The Fishy Tale of Gothenburg's Feskekörka
A huge hand squeezed my shoulder in greeting, awry with the abrasions of a cook’s calling. ‘Välkommen!’ he boomed from behind his deep, dark beard. The navy apron hanging over his neat white shirt spoke artisan volumes, fitted with caramel leather panels and granite buckles. Wearing smart black boots, he looked every part a gentrified buccaneer. I learned that this colossus is Johan Malm and his restaurant, Gabriel, is the pearl of the Feskekörka, Gothenburg’s riverside seafood emporium with a twist.
A building with a sense of humour
This 'Fish Church' has occupied a bend on the River Göta since 1874 and, on first glance, it's easy to imagine there was once a solemn congregation that gathered here. The sloping roof of is book-ended by imposing triangular facades and pointed gothic windows jut out of the longest walls, evenly spaced like portholes on a galleon. Every bit the architect’s folly, the sole purpose of the building has been to host the city’s seafood trade, from the traditional auctions to the modern day collection of passionate folks who know their carp from their cod.
Low refrigerated cabinets border the vaulted hall inside, laden with a spectrum of scales and shells. Tubular razor clams with brown and Ivory striped shells are laid out like auburn sticks of seaside rock, flanked by cartoon red cooked lobster with plentiful claws. Sleek eels and hideous sea wolf with macabre teeth glared at the more adventurous shoppers. All the while, take-a-number ticket machines buzzed fitfully around the hive of hovering customers, who were peering hungrily back at the day’s catch.
A pair of wobbling earrings on a staff member caught my eye. Round and yellow, shaped like seashells. Her grey woollen hat, livened with fish in iridescent thread, looked bulky and warm. Sanna has worked with her uncle for 12 years and beamed with pride as we spoke about the stall’s history. Excitably, Sanna told me that Johan at Gabriel is a valued customer. For that reason alone, she believes, the halibut with horseradish they serve is the finest fish dish this side of Stockholm.
I mentioned in parting that I hoped her sides of salmon taste as good as they look. The bright orange flesh was some of the most appealing I’d ever seen.
A lunch fit for any world champion
Back upstairs, the wall was donned with aprons and medals from an annual event that I’d never heard of. As It turned out, Johan is not just a successful restaurateur, he is also the World Oyster Opening Champion 2010 and 2012. As I wished him well for a third title, the fried herring I’d ordered arrived. Crisp blackened fillets on crunchy Swedish knäckebröd. The chives and salty oil plugged my nostrils in mouth sopping anticipation.
Comparing this to the delicacy I’d sampled on my last visit, surströmming (sour herring), they are oceans apart. Renowned for being the foulest smelling food in the world, tinned herring is fermented for a year and typically eaten with soured cream and flatbread. Certainly a ‘once in alifetime’ experience for me!
As I paid, I asked Johan how long his restaurant has been open in the Fish Church.
He leaned in, puffed cheeks. ‘Since 11am’ breathing out an affected exhaustion.
Smiling, he relented. ‘1986 we opened, 30 years ago’, openly content he’d spotted the mistake in my question before I had. Walking away, he turned to proudly repeat it’s longevity over a standing queue at the entrance, seemingly for effect.
I doubt their appetites needed any more whetting though, as they had just watched me gleefully devour those two herring in no time at all.