Marisa Fjärem

21st January 2016

Words: Adam Park
Photos: Dan Dennison

21st January 2016

Words: Adam Park
Photos: Dan Dennison

Our introduction to Marisa Fjärem comes through a mutual friend in Stockholm who describes her as an “illustrator, prop designer, hardcore foodie”. These five words are enough to spark our interest. We get in touch and Marisa writes back suggesting she make her “annual secret midsummer treat of homemade pickled herring, fresh potatoes, horseradish snaps and a salmon tart” at her flat in Södermalm. Our reply can be summed up in a single word: “YES!!!”

A few weeks later, we’re standing in Marisa’s tiny kitchen watching her prepare two different types of pickled herring (one in a mustard sauce, one with cream, both incredibly good). She explains that she is now a full-time artist, having previously worked as a DJ and a creative director for the Swedish clothing brand Monki. Food is a recurring theme in her work: she designed a cookbook with the Swedish chef Marcus Samuelsson, and for the Stockholm round of the Bocuse d’Or competition in 2014 she created giant paper sculptures of shrimps, onions and whisks.

Her pleasantly jumbled apartment is full of interesting stuff: exquisite crockery, unusual art books, an extensive array of statuettes and figurines. Despite its size, she does a lot of entertaining here (we note her supremely unflustered attitude in the kitchen). Today she whips up the salmon tart with minimum fuss and before we know it lunch is on the table.

Marisa’s midsummer feast feels very extravagant (the tart is particularly rich and delicious) but she makes it seem so simple. Afterwards, we head out to a local bar on Medborgarplatsen and then on to the Saluhall food market, where – as if lunch wasn’t indulgent enough – she orders three plates of toast skagen1. By the time Marisa is done with us, it feels as if we’ve celebrated the Swedish midsummer several times over.

Continued below...

Where did you grow up?

Here in Södermalm, in the southern part of Stockholm. Growing up here at the beginning of the 80s was very different though, it was the poor part of the city. People from the North would turn their noses up at us: “Oh, you’re from the south side”. Being from Södermalm means something to my generation, we’re very proud. We didn’t see ourselves as part of the rest of the city. If you’re born in Södermalm you stay in Södermalm. So yes, born and raised here, but I spent a lot of time in the archipelago, on an island in the very south called Muskö.

What’s Muskö like?

It’s very old-fashioned, they have a very traditional way of living. Lots of hunting and fishing for your food and growing your own vegetables. Everybody helps the farmer during harvest time and he gives some back in return. We would go fishing and keep the fish in a large wooden box underwater so they stayed alive and fresh until we wanted them. We could be like “Oh, I’ll have one of those, two of those, and then just take them up to the house to cook and eat them. When my uncle shot an animal – a deer, a lamb, an elk, a hare – we’d all help to butcher it and get it in the freezer.

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So you’re handy at butchering?

I could maybe handle it yeah, though not by myself. It’s been a long time… Anyway, Muskö was a military island and it was forbidden for foreigners to go there – my mum wasn’t allowed because she was from Finland. It’s closed now but during the Cold War it was a big NATO base. The base was in a mountain, like in a Bond film. There was apparently a secret tunnel to get there – that’s where the government were supposed to go if we were attacked. It was quite difficult to get in, lots of guns and security checks. I remember we were told that if there was an attack, everybody on the island could hide in the mountain and I was really scared because my mum wasn’t allowed. There was enough food in the mountain for people to live for 30 years – tins of herring and meatballs, probably!

When my uncle shot an animal – a deer, a lamb, an elk, a hare – we’d all help to butcher it and get it in the freezer.

What was food like back in the city?

Dull, boring, un-spiced food. My mum refuses to admit she never used spices but it’s the only thing I remember. The best thing I would have was avocado with some soured cream, onion and fish roe – that was my favourite food. When we went to visit my mum’s relative in Finland, there was an all-you-can-eat buffet on the boat. Instead of meatballs and all the stuff other kids were having, I’d have a mountain of this avocado dish.

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What other meals do you remember?

We ate a lot of macaroni, blood pudding, tinned vegetable soups. There was lots of stuff from tins, lots of processed food; we didn’t make a lot of things from scratch. My mum likes to cook now, but when I grew up it certainly wasn’t a big deal. My dad was really into food though – he took me to restaurants and we travelled a lot. My greatest memory was travelling with him to exotic places like Thailand and Mauritius.

