Historically speaking Scandinavians have not been known as the world’s most exciting gourmands. “But this has changed in the last couple of decades,” explains Fredrik Andersson, chef at Finca La Donaira, which is outside the village of El Gastor in Andalucía. Fredrik is part of the new gastronomic wave that favours simple dishes using only the very best organic ingredients. I travelled to La Donaira to talk with this down-to-earth cook who doesn’t like to call himself a master chef.
Fredrik Andersson (43) is originally from Stockholm, though he has lived outside of his birth country most of his adult life. During his diverse life, he has worked as a chef in several different countries, ran a biodynamic farm in France, and owned the restaurant Mistral in Stockholm. He was introduced to the owner of La Donaira, who persuaded him to become their chef. After 2.5 years at the boutique hotel, he cannot imagine a better place to work.
And why should he? Vogue Spain called Finca La Donaira one of Spain’s most charming hotels. But it is much more than rural charm – a luxurious boutique-type hotel with nine exclusive and unique rooms, a 1700 hectares nature-focused property with its own organic farm.
In addition to 82 thoroughbred Lusitano horses that can be ridden on the premises, it is also home to flocks of sheep, goats, rare cattle, hens, bees and wild birds, in addition to a couple of friendly mutts that always seem to be hanging around close to the kitchen. The farm is run in line with Rudolf Steiner’s biodynamic principles and produces about 95% of all that is consumed in-house, both by humans and animals. Last year this included 5.488 kg olives (462 litre extra virgin olive oil), 528 kg almonds, over 2000 kg Petit Verdot and Blaufränkisch wine grapes, and an astonishing 236 kg of their precious medicinal honey.
When did you decide to become a cook and how were you trained?
“I have always been interested in food. As an adult I have come to realise that my earliest childhood memories all seem to centre around food and meals. I knew that I wanted to be a cook before I became a teenager. However, I didn’t go to cooking school. When I was 18 years old and fed up of sitting in a classroom, I wrote to a dozen restaurants in Stockholm asking if I could work for them for free. The places weren’t exactly Fine Dining establishments, but they were restaurants that I thought were exciting and had cooks that I wanted to learn from. One of them said “Sure, come on over”, so I started and was later employed by them. Since that time, I went on and worked in other places. So you could say that I learned the trade the old way, as an apprentice”.
Who was your first real teacher?
“She was a chef called Karin Fransson, known for her Haut Cuisine at Borgholm Hotel on Öland, whom I worked with in my early twenties. What particularly touched me was how her food reflected her persona. She showed me that food could be much more than just about quality. Of course, the quality should be the highest possible, but she could put her personality into anything she cooked, which for me was a great experience”.
Do you have any other role models in the restaurant industry?
“Very many! There are a lot of incredibly clever people who work with food and who influence the development of our gastronomy. Two grand chefs in my books are Michel Bras and Alain Passard from France, who might be seen as the foundation of the natural cooking that we try to achieve here at La Donaira. I am also very fascinated by the Catalan cook Ferran Adrià from the restaurant Bulli”.
When can one call oneself a Master Chef? And what do you think of the Master Chefs on TV?
“First of all… one should probably never call oneself a master of anything. Personally, I think there are many fantastic cooks around, but very few are actual Master Chefs. To be that, you must have defined your very own style of cooking and developed a gastronomy wave that others follow. Therefore, one ought to be very careful before calling oneself a Master Chef. You have to be a culinary artist and someone that breaks boarders. There also has to be a noticeable before and after, gastronomically speaking, for a real Master Chef, like there was with René Redzepi at the restaurant Noma in Copenhagen. People in our trade do not consider all TV Master Chefs as such. There are a lot of decent and educative food programs now and of course creating interest for home-made food is a good thing, but there is a far divide between the real craft and pure entertainment.”
At La Donaira you make organic and biodynamic food. Why? And has this always been your passion?
“Indeed. It has always been my lifestyle when it comes to food. I started working exclusively organic about 15 years ago, but I didn’t physically reside where the things were grown. Here at La Donaira we work with a complete cycle. We follow the entire process and have a personal relationship with the produce as well as those tending to the crops and animals. The union with nature is strengthened and the possibilities are therefore completely unique.
