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Food, Glorious Food!
Birgitta Thompson
This article appeared in the 2003 supplement.
Food, glorious food!

Food, glorious food every day throughout the year! Not just to celebrate Christmas, Easter and Midsummer, but also family occasions such as birthdays and name-days at the obligatory coffee table laden with sweet buns, sponge cakes, pastries and “seven different sorts” of home-baked fancy biscuits, in addition to the cream-covered gateau, the final pièce de résistance! Swedish cuisine remains fairly unknown and obscure, at least in the United Kingdom, although concepts like smörgåsbord and gravad lax have crept surreptitiously into cookery jargon. Both are reminiscent of old culinary traditions: today’s grand buffet table with an abundant mixture of tasty appetizers and hors d’œuvre dishes has its humble beginnings in country gatherings when guests were expected to bring some food of their own. The gravad lax or gravlax, in other words pickled raw salmon, harks back to an era before refrigerators had been thought of and reflects the need to preserve or cure fish and meat by this method (or by salting, drying and smoking) – no wonder a typical Swedish smörgåsbord is laden with delicacies such as inlagd sill (pickled herring), smoked eel, cold meats, hot dishes such as meatballs and Janssons frestelse (“Mr Jansson’s temptation”, in which Swedish anchovies are the main ingredient), omelettes and soufflés. There should be some room left for cheeses, a fruit salad or other desserts.

The smörgåsbord is doubtless the Swedish culinary concept most widely known abroad, although not all foreigners know how to eat it, Swedish style. There are certain unwritten rules about how to tackle the buffet; the main one being not to rush it, but to allow yourself plenty of time. Although everything is displayed together on the table, you should not overfill your plate with everything in sight, but go back to the table time and time again, helping yourself to a clean plate for each round. Dishes must be taken in a particular order: you start with the different varieties of inlagd sill, then progress to other cold fish, then the cold meats, followed by the selection of dainty hot dishes, and finally cheeses and desserts and strong, black coffee.

In the first chapter of her novel Den tionde sånggudinnan (The Tenth Muse, 1996), Carina Burman suggests that a Swedish smörgåsbord is a horn of plenty almost beyond imagining. The deliberately archaic and exaggerated passage in which the Vice-Chancellor of the University consumes a mountain of food (actually based on the medieval text The Lord Abbott, see pp. 56-57 of this issue) is a hilarious literary description of a gastronomic orgy among academics at Uppsala in 1909. The faces of those present “shone with that light which radiates from human beings when the smörgåsbord is in prospect”. Even though Sarah Death’s translation of the feast appeared in Swedish Book Review 1998:1, pp. 8 -16, it is worth repeating part of it here:

“And the Grand Hotel’s smörgåsbord towered aloft like a city. There were the dwellings of the perseverant, the smörgåsbord’s settlement of small owner-occupiers: soused herring with onion and horseradish, sweet and sour pickled herring, herring with egg and butter, herring salad and herrings à la russe. It was every shade of grey, like fishermen’s huts on the West Coast, set off by touches of Falun red. In addition there was baked herring, Baltic herring fried in cream sauce or cold poached, and buckling salad and deep-fried anchovies. On an overhanging clifftop above them stood a black and white folly: a stemmed dish of Russian caviare, finely chopped raw onion and soured cream. Admittedly it was not much, and a public pleasure garden somewhat further down displayed red caviare from northern Sweden, with similar accompaniments.

“On the other side of the garden lay the abode of the middle classes. These were solid houses, differing in size but all of equal distinction: timbales of fish mousse with lobster and poached eggs, gravadlax and salmon mayonnaise, individual fish galantines and galantine of shellfish, eggs and peas. One cannot but pause and contemplate these houses: so neatly arranged, so pretty, pink and green as befits any respectable villa. Not even the greenery of a little garden is lacking, for the timbales are decorated with parsley and the galantines with dill.

“Moving through the city, we meet a throng in sunshine yellow and white: eggs with croutons, eggs chantilly, eggs with remoulade sauce, and four kinds of omelette. One cannot help thinking that this must be the city’s maternity hospital.

