives and rainbow chard. Two: the chicken, which still has its feet and head on (comb, wattle and all), is a rare Swedish white leghorn raised in the orchard across the yard. Three: as Johan works and his three young kids run around outside, his mother-in-law Lena crushes ice on the doorstep with a rolling pin – that’s for the home-churned strawberry ice cream we’ll be having for dessert.

Johan, who came to this idyllic spot with his wife in 2003, moving in next-door to his parents-in-law1, is a great advocate for diversity in farming. Guiding us through the greenhouse and gardens, he points out 100 varieties of potato, 25 varieties of garlic and at least five vegetables we’ve never heard of before. He’s also passionate about reviving old Swedish breeds – of chicken, pigs, geese and ducks – that came close to extinction over the past century. His enthusiasm is infectious: it’s easy to see why top restaurants in nearby Malmö vie for his produce.

When lunch is ready, he lays it out on the long wooden table on the lawn and we sit down to eat, starting with a classic Swedish appetiser of pickled herring with boiled potatoes and soured cream. The chicken, served with baby root veg as well as those mixed leaves, is moist, flavourful, astonishingly good. And then there’s the ice cream, served with extra home-grown strawberries and topped with Johan’s own honey. Winters here must be tough, but right now, at this table, under the leaf-dappled July sunshine, this feels like the most glorious place on earth.

Continued below...

Do you come from a farming background?

My grandparents had a farm, a classic mom-and-pop operation. My grandma used to make her own cheese – classic unpasteurised farmhouse cheese – and she’s the one who taught me about seed cultivation, rotating crops, and so on. They had orchards and a variety of animals as well. So that was the starting point for me.

Did your parents also farm?

My dad was a sea captain, my mum worked within healthcare. But I knew I wanted to do something in agriculture. I grew up in Småland, which is the province northeast of Skåne. I came down here to do a diploma in horticultural management in a university outside Malmö. That’s where I met my wife.

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Did she grew up here?

Yes. My parents-in-law bought the farm up the hill in 1979. They started out with a couple of sheep and some animals, then they wanted something bigger and this farmhouse came up for sale – it was formerly a baker’s place. They moved down here and we ended up moving into their old house in 2003.

In terms of meat and things like that, we’re completely self-sufficient. We produce our own cider, honey, eggs. We grow oats, barley, wheat and rye. We have 100 different varieties of potatoes… We’re the opposite of most farmers who focus on one type of production.

Was it always your plan to take over this farm?

Not at first. We moved out here so that we didn’t have to live on a dorm. My idea was to move back up, but as we settled in it seemed silly. It was good for the kids, with the grandparents living so close. And we have my grandma nearby – she’s 86 now and still looking after animals, weaving, doing garden work, living on her own, driving. She helps us with the kids. It just made a lot of sense.

To what degree are you self-sufficient here?

In terms of meat and things like that, completely. The garden is about two acres and most of our greens come from that direction. We produce our own cider, honey, eggs. We grow a lot of grains – oats, barley, some older versions of wheat and rye as well. We have 100 different varieties of potatoes. We have a two-acre orchard where we grow 250 to 300 varieties of apples we grafted ourselves – old Swedish varieties as well as classic British and French varieties. We’re the opposite of most farmers who focus on one type of production.

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So would you say 50% of what you eat at home comes from the farm?

More than 50%. Our milk and cheese comes from outside, but we produce our own bread – maybe half of the bread we eat here is homemade. We grow our own potatoes and carrots and so on, but also a lot of things you might not expect…

Such as?

In the greenhouse we grow grapes, which we sell to restaurants and vinegar-makers. In the summer we have about 50 varieties of tomatoes. We have cucumbers, chillies. We have peaches – doughnut peaches, apricots, nectarines, blood peaches. Those are primarily for ourselves but we sell some to restaurants as well.

This is the best lunch in Malmö probably. It’s a canteen out in the harbour that only serves lunch. It’s fantastic. You can get a proper meal with bread for 85 SEK (around £7)
Johan on his favourite local restaurants – see Address Book

Are they sweet?

Yeah. During the summer, when it cools down in the evening, we sit in the greenhouse and have the grapes and peaches hanging down and – ahhhhh. It’s more than pure production here.

Describe an average day. What time do you get up?

It usually starts at seven. We get the kids to pre-school or kindergarten. Then I come down here and we discuss the day ahead with the trainees2 – I try to keep them informed. We work till four or five – some days more. Then later on it’s usually emails – often till 11 or 12pm. Then repeat.

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Do you have time for breakfast, lunch and dinner?

I try. With lunch it depends: if we’re driving to one of the reserves where we have animals, I’ll have lunch in the car. Then here in the evening, we eat together with the kids.

What’s a typical breakfast in your household?

A classic Swedish breakfast: coffee [laughs]. We’re the second biggest coffee-drinking nation in the world after Finland. With the kids it’s lots of yoghurt and fruit. A lot of what we eat is home-produced so if we have a lot of eggs, we eat more eggs. And it’s seasonal, so if we have a lot of strawberries they’re going to pop up on the menu.

