I like to serve this with a splash of the driest sherry from Spain," says Patrik Strömsten, explaining the accompaniment to an appetizer of reindeer tongue and smoked reindeer heart on sourdough with pickled onions and gherkins. "It's fermented with a little space on the barrel so it oxidizes."
It's not what you're used to hearing from the lips of a lifetime ski bum, and Strömsten is as close to a fixture of the Riksgränsen ski area in Northern Sweden as you can be. Heading into his 34th season in the famous spring-and-summer-skiing Mecca, he was there the day of Janne Aikio's revolutionary 1996 quarterpipe jump; he has competed in the long-running Scandinavian Big Mountain Championships (née Nordic Extreme Championships), and he has also watched young freeskiers like Henrik Windstedt develop into superstars on the resort's slopes. Nowadays, however, he's a different kind of fixture.
"I serve wine in the nighttime, ski in the daytime, and get paid for it," smiles the congenial, rheumy-eyed owner of renowned Meteorologen ski lodge and restaurant, possibly the best boutique hotel above the Arctic Circle.
Known as "the Sock" to friends, Patrik grew up in the nearby mining town of Kiruna. As a kid he was an ice-hockey goalie who thought skiing sucked; but after being given skis to try one day, he quit hockey for good. He went to Riksgränsen in 1985 to ski and by 1986 was on the Swedish Junior Mogul team. Working as a dishwasher, he became fascinated with the "inferno and chaos" of kitchens. He started food service with the extensive breakfast smorgasbord in Riksgränsen's only hotel, and soon advanced to waiter, where he taught himself about wines. "I was told I was pretty good at it and felt like a superstar," he recalls. "A decade later I was serving in restaurants in Chamonix."
Now he's running a four-star hotel and restaurant 130 kilometres from the nearest anything and has won Sweden's sommelier of the year in both 2004 and 2014. Though Patrik's own backstory ties well into the Meteorologen ethos of a "pure skier's lodge," the building itself has an equally interesting history. Built in 1903 as a customs post (Riksgränsen means "the border"), it became a weather station in 1925, then was later converted to much-needed staff housing for the growing resort — a place where Patrik actually once lived as an employee. It was ultimately renovated and refurbished into its current guise as a small hotel in 2005.
Having managed Meteorologen since then, Patrik has ensured it reflects that arc: beautifully appointed, done up in the best of clean Nordic country style, it nevertheless still reeks of ski-pioneer history — its walls adorned with photos by Lars Thulin and Mattias Fredriksson, famous shooters who once lived and worked here, lending both a timeless aura and contemporary sensibility. Add in Patrik's laid-back style and the staff's attention to detail, and without any snobbery or pretense, Meteorologen manages to serve the best food and wine under the midnight sun. It's basically Swedish fare, but with an international flair and employing a surprising number of local ingredients given the latitude.
When the main dish arrives — duck, pulled pork and braised parsley root — Patrik swoops in to offer a peppery pinot noir along with a story about this same vinter having 1,500 bottles worth of his best grapes stolen, an infamous incident in France's Burgundy region.
A consummate storyteller, Patrik also has a few standard lines, one, at least, familiar to anyone in a mountain town: "Riksgränsen is a microcosm for skiers and other odd people," he says glowingly of the universal lure of alpine isolation. "Of course skiing is the draw; without that and the snow I wouldn't be here. But even if you don't ski every day there are other things — the Arctic light, the people. You can ski across the border into Norway, you ski together with old people, young people. You can ski through June under the midnight sun. Back in the day I was able to ski here with my idols like Glen Plake and Seth Morrison. Last year my five year-old son skied with Henrik Harlut."
As the end of the meal approaches, Patrik appears with a plate of hard cheese. "This started out as a Gouda experiment by a Dutch guy. It failed, but he kept the cheese and tasted it a year later and it was something completely new — and better. Now that's all he does with his 10 cows. What do you think?"
What can we say? Served with the local delicacy of cloudberry jam it's delicious.
Dessert is a troika of lingonberry — sorbet, mouse, and meringue. "It's like one of those television cooking shows where you have to prepare a bunch of things from one ingredient," says someone. Patrik laughs, says he's thinking of calling it "50 Shades of Lingonberry." Someone else suggests "Ménage a Lingonberry" and Patrik laughs even harder. Like the life he's carved in this Arctic outpost, it's a winner.
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.