The smell was unmistakable. I grew up in Georgia, so I know the scent of barbecue when I encounter it. There’s the smoke, of course, and just behind it, the saliva-inducing blend of sizzling fat, bitter char and sweetly melting meat. All this mingled with the smell of the sun-soaked grass and yeasty spilled beer. But this wasn’t the American South. It was rural Sweden.
It turns out that Swedes have an unlikely predilection for the American South. The Scandinavian country is a major hub for country music. Swedes have their own square dancing association. And thanks to one man, Johan Fritzell, they also have Holy Smoke BBQ, arguably the most authentic Texas barbecue in all of Europe.
A burly, bearded 47-year-old, Fritzell first became intrigued with barbecue seven years ago when he was at home changing diapers and feeding babies — and watching a lot of late-night tv.
“I saw some cooking show and saw someone put some meat into a black box and 12 hours later, it had turned into something completely different,” Fritzell recounts. Although the Nordic countries have a long tradition of smoking meat and fish, he had never seen anything precisely like barbecue before. “I was stuck,” he says.
So stuck that Fritzell, who lives in Hoganas, a coastal village in southern Sweden that sits just across the Oresund strait from Denmark, went out and bought a smoker and was soon supplying some local restaurants with meat from his backyard operation. But he knew he had a lot to learn. He set out for Texas, in what would become a series of meat crusades, from Texas to the Carolinas to Georgia, hitting 65 shacks in 15 days.
Back in Sweden, Fritzell built a rudimentary pit and kitchen in two shipping containers he set in a friend’s backyard. His initial idea was to keep production small and just open one day a week for people to stop by and pick up some smoked meats.
“But people kept asking, when are you going to open a restaurant?’” Fritzell recalls. Eventually, he listened to them — sort of. “For 10 weeks, we opened on Saturdays until we sold out. We were doing 80 to 120 guests each time, and we thought those were amazing numbers.”
They were about to get significantly more amazing. Word got out over the winter, so when Fritzell fired up the cooker again on Easter weekend in 2015, there were long lines of people. “We served 1,500 people that weekend. And then we thought, okay, maybe this really could make it as a restaurant.”
But there were challenges to doing American barbecue in Sweden. First, there was the meat. Not only did local beef taste different — Swedish cows are grass, rather than corn-fed — it is also butchered differently. “We couldn’t get a brisket here,” Fritzell laments. “No one had ever heard of it.”
(These days, Holy Smoke buys its pork and chicken locally, but imports its beef — brisket, short ribs and chuck — from Kansas.)
There were also some momentous successes. On one of the meat crusades, Fritzell met Aaron Franklin, the owner of Franklin Barbeque in Austin. He asked him to come to Sweden, which drew the attention of the barbecue editor (yes, that it is a thing) at Texas Monthly and barbecue elite: There’s a Swede making barbecue in a field in Scandinavia, and it is legit.
Which explains how Geoffrey Canilao came to hear of it. A well-regarded New York bartender, Canilao moved to Copenhagen years ago with his Danish wife, and in 2014 opened his own cocktail bar, Balderdash. Like most expats, he’s always on the lookout for tastes of home, so when he encountered Holy Smoke, he thought, “I knew I had to work with these guys.”
Canilao enlisted the organizing help of another expat friend, Leon Porter, lined up beverage sponsors, and Sunday Church was born. On the last Sunday of every month from May through September, a bus that departs from Copenhagen market in the late morning and arrives at Holy Smoke in time for lunch in the smokehouse.
In Helsingor, the bus boards the ferry to cross the Oresund strait, and we get about half an hour of appetite-stimulating fresh sea air. We’re ushered into the smokehouse to quickly feed us some pulled pork. It is properly chewy and smoky and sweet — and whatever skepticism I might have still harbored about Holy Smoke’s authenticity vanishes.
On the grounds where Holy Smoke sets up shop for the season is a greenhouse packed with dozens of varieties of chile peppers — another anomaly in a country not exactly known for spicy cuisine. In the main restaurant area, where Viking descendants waiting for their trays don’t look like they would know a pitcher of sweet tea if they were soaking in it, but they happily gnaw on ribs and send their kids to toast marshmallows over the firepit in the center.
Some of the sides — a macaroni and cheese adulterated with disturbingly healthy broccoli, a “succotash” that is, in truth creamed corn — have suffered in translation. But the flags of Texas and Tennessee fly overhead, and there’s a monster truck in the driveway.
From the kitchen emerge Flintstone-esque short ribs, platter-size racks of pork spare ribs and glistening sausage links. The North Carolina sauce served on the side is properly puckery; the Texas sauce rich with a hint of spice. But the star is indeed the brisket, slow-cooked for upward of 24 hours until it achieves just the right amount of resistance and char. It’s so tender it can be sliced with a plastic knife.
There’s one thing true Texans will probably take issue with: Holy Smoke’s barbecue is served with cornbread, instead of its proper accompaniment.
But Fritzell explains: “Swedes are offended by Wonder Bread.”