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Who does most of the cooking at home?

It varies. Sometimes I do most of the prepping and cooking, but at the moment, with renovations going on at home, it’s my wife. During the summer, though, we tend to eat more down here [with Johan’s parents-in-law].

When you’re trying to work out what to cook, do you just wander into the garden and see what looks good?

Yes, you do get ideas when you’re out there. You see the mint and go, “Ah, a mojito would be nice” [laughs].

During the summer, when it cools down in the evening, we sit in the greenhouse and have the grapes and peaches hanging down and – ahhhhh. It’s more than pure production here.

Do the kids get involved in the farm work?

They have their own tasks that they do: taking out the animals or closing them in. Just get into the rhythm of it. It’s good to appreciate quite common everyday things when it comes to the animals. Doing the right thing by the chickens means feeding them, taking care of them, changing the woodchips enough. Or out in the garden, when things are starting to flower, you need to see the joy in that – not, “Oh, I have to go out and weed again”. If that’s the way you look at it, it’s going to be really boring here.

Tell us about your pigs.

Here we have our two new recruits – Pia and Eva, named after the ladies who raised them. They’re in training right now; in a few weeks we’re going to pick up their new boyfriend and they are going to be our new production ladies.

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What breed are they?

Linder pigs. Sweden only has one type of heritage pig. In the late 1800s, when Swedish agriculture was at Stone Age level, they wanted to increase the output and interest in farming, but instead of working with native breeds they did a lot of importing. At the same time, they limited what you could do with native breeds. This was in effect for a long time, but you had some resistance – guerrilla breeders were hiding their true pigs. Then in 1952, the Skåne zoo were looking for old-fashioned Swedish pigs and they found one sow with piglets – and that’s the basis of all Linder pigs in Sweden. About 15 years ago, they did an inventory and located eight founding animals, which was the start of the gene bank. Now there are 300 to 400 in total. That’s very few – 5000 is the genetic safe level – so we have far to go. But we do our part, we take one batch of piglets a year. For us they aren’t so much pork producers as tillers – they help us in the garden, removing thistles and things like that… I would say there’s an enormous difference between pork from pigs grown inside and pigs out in the sun.

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Has food always been of interest to you, or did it develop alongside farming?

Again it comes back to my grandmother. We did home butchery – I remember making a fermented sausage with barley and hanging and smoking it. We were out in the forest picking mushrooms, we were drying, preserving and freezing, we were hunting and fishing. It was really good having a limit to what’s available around you and making the most out of it.

On The Menu

Lunch with Johan Widing
Skåne, July 2015

To eat:

Pickled herring with boiled potatoes, soured cream and chives »
Roast chicken with root vegetables and brown butter sauce »
Strawberry ice cream with honey »

To drink:

Lemonade with strawberries
Mint lemonade

Did you cook much growing up?

Both my grandparents and my dad liked to cook. The kitchen was the place to be. I started with simple things, then when I moved to boarding school at 15, I knew how to cook or at least sustain myself.

That’s quite advanced.

Later I went woofing and it became second nature. I remember staying at a place outside Auckland in New Zealand and there was a citrus grove. To be able to go in the morning and pick grapefruit, squash it, eat it – fantastic! It was an old hippie community. Water was rainwater. If you wanted a hot bath, you had a tub with a fire underneath, and your toilet was a shovel. If you wanted bread, you’d get some grain and grind it at the community building and bake your own bread there. It was good practice.

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How many restaurants do you supply?

Five or six in Skåne. We supply some in Stockholm with meat as well. Did you go to Volt? It’s fantastic. Their chef was at Daniel Berlin for lunch, then he dropped by and started buying guinea fowl from us. Our main client is the restaurant Bastard in Malmö. I contacted Andy [Dahlberg, the head chef] and asked if he was interested in working together. I wanted to sell him beef, but when he came to visit he was looking for duck eggs. So we started working around that. Then he walked into the garden and wanted pretty much everything we had. That was about four years ago. Now we sell almost all our greens to them, as well as birds and beef.

So the restaurants influence what you do as well as vice versa?

That’s one of the things I like most about working with restaurants. The chefs visit the farm and come up with things you’d never think about. Kale is one example: Andy wanted to start serving it early so we’re picking the leaves from the plant while it’s still growing, to have a summer kale. We’ve also been testing out garlic flowers, which are fantastic steamed or with butter. There’s a lot of things you never realise could be a product until you talk to the restaurant.

Bokeslundsgården is at Norrto 3217, 242 93 Hörby, Skåne; website. Follow Johan on Instagram and Twitter

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  1. The house where Johan cooks for us actually belongs to his wife’s parents; Johan and his wife live in a farmhouse just up the hill, which is being renovated when we visit. Before leaving, we head up there to look at Johan’s kitchen and its contents
  2. There are usually a few local trainees helping out on the farm, as well as Woofers (or Willing Workers on Organic Farms) from around the world

Posted 10th March 2016

In Interviews

 

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Noemie Reijnen

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