I’ve watched a couple of Swedish crime shows lately that have been wonderful, namely “The Bridge” and “Midnight Sun”. The latter, in particular, caught my attention because of the portrayal of the Saami culture, which I was only vaguely aware of before. The Saami people are indigenous to the far north of Sweden, as well as the north of neighbouring Nordic countries, and often led semi-nomadic lives as reindeer herders. Many still uphold their cultural traditions today, including dance, song, medicine, dress, legends and food. The major food information I’ve garnered from Sweden has been through the lens of the modern chef Magnus Nilsson, who runs a fine dining restaurant in a tiny town in the far north of the country, and whose food has a mythic, dark fairy-tale aesthetic. If you haven’t seen his episode of “Chef’s Table”, you should, it’s captivating. The mysterious legends of the Saami and Nilsson’s fantasy aesthetic this has ensnared the romantic side of me to think of Sweden as a mythical land of ancient folklore and wonder, although in reality I’m fully aware that it’s one of the most civilised places on earth. Modern Sweden is still nostalgic for traditional foodstuffs (known as “husmanskost” meaning “house owner food”), such as reindeer, fish, dairy, breads, root vegetables and berries. Many of the traditional recipes are sparingly spiced and possibly considered bland by modern standards, as well as extremely heavy and laden with fat, which was needed to sustain farmers and labourers through the long cold days. These days, Swedes also show a healthy enthusiasm to adopt ingredients and cuisines from other countries, happily including many more fresh vegetables and less fat than the freezing winters of yore. One traditional Swedish meal that incepted my imagination during the planning for this week was kräftskiva, which is a crayfish party. These parties are traditionally held outdoors during August, sometimes under the midnight sun, and involve the gathering of friends and family getting together under paper lanterns, boiling crayfish in salty water, then serving it with dill, cheese, mushroom pies, bread and salads. Unfortunately crayfish are hard to come by where I live, so I didn’t cook it this week, but I thought it was a lovely tradition. Apparently there is a similar custom involving crabs in Norway, so maybe I’ll try again!
Smörgås are open faced sandwiches, and form part of the word “smörgåsbord”, literally meaning “sandwich table”, but which has come to be synonymous with “large buffet” in both Swedish and English, which can feature sandwiches and/or many other hot or cold dishes. A special variety of smörgåsbord is “julbord”, literally “Yule table”, which is the buffet meal served for Swedish Christmas, encapsulating a similar concept but with a more extensive and extravagant range of dishes, as well as some seasonal specialties. Smörgåstårta is a variation of this all-important sandwich concept, literally means “sandwich cake” and describes slices of bread layered with creamy fillings (often with a mayonnaise/sour cream/cream cheese base), adorned with decorative savoury toppings. The fillings/toppings can be anything you can dream of including in a normal sandwich, which, in Sweden, commonly includes smoked salmon, liver paté, shrimp, cold cuts, caviar, cucumber, radishes, beets, olives, cheeses, lemon slices, herbs, lettuce, eggs, or, if you’ve been possessed by a violent enthusiasm for Spring, as I have, hundreds of edible flowers. The cakes can be square, rectangular, round (or any shape of your choosing) and are usually slices and served in a similar manner to a dessert cake. Rarely do I feel jealous of people whose cooking adventures centre around sweets, but, I must admit, when I see gorgeously decorated cakes, I do have a pang of envy. The smörgåstårta was therefore ideal for me to exercise my yearning for cake-decorating, while still maintaining my no-dessert policy. What’s more, it is my (definitely unpopular) opinion that the savoury cake tastes much better than the sweet!
