Food & Drink
A Swedish food empire in Milan
A teenage crush for gravlax
Giuliana Rosset hurries into Björk, her Swedish brasserie in Milan. The street is narrow and the neighborsinclude a Middle Eastern restaurant, a raw food shop, and a video store offering horror films that are B-movies at best. The shop at the entrance sells Swedish specialties: lingonberry and blueberry drinks, herring, gravlax, Swedish cheeses and cakes, as well as Danish open sandwiches. “I think it’s fate,” Rosset says. “When I was 14 years old and living in Aosta, they had gravlax at the local restaurant. The owner was married to a Swede. Gravlax is my favorite. I think fate sends us messages, if only we listen.”
Aosta is Italy’s smallest region, a little strip of land between France and Switzerland. Björk’s Italian maître d’ fills some glasses with cider made from apples grown on the slopes of Mont Blanc, near Rosset’s home district of Aosta where Björk opened for the first time.
With sober Swedish fine design and Swedish cuisine exported from the Grythyttan Swedish restaurant academy, a run-down hotel was transformed into a Swedish fantasy in the mountains, with birch trees all around. The hotel belonged to Rosset’s parents, but it fell into disrepair. Rosset wanted to turn it into a little Scandinavian fantasy complete with mountains, food, and design.
“What I love about Sweden is the mountains,” she says. “I grew up in the mountains, in the cold. And I’ve been to northern Sweden and Norway so many times.”
Scandinavian dream made possible
But things still didn’t really begin in Aosta, where Rosset ate gravlax as a teenager. They started in Tuscany, with a farmhouse – one of those that you fantasize about, where Italy turns into a dream of locally produced vegetables and zucchini flowers, a land of oil and wine. Rosset nurtured her own dream, and when she sold her Napapijri sports brand to an American company, the opportunity came along to realize it.
Just as many Scandinavians dream of Tuscany, so Rosset dreamed of establishing a little bit of Scandinavia in her 12 hectares of vineyards and four hectares of olive groves. She met Nicola Quadri, an Italian architect, art dealer, and expert in Scandinavian design. Together they traveled to Sweden to sample the cuisine and shop for Scandinavian designer furniture to decorate the Tuscan dream.
Rosset produces an interior design magazine, the cover of which shows the results of the two business partners’ creation. Josef Frank’s bourgeois chunky sofa and famous walnut table are blended with the more sober designs of recent decades.
Their passion for Sweden grew. Together they decided to create Björk in Aosta – a hotel with small cottages in a birch grove, and a Swedish restaurant. It was ready in 2012. But they had already decided to take the Swedishness a step further, as demonstrated by the design – somewhat intellectual, with a gentler modernism, healthy, and easy to clean. “Aosta was a learning curve,” Rosset says. “We were ready to offer something even more special in Milan.”
A lots of travels for food and furniture
Together, Rosset and Quadri have traveled back and forth to Stockholm, where they have eaten the food and bought furniture. Eventually they decided to open a store offering Swedish cuisine and Swedish furnishings in Milan. Björk had grown from an experimental resort in the mountains to a concept.
“Milan is the only city in Italy that is open to new cuisine,” Rosset says. “They already have Japanese food, food from the Middle East, and African restaurants.” The store sells open sandwiches to people who are organizing events at home – herring and salmon as exotic appetizers for residents of Milan, a city where a standard restaurant guide is thicker than a school Bible. When the opportunity to expand came along, the deli became a restaurant.
Today, head chef Rebecca Varjomaa serves up Swedish dishes for lunch and dinner on Björk’s pine tables. Outside in the courtyard is the bakery. This is where all the bread for the restaurant is baked – white bread, coarse rye bread, crispbread with dill.
A little shelf is crammed with Swedish cooking and baking books, including United States of Cakes, by Roy Fares. “Rebecca bakes seven kinds of cakes sometimes,” Rosset says. “When she has the time.”
Varjomaa trained at the Grythyttan Swedish restaurant academy. She didn’t know a word of Italian when she decided to move to Milan and help launch Björk, but she has learned.
Challenging search for ingredients
Dishes on the menu include black pudding. Many Italians are skeptical, but those who give it a try are not disappointed. “I’m always trying to develop traditional flavors – not necessarily renew the flavors themselves, but the compositions,” Rosset says. “There are similarities between the food in Sweden and in Italy. Particularly poor man’s food, which many homely dishes of course are.”
Once a month, head chef Varjomaa meets with Mattias Sjöblom, another Grythyttan veteran and a provider of culinary inspiration for the Björk project. They talk, eat, and try out new dishes.
“It can be difficult to find the right ingredients,” Varjomaa says. “Rutabagas, for example, are quite impossible. But the biggest challenge is explaining why we do things in a certain way – why you don’t eat a mountain of herring for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And it can be difficult to explain exactly what I want, when it’s not my language. But it’s a fantastic opportunity I’ve been given.”
The ingredients have always been the main problem at Björk. They have to be the very best and must retain their freshness all the way to Italy. The producers are rarely used to exporting. The solution came in the form of a collaboration with Konsum Värmland, the regional branch of a cooperative grocery chain. Rosset made contact through acquaintances in Grythyttan, and now whitefish roe and cloudberries arrive twice a month.
“Next week I’m going to start learning Swedish too,” Rosset says. “I hate not being able to understand.” At the same time, staff members are off scouting for potential premises in Tokyo. Björk is ready for export.
Text: Emma Olsson
Published: February 15, 2016