“No factories are to be found here – they must be in the kitchen regions. But the upper classes are enthroned in luxury: pies filled with fish and meat, jellied veal (now the Professor will be happy) and pork brawn... but alas, there is a wolf in sheep’s clothing! A carrot timbale! Thank goodness we rapidly encounter the small meatballs, the stuffed celeriac and chipolata sausages. These are the dwellings of the good nouveaux riches, who have left the domains of more modest home ownership on their own merits.

“Now to those we may consider the most honest and hard-working folk in the city. Here we have the cold meats: ham, turkey, salt beef. [...] Things are really going fast now: French cheese, and Swedish cheese from Västergötland, the one as soft as a caress, the other as pungent as marriage, but both equally indispensable, equally hard to resist. Then we find nothing but desserts, and mostly whipped cream, or so it seems, Queen Victoria gateau, a soufflé or two and – upon my word! – cones full of cream, jam and cake crumbs, stuck in sugar. Is this a children’s restaurant?

“No indeed! We are forgetting the most important element. For this is a cathedral city. In the midst towers the cathedral, just as it does here in Uppsala. Beautiful, gleaming, as close to the Kingdom of Heaven as we can hope to come in this world: the aquavit cooler with its seven taps... original, cumin, vodka, colonel, grenadier, Seville orange and Finnish.”

Swedish cuisine has no shortage of provincial and regional specialities, from southern Sweden’s spettekaka, a pyramid-shaped dry egg-cake baked on a spit, to Norrland’s surströmming, tinned fermented Baltic herring with a disgusting, pungent smell, and various kinds of reindeer meat. Dairy products are numerous: different types of cheese, from the strong Västerbotten cheese to the soft, brown whey-cheese known as messmör coming originally from the north. The staple milk for a Swede’s breakfast cereals is one of the many types of filmjölk in cartons, similar to yogurt but runnier. It goes well with the traditional hard Swedish crisp bread knäckebröd or spisbröd, the browner and coarser the better. This “hard bread” used to be baked once a year and kept all through the winter, hung from the ceiling above the kitchen fire on a pole running through the centre hole of each round cake; nowadays the choice of different textures and colours is overwhelming. A Norrland speciality is the wheat-and-rye tunnbröd, that can be either crisp or soft.

Regular items of the Swedish diet often have an old-fashioned, homely air far removed from the modern preoccupation with elaborate and exotic dishes, and processed food from the supermarket. Visitors to IKEA stores will know that meatballs are part of the staple Swedish menu; but the home-made meatballs using prime quality meat are far removed from those bought in tins or served up in school canteens. Traditionally, Thursday is the day for pea soup made of dried yellow peas and served with small cubes of pork followed by thin pancakes (or the small version plättar) with jam. Unfancy home cooking – although its biggest fan, Strindberg, thought pea soup was nothing short of food for the gods; it is not uncommonly accompanied by a glass of hot punsch.

Making full use of what bounteous nature has to offer is second nature to many Swedes, even among the city-dwellers who nowadays comprise most of the population. An old and popular pastime is picking wild mushrooms and berries, and every autumn woods throughout the country and the heaths and bogs of the north teem with eager gatherers keen to harvest an impressive array of fungi and berries. Ceps and chanterelles fresh from the forest are a delicious part of many a meal, and in some areas even tastier varieties are enjoyed by the locals who know where to look – such as the exquisite saffron milk cap that is common in coniferous woods. Wild strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and lingon, to name but a few, are eagerly picked and eaten, preserved or made into jam. Northerners wax ecstatic about the sumptuous orange-gold cloudberries (hjortron) that grow in the bogs of Norrland, and those living further north still need some convincing that the arctic raspberry (åkerbär) is not the finest fruit of all. The lingonberry, known as the red gold of the forest, has long been a most important part of Swedish traditional food: indeed, what would rye-flour porridge, meatballs, pancakes, potato dumplings, black pudding and stuffed cabbage rolls be without the traditional spoonful of lingonberry jam?