Gravlax, Jansson’s frestelse, asparagus and salad
I tend to prefer fish with a good oil content for cooking and sashimi (and less oil for ceviche, FYI), so I have always been a big fan of salmon fillets. Raw, pan-fried, grilled, smoked or steamed, it’s always a winner for me. I was therefore intrigued by the concept of cured salmon, as I had never realised that the thin shavings of salmon I saw in movies could be anything other than the smoked salmon that populate supermarkets in Australia. However, it turns out that cured salmon, also called gravlax, is not smoked at all, harnessing instead the antimicrobial properties of salt to preserve the flesh. The name gravlax stems from the word “to dig”, referring to fisherman curing fish by salting it and then burying it in the sand to lightly ferment. Gravlax is not fermented these days, and can be easily made at home by burying salmon in half its weight of a 50:50 mix of salt and sugar, heavily seasoned with white pepper and dill, then allowing to cure for 12 – 36 hours. Gravlax is most commonly cold, sliced thinly and eaten with bread, although it can also be eaten hot. Next we come to “Jansson’s frestelse” means “Jansson’s temptation”. I’m sure that this statement has awakened as much intrigue in your hearts as it did mine when I first heard that name. “Who is Jansson?” I hear you ask “What was the subject of his temptation?”. Well, the subject of his temptation is fairly easy to deduce, the baked casserole is made from layered matchsticks of potatoes, softened onions and pickled anchovies/sprats, covered in cream and breadcrumbs. Undoubtedly a combination that would tempt even the most steely-eyed Swede! Jansson’s identity, on the other hand, is harder to infer. There are rumours that it perhaps refers to renowned Swedish foodie and opera singer of the 1800s Pelle Janzon, although there are aggressive opponents of this theory. Regardless of his identity, it can’t be denied that the man had taste; this dish was delicious, as only combinations of potatoes and dairy can be.
Swedish meatballs, mashed potatoes and lingonberry jam
It feels a bit wrong that, prior to researching this week, the most salient fact I knew about Swedish cuisine was that they have meatballs, knowledge garnered primarily from the dish’s synonymity with Ikea. Well, all stereotypes have to come from somewhere, right? The meatballs, locally called köttbullar, are spiced with nutmeg, dill and allspice, with mustard lightly flavouring the creamy sauce. Apparently, the smaller the meatballs, the fancier they are. I sort of understand why – it’s very tempting to just gradually increase their size as you cook them and get progressively sick of rolling… It would therefore logically take a talented chef to resist the temptation and make consistently small meatballs, and therefore enforce the correlation with quality. Alas, I was very hungry while making this dish, and the large size of my meatballs therefore surely reflect my patience and quality as a chef – room for future improvement! I served my meatballs with traditional accompaniments of mashed potatoes, pickled cucumber and lingonberry jam. The latter was a difficult thing to find, but eventually I sourced a Swedish shop in Brisbane who came through for me. I’d never had it before, but it’s quite commonly eaten it with savoury meals in Sweden, where the sweet and particularly tart flavours help to lighten and cut through the traditionally rich and heavy meat and potato-laden dishes.
Ärtsoppa and raggmunk
Ärtsoppa is a yellow split-pea and ham soup, spiced with cloves. My Mum has always made a green split-pea and ham soup that I adore, and of course nothing could ever top that, but the yellow peas and cloves was a nice variation. Ärtsoppa is strongly associated with and eaten for Thursday dinners in Sweden, hailing from a tradition as far back as the 13th century, when maids often worked a half day on Thursday, typically preparing soup in advance for the household’s dinner because it’s relatively simple to reheat. Then again, others posit that the tradition comes from a pre-reformation tradition of preparing for fasting on Friday, although I’m unclear on the reasoning behind eating soup the day before. Perhaps it used up leftovers? Or was sufficiently nutritious and hearty to reduce hunger for the following day? Regardless, the tradition holds strong in Sweden, often made on Thursdays by home cooks, as well as served on Thursdays in schools and the military. However, tread with care, legend has it that ärtsoppa laced with arsenic killed Swedish King Eric XIV in the 1500s, so we can assume the dish was disappointing at least once in history. A meal of ärtsoppa is intrinsically linked in the minds of Swedes with a second course of thin pancakes, often eaten with a jam such as lingonberry. Although this pancake course is sometimes regarded as part of the main meal rather than a dessert, I thought I best play it safe and make especially savoury potato pancakes so as not to risk disobeying my strict anti-dessert policy. I was delighted to learn that these potato pancakes are called raggmunk, which is one of my favourite new words. Wikipedia reliably informs me that “ragg” means “hair” and “munk” means “doughnut”. “Hair doughnut” sounds incredibly appetising, no?(!) Raggmunk is made with fine strands of grated raw potato (which I hope is where the “hair” association begins and ends), mixed with flour, eggs and milk into a thin batter, then fried in butter. Raggmunk are actually only the beginning of the Swedish love affair with potato pancakes, with potatisplättar made instead with cooked (not raw) and grated potato in a batter, rårakor, made with raw and grated potato fried without a batter like a hashbrown and potatisbullar, made with mashed potato shaped into thick patties bound with raw egg, which are then coated in breadcrumbs and fried. All of these varieties are commonly served with a rasher of unsmoked bacon and lashings of lingonberry jam. Whatever the origin of these traditions, the meal formed a memorable and delicious Thursday night for me.