Sunday, 7 August 2011

A Very Swedish Safari

There’s blackcurrant herring, dill herring, fennel and schnapps herring, black pepper herring, Scotch whisky herring and plain old pickled herring,” recites our waitress, pausing to catch her breath. “And, of course, we have herring tartare for an appetiser!”

It must get repetitive doing an impression of Bubba from Forrest Gump every five minutes, but when you’re working at Salt & Sill, the world’s first herring-themed hotel, you can’t expect customers to order spaghetti.

If herring tourism dries up, Salt & Sill can turn to its other USP – it floats. It’s moored to a giant raft at the edge of Klädesholmen, an island responsible for almost half of Sweden’s herring production. There’s also a floating sauna – Sweden's fastest, apparently – where I take my cue from the locals and get in touch with my inner Scandinavian. We heat up until it’s time to cool down, and with bellies full of pickled fish and boiled potatoes we fling ourselves into the sea, arms and legs flailing.

I’ve come to west Sweden to experience the seafood it’s so celebrated for – and the following morning a herring-heavy breakfast fuels photographer Per and me for the northbound drive to Strömstad and the ferry to the island of South Koster. After a hearty lunch of seafood stew we’re introduced to Kenneth Myrvold, the softly spoken Norwegian manager of Ekenäs hotel (tel: +46 (0)526 20250), and Johan Andersson, a South Koster native and, I’m about to discover, owner of Sweden’s firmest handshake. Every time he picks up a crab, I feel its pain.

As a child, Johan fished these waters with his grandfather. He’s tried and failed at city life (“I just start to panic”) and local bar work (“I prefer to drink drinks rather than serve drinks”), but he couldn’t be more comfortable than when he’s on his boat, hauling crabs, mackerel, lobster and shrimp onto the deck. He throws out salmon as bait, lowers a cage attached to a 40m rope, waits a few minutes, and then wheels it up triumphantly. Every 10 minutes, another 10 crabs appear. It all seems too easy.

Johan grapples like a wrestler with his catch and skilfully deactivates the crab’s desperate clawing. Not to be outdone, I reach to grab a crab by its shell. “It’ll take your fingers off!” screams the fisherman, showing me the scars on his arms. “When a crab attacks, you have to wait until it let’s go,” he warns. “If you try to pull it off, it’ll clamp harder.”

With our work done, we take a leisurely cruise past rugged, rocky landscapes; tiny islands inhabited only by horned goats. Back on dry land, we follow our bounty to the Ekenäs kitchen, where a team bakes bread, sautés scallops, roasts lamb and, upon seeing our catch, boils water in gigantic pots. The crabs re-emerge on a platter; a mass tangle of claws jostling for space with shrimps, mussels, cockles and oysters, all caught that same day.

By the time we’ve prized every speck of meat from every pincer it’s gone 10pm, although there’s still enough sunlight for a bike ride. With no cars on the Koster islands – the ferries aren’t big enough and the roads aren’t wide enough – it’s the main mode of transport for the 400 or so permanent residents. We pedal to the north side of the island, where we find two buildings: a ferry terminal and a bar, Johan’s former workplace. He’s sitting on a terrace, catching up with friends.

“My grandfather lived on South Koster until he was 92 and he never visited North Koster,” says Johan as we marvel at the midnight sunset. “These islands are at war!” We laugh – the north island is no more than 50m away, within earshot of a choice Swedish insult.

By buggy and by bicycle, we move en masse to the Blu Bar, a lovely pine and oak venue so hidden it seems surprising anybody finds it – then return to our hotel for a party, rural Sweden

style. The whole island appears to be here, dancing to Madonna and drinking schnapps until the start of another long summer’s day.

It’s a day that finds us a little worse for wear, and the lack of pickled herring at the breakfast table feels like a betrayal of biblical proportions. But we pick ourselves up for the ferry back to Strömstad and the stunningly scenic drive to Grebbestad, home to 90% of Sweden’s oysters. We head to a yellow sea hut perched on poles above the water. It’s home to a fishing tours business called Everts Sjöbod (tel: +46 (0)70 672 5208), run by the Karlsson brothers, Lars and Per.

