On the tip of the Bjäre Penninsula, where the open landscape slopes off into the waters separating Sweden from Denmark, seven potato farmers formed a cooperative called Bjäre Hembygd in an effort to save their family farms. Their strategy? To give the humble potato a new future.
While the Swedes have long waxed profound on the virtues of the first potatoes to come up the spring, Bjäre Hembygd is credited with generating a “new potato” craze. Though they had long been peddling their potatoes to grocery stores and local restaurants, the farmers of Bjäre realized that was not enough to keep their farms in business – especially if they had a bad crop. So they started the Bjäre potato chip factory.
While most potato chips are fried in palm oil, Bjäre chips are fried in rapeseed oil, which has 80% less saturated fat has a cleaner taste – leading to their claim that Bjäre chips actually taste like potatoes.
Today the company produces four varieties of chips and specialty salts designed to top your fresh potatoes, like seaweed and algae salt; chili and tarragon; and lemon and dill. Their most talked-about venture, however, is the collaboration with former Absolut Vodka guru and master blender Börje Karlsson which resulted in a vodka that, no surprise here, actually tastes like potatoes.
From farm to distillery
On my recent visit to the factory, farmer and stakeholder Håkan Paulsson explained how Karlsson started by developing vodkas of differing flavor profiles based on the potatoes grown on the peninsula. From this initial experimentation Karlsson landed on a blend of seven potato varieties and called it Karlsson’s Gold. Karlsoon developed the other flavors into small batch vodkas with names correlating to their varietal – Fryslander, Minnerva, Solist and Gammal Svensk Röd. Each year Karlsson’s Gold releases a new batch bottled with unassuming medicinal label. Rumor has it that they are hard to get a hold of and expensive once you do.
Both Karlsson’s Gold and the small batch vodkas are unique among vodkas in that they have distinctive taste, which draws comparisons with grappa. They had me wanting something savory to pair them with, like a cheesy Västerbotten pie or Janssons frestelse (“Jansson’s temptation”) a casserole made with potatoes, onions and anchovies.
If you’re planning a visit to the region, the time to get here is mid-May. You can take a guided tour of a potato farm, help sow potatoes or book potato and vodka tasting.
Before we left, Håkan offered us a traditional Bjäre coffee. He put a coin in the bottom of a cup of coffee, and then poured vodka in until we could see the coin. In case you’re wondering, it took a lot of vodka.
THINGS TO TAKE HOME WITH YOU
– Seaweed & Algae Salt from Bjare Hembygd
– Karlsson’s Gold vodka (which you’ll have to buy from Systembologet, the state-run spirits vender).