Driving onto a frozen lake with traction and stability control switched off, I’m starting to regret the 20-course meal of pig’s head, decomposing leaves and bird’s liver custard that’s in my belly. But that’s the price you pay for experiencing the finest and wildest that Sweden has to offer.
In this country, every road leads to a forest and each river a lake which, in February, is solid enough to withstand the weight of a family car and a whole lot more. This is why Åre, located 370 miles north west of Stockholm, is not only a haven for skiers but rally drivers, too. Out here, the locals hone their driving skills from the womb. Come winter every lake becomes a public racing circuit.
It’s minus 15 degrees and the streets haven’t been salted. Braking distances are tested not only by surface grip but the reindeer who can make an unannounced appearance. This is Volvoland, and the new V90 Cross Country I’m driving is designed for these conditions. The Swedes have a word, ‘framkomlighet’; the ability to get where you need to go.
The light is constantly changing. Upon my arrival at Östersund airport the sky is an eggshell hue, the late morning sun peeking through thick stripes of jaundiced cloud. There are few inhabitants in Åre, less than 1,500, but tourism attracts thrill-seekers. Condé Nast Traveller has rated it one of the top ten ski resorts in the world, and several car manufacturers use it as a proving ground. Porsche have permanent facilities here, but a battered Volvo I spot in the airport parking lot suggests it’s the homegrown marque that gets the most respect here. Painted bright red, this early-90s saloon has a Ferrari badge stuck between its front wheels and A-pillars. Closer inspection reveals it’s not actually a prancing horse on the Scuderia’s yellow shield, it’s a prancing moose.
The Copperhill Mountain Lodge is the only alpine design hotel in Scandinavia. Built ten years ago almost at the summit of the fir tree-lined Mount Förberget, it was created by celebrated American architect Peter Bohlin, who is responsible for the Pixar Animation studios in California as well as Apple’s landmark retail stores. This time high-tech makes way for tradition, notably the area’s success three centuries ago as a copper mine. Copper and timber are found throughout this cozy and stylish 112-room auberge, which includes a huge copper chimney soaring as high as the mountain’s peak. In last 100 years the area switched from mines to health resorts, and Copperhill boasts a Sàmi-inspired spa to ease those skied-out limbs.
Its aesthetic is very much in keeping with that of Volvo’s newest machine. The V90 sees the edges planed-off its traditionally boxy estate car silhouette, while inside tactile leather and Scandi-wood sits alongside its Apple-inspired ‘Sensus’ touch-screen and Bowers & Wilkins speakers. The headlight design, nicknamed ‘Thor’s Hammer’, looks as cool as the sub-zero climate, and the concave grille which is studded just like Nordic winter tyres helps to tighten the front end, giving a stealthy expression of power. In a highly competitive segment of artfully drawn Mercedes, Audis and BMWs, the Volvo more than holds its own.
This new Cross Country variant is made rugged thanks to its 60mm higher ride than the standard V90 and its charcoal-coloured wheel-arches and rear bumper. Softer and more rounded tyres help it across uneven surfaces and, here in Åre, those Nordic studs are a must. Off-roading is unavoidable.
It has been 20 years since Volvo introduced All-Wheel-Drive to the fleet and the Cross Country has come on miles not just in its design but in the all-important quest for safety. Its ‘IntelliSafe’ system oversees lane-keeping assistance, large animal detection and collision avoidance technology
The Cross Country is the first model to trial Volvo’s ‘Connected Safety’ system, which includes ‘slippery road alert’ and ‘hazard light alert’. Should the car skid or the driver switch on the hazard lights it can send a signal to the Cloud via an internet connection, which then alerts motorists approaching the same area. For now, it’s in its infancy; Volvo are assessing whether they will collaborate with other car manufacturers to ensure this information isn’t merely shared Volvo-to-Volvo. And, at the moment, it’s only being rolled out in Norway and Sweden but, as usual, Volvo are at the forefront of what will surely become standard safety equipment within five years.
The V90 I’m driving is powered by a highly-responsive four-cylinder twin-turbo 235bhp diesel engine, known as D5 PowerPulse, and costs £43,585.
That’s exactly 100 times the cost of dinner at Fäviken, Sweden’s top-rated and most exclusive restaurant. The 24 nightly covers are fought over with minimum six-months advance booking, but this isn’t a slick Michelin-star-type operation (though it possesses two), rather a rustic, eccentric, romantic and unique dining experience served in an 18th century grain store on an untouched 20,000 acre hunting and nature reserve.