This is a rich heritage, in both culinary and cultural terms; and it lives on, as recipes in cookery books and as ready-made meals in modern supermarkets. To Swedes, there is something special about Mum’s meatballs, Granny’s gingersnaps and the smoky taste of isterband, that most genuine of Swedish sausages, not to mention Dad’s attempts to fry slices of Falun sausage. Food and drink create a strong feeling of well-being and satisfaction – even in these days of dieting and weight-watching. This is made unashamedly clear in Mikael Niemi’s hilarious descriptions of parties in the frozen North, in the recently published Popular Music (see pp. 34-37 of this issue). In Strindberg, food and eating are connected with the fragile balance of body and soul, with sexuality and joie de vivre. The descriptions of various meals in the short stories of Getting Married capture in a nutshell the bliss and hell of being married (see pp. 38-39 of this issue); the sketches of bohemian life in Stockholm in the latter half of the nineteenth century in Röda rummet have their focal point at Berns restaurant, where a group of artist friends gather regularly in order to drink and dine in the eponymous red room. When times are bad, on the other hand, some of them ward off their hunger by reading passages from a cookery book, while the hero’s unscrupulous brother shows who is in charge when he serves his two henchmen an orgy of a supper, complete with drinks in abundance. The unpolished inn-keeper Markurell in Markurells in Wadköping tries to bribe both external examiners and teachers at the local grammar school with a splendid luncheon of the best food and wine that his establishment can offer in order to save his beloved son from failing his school-leaving exam. The search for the prime specimen of Swedish haggis is the leitmotiv in Torgny Lindgren’s latest Västerbotten novel (to be published in the USA as Hash). There is a lot of feasting and eating in Astrid Lindgren: Pippi Longstocking knows instinctively what children crave for when it comes to sweets and birthday parties, and Emil empties his mother’s larder when he serves the paupers in the workhouse with a Christmas dinner the like of which they have never seen or tasted before.

The abundance and variety of food typical of Swedish cuisine is not unlike the smörgåsbord itself, and results in the same kind of dilemma: how to get to grips with it all. A journey through the culinary year would seem to be as good a guide as any, starting with the annual highlight, the Christmas dinner, julbord, served on Christmas Eve before presents are handed out by Father Christmas himself. Needless to say, hotels and restaurants start serving their Christmas dinner in early December. The julbord is in fact a giant version of the famous smörgåsbord, but certain dishes are a must: the Christmas ham (which will continue to be eaten until well into the New Year), the lutfisk (dried ling soaked in lye to make it soft and palatable, then boiled and eaten with mustard, a béchamel sauce and boiled potatoes), and a kind of thick rice porridge, the risgrynsgröt. One must not forget to put out a bowl of this porridge, dressed with sugar, cinnamon and milk, for the tomte, the gnome who stands guard over one’s house, wears a red hat and doubles up as Father Christmas. The rice porridge contains an almond, and whoever discovers it in his or her bowl is destined to be married within the year...

The old custom of the “dip in the pot” is observed in some households: the stock left over from the cooking of the Christmas ham makes a dip for home-baked bread. Add pickled herring, various kinds of sausages and brawns, patés, meatballs, and herring salad made of pickled herring, beetroot and potatoes, and you begin to get an idea of the Swedish Christmas table. All this meat (reminiscent of the midwinter Nordic sacrifice, the Viking Age and the pig Särimner who features in the Valhalla afterlife) is bad news for vegetarians; it harks back to the days when farmers slaughtered their animals once a year in the late autumn, producing plenty of fresh meat for some time to come.

To whet the appetite, there’s the special Christmas punch, glögg, a spicy mulled wine served with almonds and raisins (and often laced with stronger stuff). Add ginger biscuits shaped as stars, hearts, fir trees and anything else one can think of associated with Christmas – and don’t forget lussekatter, saffron-flavoured buns sculpted into a variety of traditional shapes.

Swedes know how to enjoy Christmas: it lasts until twenty days after Christmas Eve, until the day devoted to St. Knut on 13 January. Then the lean days of Lent beckon – possibly a good thing for waistline and wallet alike.

