The story of Axel and Emilia, a mussel soup worth standing up for and the importance of having an open heart

Welcome to Nya Varvet, the historic site of Dockyard Hotel. Many stories have played out in this old naval area, where national boundaries have met as did people from near and far. One of the most gripping is the virtually forgotten story of Axel and Emilia and the little inn in Korsebergs Backe.

Axel Jonsson was the son of a baker and had arrived in Nya Varvet as a 10-year-old. He was one of the many boys recruited to Skeppsgosseskolan academy for Gothenburg’s fleet in 1856. The purpose of the academy was to train young boys to become the skilled ship’s officers of the future. The officers’ and crew members’ children studied side by side at the academy. Axel, with his cheerful, friendly disposition, easily made a lot of good friends and together they would go on to serve as boatswains and cabin boys in the Gothenburg squadron of His Majesty’s fleet, which was based in Nya Varvet.

The crew of the fleet, including Axel, were housed in the local barracks. The idyllic Nobis Inn was the venue for parties, poetry evenings and balls, where military personnel and townsfolk mixed freely and easily. It was at one of these evenings that Axel would meet Emilia. 

On the evening in question Axel was invited by Jacob Lundgren, an academy friend, to a dinner and dance organised by the Nya Varvet Society.

 The fleet’s uniform, which Axel wore, gave no clue as to the wearer’s social status, yet he didn’t feel quite at home at the gathering, so he went out for a breath of air during the dance. This is when he heard someone crying and caught sight of a girl sitting on the kitchen step at Nobis. She was wearing a blue-chequered full-length dress, the kitchen’s white apron and a flowery shawl. He recognised her straightaway from Nya Varvet’s handicraft school for girls in poverty. Her name was Emilia and she had once sold him a pair of grey woollen socks at the school’s bazaar. They had provided good warmth for several winters. Emilia was now working in the kitchen at Nobis, but she was clearly unhappy and Axel had to stop and ask what was wrong. 

An extremely unhappy Emilia wiped away her tears and explained that a high-ranking ship’s officer had come into the kitchen that evening and asked who had prepared ‘the excellent mussel soup’. Emilia had ventured to answer that it was her soup, which was absolutely true. She had brought the recipe with her from her home in Lysekil, where she had virtually grown up on the soup. When the cook found out that the kitchen girl had had the temerity to take credit for ‘his soup’, he had given her a severe telling off and boxed her ears.

When Axel heard this he took Emilia by the hand, marched into the inn, found the cook and confronted him – in front of the kitchen staff and guests. The cook, who had finished his shift and was drunk on the leftover alcohol, lost his temper and caused a commotion. At that point the manager came in, saw the disarray and asked what was happening. The evening finished with the cook being dismissed. Unfortunately it finished the same way for Emilia, who still wasn’t given credit for the popular soup. But she came away with something else, as did Axel. They forged a close friendship that soon blossomed into love, a love as strong as steel.

They married in 1867, aged 21. By now the fleet had begun to disarm and the young couple could move into a far-too-large cottage at Korsebergs Backe which had become vacant. Even though they had few possessions, they managed to create a nice, cosy home with white-painted wooden furniture, home-woven rugs and cushions and curtains made from light linen fabric – much of which came from Emilia’s time at handicraft school. They planted geraniums in milk churns placed in the windows and grew sweet peas, hollyhocks, potatoes and carrots in large cast-iron urns and on the small patch of garden. On Sundays, when neighbours and other friends came to visit, the cottage was filled with the scent of baker’s son Axel’s freshly baked bread and Emilia’s mussel soup. They didn’t have much, but there was always room in their home for friends old and new. 

In 1870 the Nya Varvet area became a penal institution and Axel was no longer needed in the fleet. How would they support themselves? Emilia made the fleet’s unused garments into cushions and linen tablecloths in order to sell them, but it wasn’t easy to support themselves. Soon the money would run out and they couldn’t grow that much on the little plot they had. Of course they could pick mussels by the rocks below the building known locally as ‘White Gables’, and thanks to Emilia’s soup and Axel’s bread they could still continue their popular Sunday dinners, but they had certainly had better times.

One day there was knock on the cottage door and Emilia rushed to let the guest in. It was Axel’s childhood friend Jacob Lundgren from Skeppsgosseskolan academy. He was the son of a wealthy officer but now he had been wrongfully convicted and escaped together with several other prisoners. The other prisoners had been captured but Jacob had no intention of going back to prison. Naturally he could stay with Axel and Emilia for a couple of days. After all, they had several spare rooms and he promised to pay them well once he got home to his father. Later on Jacob became a shipowner and would repay them generously for their kindness...

The rumour that Jonsson in Korsebergs Backe was hiding prisoners spread like wildfire. To put a stop to the gossip Axel went round the neighbourhood and announced that they had indeed opened an inn and that everyone was welcome once the long-distance guest had finished his stay. The news spread as far as the port and the first real guests were soon on their way. Emilia quickly prepared a couple of rooms and began to cook a large batch of soup.

Axel and Emilia ran their inn for more than 30 years and, thanks to the financial support of friend and shipowner Jacob Lundgren, they were able to buy a larger building with more rooms. Guests were welcomed from near and far; from countries such as the United Kingdom, Germany, France and Portugal. They ranged from sailors to officers and even included people of higher rank who had previously preferred to stay with private families rather than at inns. Many thought it was almost like returning home. Herrings and smörgåsbord were prepared in the kitchen, obviously accompanied by schnapps but also by a good home-brewed beer and of course Emilia’s mussel soup with Axel’s delicious bread.

Sadly all good things must come to an end and one summer’s day in 1905 Axel suffered a heart attack and passed away. Emilia deeply mourned her beloved Axel and was never quite the same again. With the help of good friends she worked hard to carry on the business for a few years, but some of the pleasure had gone out of it.

In 1907 Nya Varvet once again came under the ownership of the fleet and a new food institution was created in the area – Reveljen. It was probably in the kitchen of Reveljen that Emilia Jonsson finished her work. Her recipe for mussel soup had been left forgotten in a sideboard only to be rediscovered more than a century later.

It is with great pride that we can now serve Emilia’s mussel soup in our restaurant, faithful to the original recipe but with a modern touch. In creating the Dockyard Hotel, we’ve taken inspiration from Emilia and Axel’s hospitality and their natural way of opening their home to anyone passing by. Their natural ability to create a cheerful atmosphere and the comforts of home using simple means has also influenced us in our choices of material and interior style, in everything from the hand-woven linen in the curtains to the wooden furniture in the restaurant and the blood-red flowers we have planted by the entrance. As we take our next step into the future, we are letting their story guide us in offering an open, warm hotel environment where you feel the same welcome and comfort as you would in your own home.

Emilia’s mussel soup was prepared using a base of Jerusalem artichokes, onions, apples (for acidity) and cream. It was served with chopped parsley and crispy bacon. In our version we have replaced the apples with white wine while root vegetable crisps provide a contrasting texture.