Anthea Gerrie reviews the edible and architectural delights of Helsingborg and north-west Skane
As nights grow light and long, a traveller’s fancy turns towards the land of the midnight sun, even though much of Sweden closes down while locals enjoy their midsummer celebrations. However, Helsingborg is the exception this year, as the west coast city which is one of Sweden’s loveliest and most innovative throws a design party worth leaving home for between now and July 3.
This is a town worth visiting at any time for the sheer pleasure of its offerings, which will be enhanced by contributions to the fair which become permanent even when the party is over.
Welcome to H22 City Expo, the successor to the design fair of 1955 in which Swedes recovering from post-war austerity were introduced to mid-century Danish chairs destined to become design classics and that new-fangled fast food offering the hamburger.
This year it’s all about new ways of living presented by young Swedish designers and scientists who are taking sustainability and reinvention to new levels. Not to mention top-notch dining experiences from Scandinavia’s most innovative chefs, new farmers’ markets, and entertainment of every kind from IKEA, who are running their own festival on the harbourfront.
As for that harbourfront, the beautifully reclaimed and repurposed neighbourhood of Oceanhamnen has become a new, futuristic focus for what is otherwise a charming but pretty traditional-looking seaside town. Exit the central station at rooftop level and head for the dizzyingly modern S-shaped pedestrian bridge which leads in five minutes flat to eye-popping diamond-paned buildings overlooking the ferry port and a huge silver octopus standing mascot on the shore.
“Before redevelopment this area was cut off from the town and completely underused,” explains our guide, one of the innovative architects who has ensured all homes in Oceanhamnen are now fitted with a special pipe carrying ground-up food waste direct from the kitchen sink to an urban fertiliser hub and another filtering bathing and washing-up water for recycling.
Even more impressive than this sustainability effort and the glorious waterside landscaping is the repurposing of a disused dry dock into a colourful children’s playground and an ocean discovery pavilion where kids can pet creatures from the deep and learn through play about their environment.
Oceanhamnen is also currently home to an amazing IKEA pop-up exhibition in an old warehouse where homes furnished for every different life-stage are presented on three highly entertaining floors – don’t miss the “first home” tucked into a giant disco ball. There is a bar, a corner for retail therapy, and at night the action moves outside to a rocking summer stage.
Oceanhamnen is a new living neighbourhood rather than a showpiece, thanks to its apartment buildings and a new Scandic hotel, possibly the most exciting place to stay in town. Many rooms, like mine, so closely overlook the giant ferries sweeping in from Denmark every 20 minutes you can practically reach out and touch them; before opting for a budget “cabin” room with no windows, consider splashing out on the heavenly water views available from the outside walls of the building.
The Scandic’s plant-based dinner menu is inventive and right on, while the breakfast buffet is a feast, but the best place for lunch is Brasseriet Helsingborg, on the ground floor of that diamond-paned building which is the beating commercial heart of Oceanhamnen.
Seafood, vegetables, and fruit are so local their provenance can be measured in minutes from the restaurant door, and the cooking is superb. Who could have imagined that cabbage tossed in carefully reduced and seaseond double cream would be the standout dish of a trip which also included the offerings of a two-Michelin-starred chef?
That chef is Daniel Berlin, who is creating fantastic feasts throughout H22 City Expo with the help of his favourite practitioners of the New Nordic cuisine which has made Scandavia’s restaurants the world’s best. They tend to be heavy on foods from the forest, and our multi-course tasting menu included birch leaves, pickled pine cones and snail caviar alongside more expected offerings like morsels of venison in blackcurrant sauce.
The star of the show was spectacular Swedish white wine Immelen from the Kullabergs winery, one of several building a reputation for quality on the peninsula north-west of Helsingborg.
Daniel Berlin, currently between restaurants, will only be running his tasting dinners during H22. But you can experience dinner at Sillen & Makrillen, a laid-back restaurant right on the beach which feels more like Santa Barbara than Sweden, all year round. We feasted on super-fresh halibut and watched the sun sink into the sea like a golden column suspended from the horizon until making its final disappearance at 10.30pm.
Breakfast at Bruket, an award-winning city café voted not only best in Helsingborg but one of Sweden’s top 15, could not be beaten for food and ambience. The quality of the country’s baking is unparalleled, making fika – the national coffee break which is a twice-daily treat – something to get up for every day. Bruket takes it to the max, fielding fresh-baked rolls with a buttery caramel-nut topping, “vacuum cleaner” cylinders of biscuit dough mixed with chocolate and wrapped in marzipan and chocolate truffles with a lemon and bilberry filling as well as every other kind of pastry imaginable.
We could have stayed forever – many freelancers spend hours here with their laptops – but we had sights to see and miles of walking to do. Helsingborg is home not only to a magnificent mediaeval castle with beautiful surrounding parks to walk in, but an art nouveau royal residence with some of the most exquisite flower gardens in the country.
Sofiero, whose rhodedendrons were planted by Crown Princess Margaret, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria, and tended by the almost British royal Louise Mountbatten who succeeded her as the king’s wife after Margaret’s death, is a delight which should not be missed. The house, which is called a palace but is much more homey and informal, has as much charm as the gardens, and the whole estate is accessible by bus from the city centre.
Also worth visiting is Fredriksdal, one of the largest open air museums showcasing life in olden times the Swedes are so fond of.
It consists of mediaeval shop buildings brought from the heart of Helsingborg when space was needed to revamp the city centre, and as well as its own famous rose garden now contains an old apothecary.
There’s a general store where you can shop for back in the day items like shelf-lining paper and wooden kitchen utensils, an open-air theatre which is hosting the Swedish premiere of Fawlty Towers this summer, and a decent café.
Even suburbs are being improved by the innovations of H22 this year, like Drottninghog, where new high-rise housing was built fast in the 1970’s with resulting integration problems. Now the community is coming back together with the help of a vibrant indoor market selling not only local produce but handcrafts, vintage clothes and even the best of IKEA, which has its own pop-up corner. There is a good community café where women who have never cooked commercially before are producing ace salads for lunch.
While Helsingborg has many other highlights – cobbled pedestrianized streets in the old town and fantastic street art among them – no visitor should leave without exploiting its proximity to the fabulous seaside villages of northwest Skane, the foodiest region of Sweden, easily reachable by bus or bike in less than an hour from the city.
Not to be missed is Molle, underpinned by a wonderful pottery-cum-café where wood-fired pizzas are a dinnertime treat. There are guesthouses in the village, but it’s worth the few miles drive to stay at Villa Brunnby, a magnificent art deco pile recently opened as a hotel after extensive renovation following decades as a luxurious home for retired workers and later refugees.
The best place for lunch in this area has to be Ransviks Havsveranda, dramatically perched above Molle within sight and sound of crashing waves and serving superb home-cured salmon and other fishy delights, while fika at Flickorna Lundgren cannot be beaten.
For 70 years owned by the same family of seven sisters and their progeny, it has now been taken over by customers who have pledged to keep its every last tradition alive from the copper pots in which excellent coffee is served to the pans in which puffy omelettes topped with thick slices of fabulous local bacon are brought sizzling to the table to the heart-shaped pastries stuffed with vanilla cream which are the pride of the bakery.
They even serve divine but hard-to-find princess cake – whipped cream wrapped in green marzipan – and my only regret was knowing I’d never get a slice through the scanning machines at Copenhagen Airport, which despite being in neighbouring Denmark, is the closest airport from which to approach Helsingborg. Instead I took a cardamom cookie with me to prolong my edible memories of southern Sweden as I crossed the Oresund strait into the modernity of Denmark and the down to earth reality of home.