Shrove Tuesday, the day before Lent starts on Ash Wednesday, brings with it the special treat of semlor, delicious buns filled with almond paste and whipped cream which are enjoyed traditionally every Tuesday in Lent after a main dish of brown beans and fried slices of pork. Nowadays semlor are on sale in supermarkets and coffee houses as soon as Christmas is over, in much the same way as chocolate Easter eggs appear just as early in Britain. An eighteenth-century Swedish king is said to have died from eating too many of these buns – but there again, one should remember that he had over-indulged beforehand.

When first introduced into Sweden, semlor were filled with almond paste and boiled in milk before being served; in the nineteenth century the boiling was dropped and people started to eat them served with hot milk, sugar and cinnamon. It was around 1900 that the semla acquired its modern look: a topping of whipped cream with a lid cut from the bun. Nowadays it is regarded as something to accompany a cup of coffee. Incidentally, a cup of coffee is much the same to Swedes as a nice cup of tea to the British, to be drunk at every opportunity.

Lady Day, vårfrudagen, comes with a special treat in the form of waffles with jam and cream – thanks to a misconception of the Swedish name. People understood it as våffeldagen, and decided that it meant the day of the waffle. Any excuse will do for a festive occasion and something out of the ordinary.

In spite of its association with elaborately decorated hard-boiled eggs, Easter in Sweden has somehow failed to reach the heights of culinary excess associated with Christmas. Rich food seems to be traditionally associated with mid-winter rather than the longer days of early spring. A buffet spread is common on Easter Eve, while Easter Sunday dinner is often a leg of lamb. Spring proper is heralded on the last day of April, Walpurgis Night, when bonfires are lit and people gather to watch and listen to choir-singing and speeches. Sill, snaps and gravlax (herring, schnapps and pickled salmon) are requirements for that celebration. Summer is just around the corner!

The Swedish summer is short but days are long: imagine the delight felt by all and sundry when it finally arrives, and Swedes can enjoy delicacies such as the first new potatoes, boiled and served with heaps of dill, butter and various types of pickled herring, complemented with crème fraiche and chopped chives, followed by the first strawberries. This is the preferred menu for celebrating Midsummer and, weather permitting, to be eaten in the garden, in the conservatory, on the balcony, or in one’s own lakeside summer cottage. This is the Swedish summer idyll: the sunny summer holidays will go on for ever – day after long day spent picking wild strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and cloudberries, with occasional breaks to fish for something tasty for dinner.

As the days grow shorter and nights grow darker, it is time for the crayfish season, starting on the 8th of August. Patios and gardens are decorated with illuminated paper lanterns, and the whole population tucks into these delicious shellfish cooked with masses of dill. They used to be plentiful in lakes and streams in Sweden, but they have become a rare species in their traditional Swedish environment. To meet the demand, large quantities are imported from other countries or bred commercially.

The crayfish season coincides more or less with the surströmming season. From the third Thursday of August onwards, it is time for the tinned, fermented Baltic herring that is allegedly the delicacy of the Norrland coast, characterized by an unforgettable stench of rotten fish. Those of a strong and rigorous constitution wash it down with aquavit and beer, accompanied by the Norrland speciality of “almond” potatoes, chopped onions, soured cream and tunnbröd.

Later on in the autumn thousands of Swedes swoop into the forests to pick lingonberries and the many different varieties of wild mushrooms – but do remember to check the dates for when hunters are allowed to shoot elks and consider wearing a bullet-proof vest...

Martinmas, a mediaeval festival lasting for three days, is nowadays confined mainly to Skåne in the far south of Sweden. A goose is fattened, and then eaten on St. Martin’s Eve. By now, Christmas is almost here again with its smell of burning candles, ginger biscuits and saffron buns on the first Sunday in Advent, and the Lucia celebrations on 13th December when every district, village and institution organizes a procession with a pretty girl dressed in white and wearing a crown of burning candles leading her retinue to the tune of “Santa Lucia”. Early that morning, every Mum and Dad in Sweden can expect to be woken up with coffee, ginger biscuits and saffron buns provided by a daughter dressed as Lucia.

And so we come to the end of this journey through the Swedish culinary year. It was just a taste: make the most of the real thing! Bon appétit, guten Appetit, smaklig måltid, and enjoy your meal!