Oyster diving with Sweden’s fisher queen
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
Lotta Klemming has a steady grip around the oyster; her other hand moves the knife sharply and precisely to prise it open. Her gaze – focused and still – seems to be somewhere far away. “It’s very meditative,” she says. “The work is monotonous and you have time to think about other things. Also, when you are diving you have to mind your breath and your movements, you are very present in your own body.” She bursts out laughing. “God, this sounds so silly.”
I’m standing by the sea in Bohuslän with Klemming, 33, Sweden’s only professional female oyster diver. After seven years in the fashion industry, working for H&M opening stores both globally and locally, she found herself in a spiritual crisis: “I felt trapped. It was a real hamster wheel. I couldn’t look myself in the mirror being one of all the women trying to climb to the top. I don’t have sharp elbows.”
Now, every week, she travels to her family home of Grebbestad on the west coast of Sweden, a small town of 1,900 people known for its beautiful archipelago and historic thriving fishing industry. “I felt like the ocean was calling for me; it really saved my life,” she says. There, her father and uncle run an oyster company, Bröderna Klemmings Dykhjälp, a small-scale operation and hobby project, barely covering the material costs. In 2015 Lotta set up Klemmings Ostron, sharing the family fishing boat and boathouse. Eight years on, her business has supplied restaurants such as the Michelin-starred Adam & Albin in Stockholm and the fabled Noma in Copenhagen. “I dive with an aqualung and everything is done by hand, oyster by oyster. I collect them in a big basket that I carry in my left arm,” she says. “The oysters are wild and no machines are allowed. We follow the daylight, head out around 10am, dive for oysters till 2pm and then come back to clean and package them.”
It’s a harsh work environment. She works all year round in ocean temperatures that vary from 0ºC to 16ºC and she picks between 400 and 700 oysters per day. Even though she earned her diving certificate when she was 12 years old, it took her almost 15 years before she realised that it could be an actual profession: “My father was an amateur body builder so I always associated diving with a physique different from mine. Like most other fathers he was busy with work and his own interests, and my only way to hang out with him was to tag along when he was diving during the weekends.”
When Klemming first tried oyster diving in her early 20s she found it “disappointing”. Her equipment was leaking and the ocean view was limited. “Seven years later I tried it again with new equipment and a different determination and focus. Suddenly, I was in heaven.”
Her main focus is the Pacific gigas oyster, an invasive species that began to appear off the Swedish coast around 2007 (they’re thought to have come from farms further down the North Sea). The gigas and the indigenous Swedish oyster live at different depths: the gigas between one to three metres down; and the Swedish oyster between three and 10. The wild stock of gigas in the region of Bohuslän is estimated to be somewhere between 110,000 and 280,000 tonnes. Lotta Klemming believes they can be a sustainable answer both underwater and on our plates: “Gigas oysters survive better in higher ocean temperatures that we now see in this region due to climate change.” But will this have an impact beyond fine dining? “In Sweden we eat less than one oyster per person a year. It’s associated with top hats and evening gowns, festive occasions in high society, but it’s also a nutritious sort of food. With more knowledge about how to prepare and cook them, I think it can be food outside of fine dining,” Klemming says.
As a part of her business Lotta Klemming arranges oyster safaris in the archipelago. The guests – some of them oyster fanatics, some adventurers – visit oyster banks, learn about the industry, and catch their own. These food and nature experiences stretch from half-day courses to weekends with dinner and overnight stays at a local hotel. “The purpose is to share my knowledge about oysters and our work – this is a relatively new food for many Swedes.”
Often the guests end up experiencing something different than they imagined. “We cook lunch and quite often the conversation ends up being about something deeper in the family history. I’ve learnt that something happens to people in these situations. They place their faith in my hands and they are stuck on a secluded island. Also, when Swedes drink two glasses of wine they start talking. There’s been a lot of emotions around the camp fire; things come to the surface from the family past. I have been speechless: what just happened here?”
Oyster catching as therapy, it’s an interesting idea. But Klemming is a passionate advocate for its benefits for one’s mental health. “When I show myself to be vulnerable and talk about my history, people tend to open up,” she says. “I had a tough childhood and was bullied in school. I developed a psychiatric illness and nearly died a couple of times because of this. This profession has healed me in all sorts of ways.”
Klemming has large plans for Klemmings Ostron: a hotel, restaurant and headquarters in the archipelago. “We have reached our limit and need a roof over our heads to continue to grow. There are a lot of old warehouses and fishing cabins around here that are empty, they just go to waste. So, right now we are struggling with landowners and the municipality to find a place of our own. In Sweden there is hardly any property tax so people just hold on to their real estate.” She adjusts the straps on her overalls and looks out into the distance. There’s little doubt that her elbows are at least sharp enough to fulfil this dream. “The ocean has given my life a meaning. I’m good at what I do. I feel pride for the first time in my life,” she concludes. “I’m at home.”