Forest cocktail

Emil Åreng, a star in the world of bartending, believes that if you live close to nature you should take the chance to use it for delicious flavours. We meet him in the deep forests and talk about forest cocktails, the best of Norrlands flora, and the art of refusing shortcuts.

Forest Cocktail photo: Sandra Pettersson

After finishing school Emil Åreng wanted to join the military, and he might well have done – if he hadn’t been convicted for drunkenly hitting a bouncer, he tells me. I look back at him in surprise and point out that my Dictaphone is already on. “That doesn’t matter! It was a long time ago. You can write about it if you want,” he says, and strides over a puddle in the tracks of a forest machine. It is late afternoon when we meet in the forests a little north of Östersund, and the ice is broken as soon as we shake hands. I’m struck by his similarity to Jackson Teller in the television series Sons of Anarchy, but the parallels with the violent motorcycle outlaw go no further than his appearance. The bar fight was a once-off and is in the past. Nowadays his free time is occupied by his little son who stops him from oversleeping in the mornings.

So, he wasn’t accepted for officer training, and instead he became a bartender, which had been his dream for even longer: “My mom found something funny. I wrote a letter to myself when I was in sixth grade, answering that classic question: What do you want to be when you grow up? I’d written that I wanted to be a waiter and drawn pictures of drinks. That was when I’d been to Hotell Wilhelmina and seen someone mixing drinks for the first time. I didn’t even think about what was in them, but apparently I thought it was really cool.”

Emil was born in Bräcke, Jämtland, but defines himself as a northerner. He moved to Umeå when he was young, starting to work in the service industry, from being a hotel cleaner to working in nightclubs and sports bars. He likes the city, which has a rapidly developing nightlife. For the last few years he has been the bar manager at Rex Bar & Grill, and it was there he started to become interested in local organic ingredients and products.

“I remember talking to the chef about how Indian restaurants often have Indian chefs because they grew up with the tastes and flavours and know about them. Then we started to talk about the flavours that we’d grown up with. For me they are cloudberries, Arctic brambles and vanilla ice cream. So I started to work on that basis, and then we took in more local products, and more and more organic ones. And then I realised that it’s the only way to do things, and about three years ago we seriously started working that way.”

Forest Cocktail photo: Sandra Pettersson

Unique berries

There is a good reason for meeting Emil in the forest. Gathering edible plants and berries is known as foraging; in gastronomy it has become a concept that attracts culinary travellers to fine restaurants around the world – including the internationally renowned Fäviken Magasinet, which has a menu that mostly originates in the surrounding forests, mountains and marshes, by Lake Kallsjön in Jämtland. However, it’s not just in the restaurant world that foraging has become popular, but also with ambitious bartenders. For Emil, foraging in the forests of northern Sweden is not simply a means of gathering the flavours of which he is so fond, but also a challenge that is part of his work to develop new taste experiences. Berries are his particular inspiration.

“Cloudberry and Arctic bramble are the boldest. Using them you can really reconstruct a spirit and turn it into something incredible. You can infuse cognac with cloudberries and get something that tastes of Juicyfruit, or combine Arctic bramble with gin.” Between his shifts bartending, Emil has travelled the world, competing with his northern Swedish cocktails. He was the only Swede to qualify for the prestigious Havana Club Grand Prix – thereby putting him among the world’s best 50 bartenders. He mentions it in passing as “having been lucky”:“Cloudberries, for example, aren’t found in many places in the world, so I’m more exotic than the guys who come from the Bahamas. And then I’m a bloody idiot, so people have written about me.”

Emil carries on talking, uncensored, like a self-aware hipster connoisseur of the cocktail world – but entirely without the anxiety that defines a snob. He’s now 27 and winning competitions is still important, but he does not stress about it and competitions are not top priority.

“I’m most proud of succeeding in starting up a cocktail culture in Umeå. We now have a group of regulars who come to us and are genuinely interested in a taste experience.” Shrubs for flips “But what about bilberries?” I ask, bending down in the undergrowth. “Aren’t they good in cocktails?” “Nah, they’re just crap! They’re great to eat here in the forest, but they don’t taste of anything. It’s the sensation of eating a fresh bilberry you want, when it splits in your mouth. And it’s a bloody effort to make that happen in a cocktail.” Cowberries, cranberries and rowan berries, however, are great for mixing with spirits, continues Emil. “Rowan berries are like a northern grapefruit. They’re really bitter eaten raw, but if you make a syrup and manage to balance the bitterness, it’s just amazing.” Emil usually makes something called shrub, a method that Americans used to use for preserving fruits and berries. Stir the berries or fruit into slightly more than their volume in sugar and then pour on a suitable vinegar. This mixture then stands for two weeks at room temperature under clingfilm, and is then strained. It is a type of pickled syrup with a fruit flavour and is used as sugar.