In Berlin I’d buy noodles to fill my stomach, then go to the market and buy one slice of truffle salami, one small cube of parmesan, just to end the meal with something really good.

Did you find the spicy food weird?

No, I loved it, but we didn’t cook it at home. We didn’t take the experiences back with us. If I had a family I’d make sure we incorporated our experiences into our food. When I have friends over and I make a dish I always try and explain why I’ve made it or how I came up with an idea: “the first time I tried this was here…”, and so on. We didn’t really talk about food growing up. My mum and my dad were cooking the food by themselves and I was not allowed to cook with them. When I left home I didn’t even know how to make pasta or eggs. I was really bad.

When did you become confident in the kitchen?

It started to happen as soon as I left home, around 18. I moved to Berlin for two years to go to art school and I really fell in love with food, even though I was very poor. If I had 10 kroner I’d buy noodles or a can of corn for 5 kroner to fill my stomach, then I’d go to the market and buy one slice of truffle salami, one small cube of parmesan, just to end the meal with something really good. So I’d be full of noodles but my brain would be happy with the taste of the good stuff and I could imagine I was full of the good stuff. I was that kind of student.

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Very clever. They must have liked you at the market. “Here comes cube girl”.

Ha ha, yes. Whenever I had leftover money I spent it on food. It’s always been an issue with my boyfriends, how much money I want to spend on food. I don’t think you can spend too much.

At Djuret they pick one animal a week, sometimes a pig or an elk, and they’ll base an entire menu around that animal
Marisa on her favourite Stockholm restaurants – see Address Book

Eating out or buying to cook at home?

Buying to cook at home mostly. I just love the whole process: going to specific stores for your meat or your cheese, getting your bread. Collecting the food from the very best places and then coming home and putting it together. I love the food halls here, and in the summertime there are amazing farmers’ markets in the outskirts of the city. In the suburbs there are more cultures, Persian and so on, so there are more exotic markets. I’ll go on a little trip on Sundays and get something interesting that I haven’t tried before, or big bunches of herbs for very little money.

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You said this neighbourhood was very working class when you were growing up. What’s it like now?

Oh, it’s unrecognisable. Before it was just rentals, and a lot of poor artists and migrant workers. Now it’s all refurbished apartments and antique furniture stores. More higher income households and hipsters. Everything is expensive. I guess a lot of people think it’s cute – this urban deli, this little cheese store… It’s perfect in terms of what you can get but it’s really expensive.

On The Menu

Breakfast with Marisa Fjärem
Stockholm, July 2015

To eat:

Salmon tart »
Pickled herring
Boiled new potatoes

To drink:

Kullamust Apple Juice

You often reference food in your design work. Tell us about that.

I’ve made gingerbread houses, all sorts of things. Now I’m starting to do more illustrations with food: little people made out of fried eggs, a cabbage chair. When the Bocuse d’Or came to Stockholm in May 2014, I was asked to make some pieces for it. I made a giant shrimp, a giant onion and a whisk out of Styrofoam and paper. All my objects tend to be very large and these were two or three metres long.

Do you prefer cooking at home to eating out?

Yeah. I used to DJ a lot at places that had great food so I got spoiled. I do still love to go and try new places, but cooking at home is special to me. I have a lot of dinner parties, always three courses. I try and be adventurous, with mixed results – sometimes I have to make lots of apologies. My favourite thing to make is a roulade: you stuff meat and then roll it up, tie it together and put it in the oven for four hours. It’s not fine dining, but it’s a really hearty thing to make… livers, cognac, garlic, lemon zest. It’s amazing.

Are dinner parties part of the culture here?

Not like in France, where there are days you can’t find anybody because they’re all out at somebody’s house for dinner. But for me it’s great, particularly because it’s expensive to eat out here and having people around is more sociable. I don’t think Stockholm is a great city to be an artist in – it’s not like the States or Berlin or whatever – so dinner parties are one way of counteracting that.

To find out more about Marisa’s work, visit www.marisafjarem.com.

Follow Marisa: Instagram

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  1. Prawns on toast topped with fish roe – extremely rich and creamy. Best eaten at Lisa Elmqvist’s shop in Saluhall, according to Marisa (beware the price!)

Posted 21st January 2016

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Words: Adam Park
Photos: Dan Dennison

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