Its promise as the world’s best restaurant is worthy of consideration, its status as the most isolated beyond question. There is no address for its Jämtland location, just GPS coordinates and flaming torches to mark the approach track. Chef Magnus Nilsson,33, greets me at the door of the burgundy snowcapped farm building before preparing a feast for his guests.
I sit with a glass of champagne and prepare for the nibbles. Everything, save some seafood from Norway, is foraged, hunted or fished from these surroundings. Local preparatory methods – drying, salting, jellying, pickling and bottling – ensure robust and unique flavours. Nilsson, who previously worked in the starched confines of Paris, has stuck two fingers up at the gastro metropolis and brought experimentation to the unspoiled and magical countryside of his ancestors.
Each course is a mystery until it arrives. The hors d’oeuvres come in rapid fire. Linseed and vinegar crisps with a mussel dip, then a small bowl of reindeer and curd broth served with crowberries and decomposing leaves; wild trout roe wrapped in a warm crust of dried pig’s blood, followed by deep-fried pig’s head dipped in sourdough and served on the end of a twig, which makes it look like an eyeball with the socket still attached. The nibbles are rounded off with bird’s liver custard (not Bird’s Custard!).
At this point my fellow diners and I are invited to duck below the pine beams and climb upstairs where the half-dozen kitchen staff are silently plating our provisions. We’re poured a glass of mead that’s been brewed on the premises, before the onslaught continues, every course as wonderfully memorable as the last.
A steaming scallop the size of filet mignon arrives theatrically in a shell still cooking over burning juniper branches. Then cod with fermented Jerusalem artichoke. A piece of king crab shaped like a sausage served with a dollop of burnt-tasting cream, a flavour clash which thrills. Lupin curd gratin, which has the taste and consistency of hummus crème brulee. A small runny egg coated in ash, which we are instructed to pick away before dipping in dried trout cream with pickled marigold. Steamed Brussels sprouts served with thick cream and caviar. The peak of the menu is a succulent slice of perfectly pink roasted pork, washed down with a 2011 Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Then the sweets swerve into view, culminating in an egg yolk preserved in sugar syrup on a bed of pine tree bark crumbs and a side of spruce ice cream. It is a forest posing as a dessert.
Some of the less adventurous in our group fail to clear their plates, but I enjoy every mouthful – even the decomposing leaves. The menu is imaginative, idealist and virtuoso and may very well go down as my most memorable meal ever. To some, on paper, parts might sound nightmarish, but to my taste buds it’s a fairytale.
It is an insight into the pride Swedes take in the traditions of their land. Obsessed with detail, refusing to compromise or conform. The chef is clearly bonkers, but it’s that same obsessiveness which has driven Volvo’s engineers to push the parameters of safety with little regard to the overheads or for passing fashion. There is an independent streak running through Sweden that I find endearing.
Dawn summons a sky the colour of Turkish Delight. It’s time to head to Helgesjön Lake. Thumbing through the V90’s touch-screen, I deselect Electronic Stability Control and scroll through the dynamic settings for maximum power. A two-mile course has been marked out on the ice with red markers and I set off to see how loose I can get this Volvo. With ESC settings ‘on’ and spiked tyres it’s quite difficult to unsettle the car. It groans and counters and does an impressive job of pointing forward, but that rather takes the fun away when you have a licence to power-slide.
With the responsibility in my hands, and the heated steering wheel reassuring my grip upon it, I throw the Cross Country into the corners with abandon. It slides, it bites, the revs hit the limiter in places. It never spins, though.
With a pendulum motion I am able to thread the car through the markers sideways, flinging it from one side to the other as the four-wheel-drive scrambles to right my wrongs and the eight-speed auto ‘box hyperventilates. Occasionally the InstelliSafe system thinks I’m doomed and the seatbelt automatically tightens around me like a boa constrictor. Fortunately, there is nothing to hit. Last night’s bird liver custard could make a reappearance, though.
The sun sets and the sky looks like fire. This is as savage as terrain gets and, as I have learned, the gastronomy is every bit as unhinged as the driving. Then there’s the wildlife. Round here, the prancing moose is the wildest beast of all.