If you pray for fish, you may get a dish

Zac O?Yeah | Updated on March 10, 2018

Fresh catch: Fresh oysters on sale   -  Zac O’Yeah

See Saw: The high windows of Feskekorka let in a lot of light, making it easier to inspect the catch   -  Zac O’ Yeah

Zac O’ Yeah   -  Hindu Business Line

Feskekörka, a ‘fishing church’ in Sweden’s Gothenburg, is an altar where salmon, caviar and lobsters rest in peace on ice

One of my favourite spots in Gothenburg, a harbour city on the Atlantic coast of Sweden, where I spent some 15 years of my early life, is ‘Feskekörka’ — literally meaning ‘Fishing Church’. Curiously enough, I’d always wrongly assumed it was built to commemorate drowned seafarers and then, due to the lack of missing sailors, was converted into a fish market.

Apart from fresh catch, the vendors sell packed lunches and seafood salads in boxes, and on sunny days, it is perfect to sit outside on the quay and enjoy a cheap gourmet meal, or one may try one or both of the famous restaurants within the market. But first, I do a quick phone-google to establish whether it might be blasphemous to eat inside the church and suddenly I discover that it was never a place of religious worship.

The fact is that this fishy church was built in the 1870s to regulate the trade (and get rid of street hawkers peddling rotten fish) by the municipal architect Victor von Gegerfelt, who in general fancied building everything in an imagined ancient Nordic style and, in this particular case, was inspired by Norwegian church design.

With a history of almost 150 years, Feskekörka was recently declared a heritage building and apparently fish lovers opt to get married here among the prawns, rather than in a real church. It is easy to understand why: instead of raucous mongering, the displays are like altars where salmon, caviar and lobsters rest in peace on ice while customers move about solemnly. The high windows let in plenty of light, so the catch is easy to inspect.

Today I try Kajutan (‘The Cabin’) at the entrance — a tiny bistro, which has a larger outdoor seating area facing the canal running through town. That canal used to be the old moat in the days when the city was fortified. I’m not sure who fortified it, but the Vikings hung out hereabouts some thousand years ago. Later, the city served as a hub for Dutch and Scottish traders, before it became Sweden’s primary seaport — colloquially known as ‘Little London’. For almost 100 years, it remained the headquarters of the Swedish East India Company, which never tried to colonise any part of India, except for the one week in 1733 when they failed to gain a foothold in Tamil Nadu. The Maritime Museum, a 20-minute walk from Feskekörka, is worth a visit for those who are curious about Sweden’s fishy past.

Kajutan’s daily specials include oysters, fish au gratin, seafood casserole, smoked salmon and a semi-weird fusion pasta dish of crayfish in a sweet-and-sour curry… wah! But I go for the light lunch alternative — barbecued shrimp salad, which has a pleasantly potent chilli character and is well worth SEK 99 (₹800 approx). I wash it down with a local dark beer, a “London porter” which again recalls the age-old relationships between Gothenburg and the British capital.

Curiously, by some ancient planning mistake, the Swedish capital Stockholm was built on the wrong coast, on the rear of Sweden so to speak, and until air travel was invented, Gothenburg was the primary international entry point to the country.

I come again at lunchtime the next day to sample the other restaurant, Gabriel’s, perhaps named after the archangel, and find it upstairs on a terrace above the ‘church hall’. The few tables are occupied, so I grab a seat at the bar counter that overlooks the fish stalls — an utterly appetising view.

Catch of the day is priced at SEK 169 (₹1360 approx), but the advanced menu also comprises about 20 other items including herring platters, roe on toast, fried plaice and poached halibut. I go for the mussels boiled in white wine (SEK 175/ ₹1400 approx). I’m told a portion consists of about 25-30 pieces, or one kilogram, which sounds like good value to me. The shellfish is locally farmed in Mollösund, a fishing hamlet on the island of Orust outside Gothenburg, and the preparation is uncomplicated enough to retain the aroma of mussels, which are simply boiled in wine, garlic, salt and herbs.

It’s served with aioli — stylishly poured into a scrubbed oyster shell — but the Provencal-style cold sauce, essentially a garlic mayonnaise, doesn’t work too well with the mussels, which are already perfectly garlicky. Furthermore, aioli feels so yesterday — it became oddly popular in Gothenburg in the ’90s when every male friend of mine tried to prove his nonexistent cooking acumen by doing homemade aioli to go with his grilled fish (Swedes love to have barbecue parties), but there’s only so much aioli you can eat.

The chatty bartender makes me forgive small mismatches like that when he suggests I try a beer called Göteborgs Nya Starkpilsner, which has an interesting back-story. Essentially it is brewed by staff laid off by Pripps, the biggest beer conglomerate in Sweden. The company saw its humble birth in Gothenburg in about 1828 and was apparently still brewing here until not so long ago. But over the years, the Pripps trademark was sold and resold to different investors until the original brewery became redundant. Upon finding themselves jobless, the staff formed a cooperative to continue brewing here in the time-honoured way.

As I linger on — the lunchtime rush is over by now — I hear conversations in German, English and Swedish. Fish love is obviously something that unites Europeans across borders, and what better place to commune with seafood than in a church built to honour fish.

Zac O’Yeah is a part-time travel writer and part-time detective novelist; zacnet@email.com

Published on September 09, 2016

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