It becomes quickly apparent that the brothers, born and raised in Grebbestad, are standing on a goldmine. Lars sweeps his net through the shallow water where their boat is moored and heaves up six oysters, each of which could sell for £10 at a top Stockholm restaurant. When we’re at sea on their wooden boat Per hands me a knife and gloves, and teaches me a key life skill. I make a mess of the first few shells, but the press-nudge-twist-lift technique soon comes together. And if I keep practising, Per suggests, I could represent the UK in the Nordic Oyster Opening Championships, which takes place in Grebbestad every spring.

Feeling like the luckiest man in west Sweden, I eat the two-dozen oysters on the table on deck. I close my eyes to focus on the lively, complex flavour – somehow sweet, salty and creamy at the same time – and miss out on much of the gloriously rugged coastline. But my oysters are just a warm-up for the main event. Back at the charming 120-year-old fisherman’s hut there’s bread, cheese, Champagne and a vast seafood platter. Almost anywhere else, this would be considered the height of luxury. Here, it’s simple local fare.

The brothers used to own a furniture shop, but didn’t like working indoors, so they turned to something they’d been doing for as long as they can remember. “It was the right decision to fish full-time,” says Per, who also runs an organisation dedicated to promoting the wonders of the Grebbestad oyster throughout the world. This is a town of seafood addicts – they even celebrate a dedicated Oyster Day, held every September.

The fishing seasons, we’re told, are mind-bogglingly precise. The lobster season, Per insists, begins at 7am on the first Monday following 20 September. Before then, fishing for lobster is a waste of time. It seems crazy, but it’s precisely this obsessive devotion to their craft that’s made Scandinavian food the talk of the culinary world. The emphasis is on seasonal ingredients and simple, unfussy preparation. As I help myself to one last mussel, Per shows me various clippings and certificates stating that Grebbestad oysters are the best in the world. I’m not going to argue.

Originally published in Ryanair magazine

Friday, 5 August 2011

Marathon Men

Yes, that's me. Right at the back. It's the taking part that counts. Photograph by Yigermal Getu Tarekegn, the best tour guide in Ethiopia (

It’s six in the morning, yet I’m running late. By the time I enter Ethiopia’s national stadium in Addis Ababa and rub the sleep out of my eyes, Haji Adilo’s athletes have already completed several laps. They glide round the track in an unchanging formation, tight as aerobatic pilots, matching each other’s stride. After an hour they’ve barely broken sweat. They slow to a halt, change out of their clothes while crouching behind an advert for the city’s first 3D cinema, and gather round coach Haji for a post-run pep talk. The sun is still to rise.

I’m in Ethiopia to learn how to run. It’s certainly the right place for a lesson. If it weren’t for the country’s Kenyan rivals to the south, no other nation would get close to the podium. Ethiopian men hold world records over 5,000m, 10,000m and the marathon, while the nation’s women are almost as dominant. “For Ethiopians, running is an obsession,” says former marathon runner Adilo. “But to be successful you need both talent and determination. It’s not enough to be one or the other – you need both.”

Every week, Adilo coaches almost 100 athletes, all of whom hope to emulate the heroic feats of Kenenisa Bekele, who won the 5,000m and 10,000m gold medals in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, or Tirunesh Dibaba, who matched his achievement in the women’s competition. But few will dare to dream of being as brilliant as the man whose smile beams out from hundreds of billboards across the city, the greatest long-distance runner in history: Haile Gebrselassie.

