On the 29th of September I had the pleasure of attending the official launch and tasting of the swanky (and ground-breaking) Birka Cruise vegan menu; purportedly the first vegan cruise menu of any of the Swedish pleasure cruise services.
If you live in Sweden, you are no doubt familiar with shorter pleasure cruises, and M/S Birka is one of a few passenger ships that travels the route between Stockholm and Mariehamn on the island of Åland (some continue on to Helsinki for a 2-night trip). The big draw cards for these mini cruises are:
- having a convenient mini break
- the entertainment
- the facilities (sauna, spa, pool, etc.)
- the tax-free shopping
- the views (the Stockholm archipelago is stunning)
… and, of course, the dining!
Sweden has a particular traditional food culture that is well-known and loved by many, and the ubiquitous meatball, traditional cinnamon bun and buttery new potatoes can all be expected to feature on such cruises. Birka has stated that they are not about to abandon completely every expected/classic dish, however they recognise that both traditional pleasure cruise culture and traditional Swedish culinary culture do not cater well to those with vegan preferences. And they want to address this fact whilst modernising their offering.
On the day of the menu launch, our party of journalists, bloggers and vegetable-lovers congregated downstairs in the Birka terminal at Slussen just after 4pm. Escorted upstairs and onto the ship itself, we made our way to a dining room where we were met by Birka management, chef Maximillian Lundin and glasses of champagne (or sparkling water in my case!). After a short introduction we headed straight into the kitchen or, as I think of it, the hallowed space “where the magic happens”. Aside from tasting the food (it’s no secret that I like to eat!), this was a highlight. To watch the chefs not only prepare the dishes for service, but hear about the process of creating the vegan menu, the rationale behind the project and the various steps involved was fascinating.
Major international and luxury cruise lines have been focusing more on catering to varied dietary needs for some time, but here in Sweden, Birka is the first company of its kind to not only recognise the growing demand for plant-based dining options, but to do something about it by creating a gourmet vegan menu.
Birka’s new vegan cruise menu is the result of a collaboration with Maximillian Lundin (one of my favourite chefs in Stockholm), owner of vegan restaurant, The Plant (one of my favourites eateries in Stockholm), cookbook author and TV chef. Satu Andersson, CEO of Birka Cruises, is a veggie food-enthusiast and was wholeheartedly behind the initiative, and it seems as though the Birka chefs have also relished the creative challenge of taking on a project of this nature.
Asked what he thought of the vegan menu concept when the topic was first raised, chef Glenn Högback (who presented the plating of the starter and dessert) was nothing but positive.
“You felt or encountered no resistance to the initiative?”, somebody asked.
“No,” replied Glenn earnestly. “In fact, everyone was very positive. Meat is meat in many instances, but every vegetable has it’s own very unique character… and that is incredibly interesting to work with.”
There are even more plant-based plans in the works (including the revision of breakfast offerings to include extra vegan options), and the complete Birka 3-course vegan menu is as follows:
Slow-grilled zucchini in smoke-marinade, roasted garlic, white bean cream, grainy mustard,
pickled red onion & toasted poppy seeds
(see recipe below!)
Crispy chickpea pani with dill & cummin Côte d’Or sauce, pommes pavé & creamy braccia salad
Sorbet of raspberry, chocolate cream, cashew nuts, dried raspberry purée & raspberry crisp
Moving from the kitchen into the dining room, we were presented with material including an outline of the menu, the concept behind it and the three recipes featured. We then had the opportunity to taste the food, meet the chefs and find out a little more about Birka’s plans to expand upon the initiative. Judging by the comments I overheard at my table, others enjoyed the food as much as I did. I must say that aside from the inventive and beautiful food, the thing that really struck me was everyone’s belief and enthusiasm for the project. That was inspiring in itself. Maximillian talked about some of the benefits of incorporating more plant-based meals into daily life (health benefits and environmental impact being just two of them). Then he sat down to have a casual chat at our table. He talked a little with me about how he’d found the collaborative process and how he was looking forward to enjoying the cruise that was departing that very night (perks of the job, and all that 😉 ).
I reminisced about my first trip on the M/S Birka (taken with a girlfriend who I’d treated to a surprise cruise for her birthday) and I heartily recommended an early morning spa visit. I still have fond memories of waking up early and the two of us being the first people in the spa… with the entire outdoor jacuzzi to ourselves. It was late October. Fog hung around the waters of Mariehamn and everything outside was perfectly still and quiet. The air was cold and the warm water was heavenly (is there anything more refreshing than warm water on your body and fresh, crisp air on your face?). We literally floated in that hot tub by ourselves, giggling with glee. Max said he would definitely check out the spa and that he was keen to give the running track a go, enjoying some archipelago views while he was at it.
I had a brief chat with chef Marcus Nordin (creator of the main course) and was able to thank him for being part of the reason my vegan husband was so well taken care of on our last Birka cruise, a special 2-night Gotland trip with a culinary theme. In fact, the plant-eaters* in our party were just as well taken care of as the omnivores among us (who ate from the set menus on the cruise).
Soon after finishing dessert, everyone said their thank yous and farewells. Then we departed, the cruise passengers hopped on, and M/S Birka headed off into the Swedish archipelago.
“It’s about understanding how to cook and season ingredients in the best way to bring out the flavors. I want to introduce modern vegan food to more professional chefs and, at the same time, get more guests to dare to try it. So when Birka expressed interest, I thought it was a perfect opportunity “.
– Maximillian Lundin.
Vegan or not, these are exciting times for the health-conscious, Stockholm-bound/based foodie! On our next Birka cruise, I’ll be sure to test out all the new plant-based offerings onboard and get back to you all with a definitive verdict!
❤ from Stockholm,
*And on that subject, I can also recommend the veggie burgers!
in smoke-marinade, roasted garlic, white bean cream, grainy mustard, pickled red onion & roasted poppy seeds
3 roasted garlic cloves
100 ml water
1 smoked lemon
80 g white beans
Blue sesame seeds
100 g red onion
100 ml apple cider vinegar
- Slice zucchini lengthwise and pan fry.
- Make a marinade of chopped garlic, smoked water, and the juice and zest of a lemon. Add the zucchini to the marinade and leave for 6-8 hours.
- Soak and cook the white beans, before blitzing to a smooth puree, diluted with the cooking water, sea salt and fruity olive oil.
- Slice the onions thinly and put into äpplecidervinäger.
- Serve with a dollop of coarse-grained mustard, watercress, dill and roasted blue poppy seeds. A couple of whole roasted garlic cloves make a wonderful addition.
*Recipe shared with kind permission of the Birka team, including chefs Glenn Högback and Marcus Nordin.
**Please note that I have translated the menu, recipe and quotes in this post, and have tried to do so as accurately as possible.
My modest and slightly more “pedestrian”* version of Slow-Grilled Zucchini, made with what I had on hand (*to pinch a Master Chef Australia term!)