Only a small percentage of our produce gets brought in from the outside. The only thing that doesn’t come from our farm, other than coffee, is fish and seafood. We pick up a bit of foie gras from a small producer in Extremadura, and some other types of wine than those we make ourselves. Otherwise, all our vegetables, fruit, grains and meat are produced or raised right here. We sow the seeds from which we make the flour that we bake into our own bread. It is a continual process, like with our development of rare animal breeds. (Note: All the animals are free-roaming and organic, in addition to being local and are also often rare or threatened species.) Product development is just as big a part of the job as preparing the food. The quality potential is optimal. Here everything is brought in straight from the garden. There is no transportation. Everything is fresh – up to the minute fresh. Such a system could not be reproduced if everything was to be brought in from the outside”.
What influences you as a cook and how would you describe your own style of cooking?
“More than my own style, I believe we are trying to find something that is unique to here – what can we physically produce with as natural and pure tastes as possible? The natural experience of being at La Donaira should be matched by the food we serve. Since La Donaira is located in Andalucía we base ourselves on Spanish cooking. All the same, we are an international setup. The kitchen-staff alone come from Austria, Spain, UK, Belgian Congo and Sweden.
About half of the 77 people who work here come from El Gastor. The local population appreciate and understand the value of the hotel to their community, as the employment opportunities in the village are very limited. Everything we do is a communal effort so that everybody can learn to appreciate the whole process. We strive to find the balance between the international and the unique things that this place has to offer locally. The most important thing for us is that it is a healthy and natural experience, and that our guests find that the food they are served at La Donaira cannot be eaten anywhere else”.
Scandinavians aren’t traditionally known as being gastronomes. How has this changed in recent years?
“There has been a mind-blowing development. Speaking on behalf of Sweden that I know best, the food quality has changed radically. The gastronomic elite in Scandinavia is definitively/undoubtedly world class. When the trend began to alter towards very high quality gastronomy some 20 years back, it took a while before this dribbled down from gourmet restaurants to simpler restaurants and later to food stores and finally to the individual consumer. I haven’t been home to Sweden for a few years, but what I experienced prior to moving was an enormous shift in everyday consumption, as well as access to better quality products/produce, and organic and locally grown food.
In Stockholm the farmers market has become a very established system. Several of my friends earn good salaries from producing and selling directly to consumers. Now during the Corona pandemic, the service has been converted to pick-up. The demand for local, healthy food is enormous – if they can supply 300 clients, their demand is from 3000. Education and interest in food has had a very positive impact generally. People care more, eat better and spend more on healthier food. This development has led to even more organic and locally grown food being produced to meet growing demand. Scandinavia has really taken the baton and led international developments here. So even though our food here at La Donaira is not accessible to all, there is an international movement that tries to support healthy local food. If anything, this might be the one positive thing coming out of this pandemic. People feel the need to take a step in the right direction, food and health-wise”.
What is your favourite dish?
“I am not sure if I have a personal favourite, but I have many vivid food memories particularly about my late grandmother who made fantastic food. Her meatballs are something I will always remember. And I love really well made bread. The bread culture is also something that has developed since I started making food. The interest for quality bread has truly returned. My mum grew up on a humble farm in Dalsland in western Sweden and my parents wanted to distance themselves from the poor conditions by going in the opposite direction. Their generation wanted everything to be quick and easy. Everything should be pre-packed. Now as they are growing old, they have gone back to their roots and can recognise the value of what they had in the past”.
How has La Donaira been affected by the Corona pandemic? Before the pandemic most of your guests were foreign. Who are your guests now?
“It has been a difficult time for everybody, but for us it has also been a great surprise. We never thought that Spaniards would become our guest base, but after the first lockdown, that is what happened. The response has been unbelievable. It is really quite exciting. People seek nature and come to us from all over Spain. But of course, we welcome any guests with open arms”.
How is it to be working in the Garden of Eden?
“You are right, that’s how it is! I thoroughly enjoy all aspects of working here and cannot imagine a better working environment. It is a fantastic place with endless possibilities”.
For more information: Finca La Donaira