“We made one shrub from Arctic bramble and figs, but have also made ones from blackberry and banana,” says Emil, and goes on talking about making flips from a shrub. Flips are basically spirits, sugar and egg, but with a shrub instead of sugar.

Herbaceous plants are also great in cocktails, according to Emil, particularly meadowsweet. He’s found that the best way of extracting the flavours of plants is to first freeze them and then let them defrost in a cooled syrup, leaving it to stand for a week, so the syrup is full of the plant’s flavours.

Forest Cocktail photo: Sandra Pettersson
“Cloudberry and Arctic bramble are the boldest. Using them you can really reconstruct a spirit and turn it into something incredible." says Emil Åreng

Chanterelles, spruce and birch bark.

We round a moss-covered boulder and find a few funnel chanterelles among the brown leaves that have fallen during the last few weeks. They’ve been left where they are, despite us being in an area that’s close to town and popular with walkers. They go straight into the basket. “We have the world’s best chanterelles here,” he says. “They have a fantastic flavour. Chanterelles are an interesting match with spirits, but it has to be one without a strong character of its own, so that the chanterelle flavour comes out. A fairly simple thing, that I think people don’t do often enough, is browning lots of butter and chanterelles and then putting them in a container with spirits and leaving it to stand for 24 hours. Remove the hardened butter and you’ll have a drink that’s incredibly tasty.” Spruce is also delicious and suitable for many drinks. It is possible to make spruce syrup yourself, he says, but for the last few years he has bought the prize-winning “Gran Zirup” that is made by Skogens Sköna Gröna in Krokom. “It doesn’t just taste of spruce, but also resin and all the flavours of the forest.”We walk on through the forest, looking for one thing or another that could be used in a cocktail. In one Youtube clip, Emil makes a cocktail in which the final stage is smoked with birch bark, and I ask him about it. “Yes, we smoked the whole damn thing,” remembers Emil and provides another suggestion for a way of using birch bark. Smoked bark syrup is fairly easy to make at home, but you must soak the bark first, otherwise it’s dangerous.

 

Balances gin

Back in the city we borrow the Lagerbaren at the Jazzköket restaurant, where Emil is going to make a variation on a classic sour – using gin, lemon, spruce and cloudberry. Jazzköket is a top restaurant in Östersund and during the autumn Emil will train some of the bartenders there in using local ingredients. We hang out in the bar while Emil sorts out the equipment. Whichever cocktail you make, it is the spirits that are the starting point for building up the flavours, begins Emil. Unlike when he worked in nightclubs as an 18-year-old, the aim now is to highlight the taste of the spirits – not hide it. And then he explains, the type of spirits is very important. Our sour will be based on Hernö Gin which, apart from the classic juniper, is flavoured with lingonberry from the surrounding area in Ångermanland.

“It is made outside Härnösand and has won every prize it can, so we have to use it. Every northerner should feel that this is our spirit! “It is just the same as food. To have good food you must have good ingredients, and cocktails are the same. The very best cocktails have good spirits. But then it’s also about not taking shortcuts: make your own syrup instead of buying a sour mix, for example.” I ask what his favourite cocktail is, but immediately realise that the question is easier to answer if – like me – you’ve only tried twenty or so.

“Actually, I hate that question, because it depends on where I am. A daiquiri can be fantastic in Cuba, but if I were to drink the same daiquiri here I’d think it was disgusting and throw it in the bartender’s face.” Emil is standing and chipping at a block of ice, grunting a little. Ice is something of a dividing line in the bartender world. Ice is not just ice, it must be of a particular quality. It shouldn’t contain any oxygen and it should preferably come from the River Torne in the far north of Sweden. When Emil has sawn the ice so it fits in the glass, he moves over to pressing the small organic lemons. “The lemons provide the acid and the spruce syrup is the sweetness, and the two create a fine balance. Then we’ll add the cloudberry to mix it up. But all of this should balance the gin, that’s the idea.”. The alcohol, spruce syrup, cloudberry and lemon are shaken. The chrome shaker rotates like lightning, while Emil gazes steadily at the bar. Everything is done with extravagant but extremely controlled movements, but “flairing”, I realise when the drink is poured over the ice, is about more than simply entertainment. The flow of learned movements has a natural focus: the glass, and what is created in there, becomes the centre of the universe for the audience. The drink is a little like an April day: surprisingly sharp and confusing – until you are welcomed into its yellow, sunny warmth. It is divine, whatever your religion or season.

Forest Cocktail photo: Sandra Pettersson