When I meet him later that morning and he reaches for my hand, it’s that smile I see first, a toothy grin instantly recognisable from finishing lines the world over. Over two decades of competition, Gebrselassie has broken no fewer than 27 world records and, in 2008, at the age of 35, he ran the fastest-ever marathon. He’s been in the office since 8am overseeing his vast business empire, incorporating property, coffee, cars, cinemas, gyms, luxury resorts and two schools, although he stresses that investment in education is not about making money. Before starting work most days, he runs 20km in the Entoto Mountains and, after our interview, he plans to go running again. He’s a busy man with much on his mind – he talks of a possible future career in politics – but one thing takes precedence over all others: the London Olympics. Although he’ll be 39 years old next summer, and his injuries have taken their toll – he flirted with retirement after a disappointing 2010 New York marathon – he says he’s now fully fit and ready for the challenge.

Not one to rest, Gebrselassie has also accepted another, more paternal role, to pass on his knowledge to the next generation. He works with G4S 4teen as a mentor to 14 young sportspeople from around the world, all of whom share his dream of success in London. Despite the fact that only one of the hopefuls is a long-distance runner, he is using his experience to train everyone, from a sailor to a boxer. “Whatever the sport, there are three things you need to become a champion,” he tells me. “You need discipline, commitment and hard work.” He certainly knows a thing or two about hard work. As a child, he ran 10km a day to and from school; his distinctive running style resulting from carrying schoolbooks under his left arm.

This was in the Arsi Province in the centre of the country, an area many Ethiopian athletes now hail from. “If your neighbour becomes an Olympic champion, you think ‘why not me?’” he says. “Arsi is 3,000m above sea level, so when athletes come down to compete at lower altitude, they have a big advantage – more oxygen.” I look through his top-floor office window, towards his training circuit in the mountains that rise above Addis Ababa. To continue my long-distance running education, I need less oxygen and more hard work.

The following morning, I rise early for a trip out of the city. En route to the top, I stop at the Orthodox Church of St Mary in Entoto, the home of dozens of gold and silver medals (it’s customary for runners to donate their trophies to the church), before catching up with a group of long-distance pros sipping water at the midway point of a 25km run. They’re in no mood for interviews – their schedule is tight – but they don’t seem to mind an out-of-shape European with a notepad and camera running alongside them. Next to them rapidly becomes behind them, and after a kilometre or so I’ve lost touch. The roads are steep and the air is thin, and bearing in mind several of my opponents will be running in London next year, I don’t think I’ve performed too badly. I simply need weaker competition.

For the third morning in a row, I wake well before dawn and take a shared taxi to Meskel Square, where hundreds of children are wide awake and playing football before breakfast. Beside them is a vast, 300m-long amphitheatre with wide steps, which doubles as a running track for the city’s amateurs and the odd professional. If the locals are not good enough for a coaching session in the nearby national stadium, or on the foggy mountain roads, they come here to run with the people. Despite the rain, there are still 100 or so hardcore athletes in training.

As I climb to the top step, several runners approach me. Their stories are often similar. They used to be contenders but have suffered from illness, injuries or loss of form. One man, Taye Aduna, blames a leg injury for his lack of medals, but he’s still here every morning, working hard and hoping for a break. “Ethiopians love long-distance running,” he enthuses. “It is part of our culture and our identity.”

It’s impossible not to be inspired by their stories. I think of Haile Gebrselassie’s words and make a pledge to be disciplined and committed – at least for the next 45 minutes. I scrape the mud off my trainers and begin a light jog along the bottom step. I run out of Meskel Square, down Jomo Kenyatta Avenue and across the river. I run through muddy puddles and past the shoeshine boys perched opportunistically next to them; past the Bank of Abyssinia and its yawning security guards; past donkeys and phone salesmen, and street cleaners with straw hats; and past the booksellers with English-language books piled high on the pavement.

I run past taxis stuck in traffic, past the restaurant, past an orthodox church and the neighbouring mosque, and behind kids in Chelsea shirts giggling as they run past me. By the time I reach Kaldi’s coffee shop, I’m sweating and panting, but I’ve run the length of Haile Gebrselassie Street. The man himself would be proud – and finally, albeit wearily, so am I.
For more information on G4S4teen, please visit

Originally published in the August issue of Gulf Life magazine