The Chemical Engineer who Bottled Sweden

Words by Sophie Miskiw. Photography by Johan Ståhlberg.

If you look up the definition of ‘simpatico’ in the dictionary, you’ll probably find a picture of Lena Engelmark Embertsén. It’s a rainy day but from the moment she greets us at Högtorp Gård’s new production kitchen, Lena practically radiates sunshine.

She’s thrilled with her new space, a renovated warehouse a short drive from the farm she shares with her husband, forestry expert and published author Ola Engelmark. It’s been eight years since Lena and Ola began making award-winning products from the wild ingredients growing on their land, yet until just recently all production had taken place in a 30 sqm cabin on the farmland.

“The building we used to work in was a feeding lot, there were four small boxes for sheep. We bought a kitchen for 2000 Swedish kronor (€192). We didn’t want to take out a big loan. And I have a handyman,” she says, referring to Ola. “He’s not just good at writing!”

The couple has come a long way since they decided to focus full-time on their business. For Lena, the new production kitchen feels like confirmation that they made the right decision. Of course, the sales also speak for themselves. Through their wholesale dealer, Högtorp Gård’s products can be found on the menus of Michelin Star and White Guide restaurants throughout Scandinavia. The business has grown exponentially since their now-renowned spruce oil was popularised by acclaimed Swedish chef Paul Svensson.

"There was a gathering at one of the big restaurants with a lot of chefs and Paul Svensson made a dish of sourdough bread fried in butter with some buffalo mozzarella that had been made in Sweden. He added some whipped cream and spruce oil and bang! We got off to a really good start."

Just a sniff of the spruce oil is enough to understand how it has made such waves in the culinary community. Like the taste, it’s pure and potent but not overpowering. It’s also surprisingly evocative, a smell that conjures a Swedish spruce forest on a warm day. It’s almost as though Lena has managed to bottle Sweden.

“It’s such a clean taste. What I do is I catch the smell from the spruce tree in the oil. I decided from the very beginning, that I wouldn’t spice the products. I find a taste that someone else can play with, that they can be creative with, and that’s been one of the success factors.”

Lena’s passion is infectious, and has no doubt played a pivotal role throughout her diverse career. She inherited her love of nature from her parents, and describes it as her “biggest interest, my biggest joy whenever I wanted to relax and do something fun”.

Spending time in nature and experimenting with raw materials has always been a big part of Lena’s life but, until recent years, was undertaken purely for pleasure. Her career began in the biotech industry, where she was able to make use of her undergraduate degree in chemical engineering. After 14 years in Uppsala she moved north to Piteå where, finding no available jobs in biotech, she became the CEO of Teknikens Hus, a science centre supported by Luleå University of Technology.

“I always loved talking about and sharing my interests. Especially with young people, sharing the fascination of nature. And so I applied, and I got the job. I was there for eight fantastic years, working closely with teachers and schools and developing different programmes with interactive exhibitions.”

When Lena took over, Teknikens Hus had already been named Sweden’s best science centre. Under her leadership, it became recognised as the best little science centre in the world.

“Where do you go from there?”

With her vision realised, Lena and Ola relocated to central Sweden where she tackled her second CEO role at the Tom Tits Experiment, a science centre an hour south of Stockholm. The couple purchased nearby Högtorp Gård, a sprawling 72-hectare plot of land made up of forest, meadows and fields, with the intention to one day live off the land. Ola quit his job in Stockholm to begin writing books on forestry and four years later, following a stint as the CEO of the national organisation of science centres, Lena made the decision to follow suit.

“The plan was to work part-time as a CEO and part-time on the farm. After four years I realised I’m working 200% and I had to choose. And I have felt so much love for what we have done here. I could see there are so many people inspired by what we do. I felt I’d rather do that than be safe at this national organisational science zone.”

Some people seem destined to meet each other and Lena and Ola would be counted among them. Not just for their shared ambition to live off the land, but for their shared philosophy on how the land should be treated. Merging Lena’s love of nature with Ola’s expert knowledge of the forest, they work symbiotically to find new ways to maintain their land in a country where the topic has become extremely polarised.

“From as far back as I can remember, I wanted to know how to gather food from nature, regardless of whether it’s a fish, mushroom, or reindeer. It’s a very deep part of me.”

“We have 300,000 landowners in Sweden, many are people who have inherited land or forest without any knowledge or maybe even interest. So they visit a consultant, and the consultants have a mission to feed the industry with raw material,” explains Lena. “The trees can be cut down every 80 years, which is the only time you earn money. Replanting is done as mono cultures, that is, with just one tree species, most often spruce. So what you’re seeing is not a forest but a plantation with low biodiversity.”

This simplistic forestry practice results in poor forests lacking ecological structures and processes. Lena and Ola are instead managing their forests based on ecological understanding. Both are committed to maintaining the forest's natural beauty and favour growing palatable plants that can eventually be used to create products.

"We need to have a much humbler view of nature and try to find ways of working with it instead of against it."

One could reason it’s this attitude that has led to such outstanding products. When you consider the dedication and love that goes into caring for the farm - the couple work year-round with just one full-time employee - and the joy that Lena finds in experimenting with raw materials, it’s no wonder that the output is quite so extraordinary.

“From as far back as I can remember, I wanted to know how to gather food from nature, regardless of whether it’s a fish, mushroom, or reindeer. It’s a very deep part of me.”

It’s no surprise, then, that from day one Högtorp Gård has been a literal land of opportunity for Lena and Ola. The only real question was what to make of it. Craving physical work and days spent out in nature, they opted to focus on making products from foraged ingredients like spruce, blackberries and rowan berries, and syrups from various trees and herbs. Lena’s knowledge of chemistry has been a real advantage and without it she admits that the production would have been like “having to learn an entirely new language”.

The resulting collaboration between Lena, Ola and Michelin-Starred chef Fredrik Johnsson.

Although they have approached the running of Högtorp Gård with an academic precision, the couple never set a goal, says Lena. Their only plan was not to just live on the farm but to live off it, and above all, to do something they both find meaningful.

“The vision was just to have a good life, not to earn a lot of money. We wanted to use the knowledge that both my husband and I have to find creative, innovative new ways to make products. When you buy a farm like this, it’s not just a place to live in. It’s a place for the future. You develop it and put so much love and time into working with it, not against it. We plan to live here until we’re a hundred.”

Words by Sophie Miskiw. Photography by Johan Ståhlberg.