It is time for another post on traditional Swedish food – husmanskost – and this time one of my father’s absolute favourites. Isterband is a smoky, slightly acidous and grainy sausage made of heart and tongue, originally from the Småland region. It is typically served with stewed potato and pickled beetroot, and to me it tastes of autumn like few other things – it belongs with the smell of burning leaves and crisp air. It is hearty, warm and packed with flavour.
- 1 pack of Isterband (this will be difficult to get a hold of outside of Sweden, but could probably be substituted with some other kind of large smoked sausage).
- One heap of fresh dill, chopped
- A few tablespoons of flour
- About 100 grams of butter
- A few decilitres of milk
- 1/5 kg of potatoes, a firm variety.
- Salt and white pepper to taste
- A jar of sliced pickled beetroots
Dill stewed potatoes is a mild, standard side to any smoky Swedish food, and very easy to make. It relies on the usual suspects for flavouring (dill and white pepper) together with the creaminess of milk and butter. Start by peeling, slicing and boiling the potatoes. Make the slices thick so that they don’t break in the water, and be careful not to overcook them. Start frying the sausages on a low heat in a wide pan (they should fry for about 25 minutes). Then make a bechamel base by melting the butter in the pan, and carefully whisking in flour until you have a thick paste.
Add milk slowly to the paste, to make a thick, creamy sauce. You can choose how voluptuous you like the sauce to be - if you want the supreme, extend it with cream or a bit of creme fraiche. If you’re feeling frugal, go with milk, which is the classic way of making it.
One you’ve reached a thick, smooth consistency, add salt and white pepper (you can be rather generous). Add the chopped dill and some nutmeg, then pour the sauce over the potatoes. Take the sausages off the pan and serve immidiately. The heavy smokiness of the sausages is rather dominant, and the potatoes are there to provide a smooth, mild balance. By serving this with pickled beetroot you also get a sweet contrast to the rest. It’s a well-balanced, autumnal and most warming meal.
Bia Mara is a neat little fish and chips place near the sleezier streets around Boulevard Anspach. They have a simple concept: doing cheap, sustainable fish and chips, and doing it really well. Having visited a couple of times, I’ve found the weekly special at 12€ to be innovative and tasty, even though one would think fish and chips is a rather basic, and perhaps limited, concept. Recent combinations have included Korean Style Ling with hot red pepper crust and kinchee sauce, Rogan Josh crusted special with lime, mint and coriander sauce, and Malaysian Special Sea Bream with sambal and tamarind sauce. Last time I visited, we tried sea bass with with truffle mayo, and it was just the perfect thing for a slightly hungover sunny stroll on town. Their penchant for curry feels like a true reflection of modern cuisine from the british Isles (although I’ll include the caveat that this in my opinion is true for England – I can’t speak for the quality or popoularity of Irish curry houses).
The owner is incredibly friendly in that nice, Irish way, and makes me wish I had that special skill of making effortless small talk. The menu changes weekly depending on what fish is available, and great care seems to be taken to ensure that the fish is sourced by sustainable methods. In addition to this, they serve Pellegrino and a beer of the week from a local Belgian brewery. On Sundays, they serve Brunch from 12-16 which consists of their weekly special and a bloody mary. So many good things! Seven meatballs out of ten.
Bia Mara can be found here on the map:
I had my first eight course dinner this week, and given my complete inexperience with these kinds of luxuries, it is possible that this review will be a bit biased. But it was so much fun! When you eat eight little meals, it feels like you’re eating the Eurovision song contest. Each dish has its own character, and looks nothing like the previous one. Given the tiny size of the dishes, it’s more about tasting than eating – sometimes an investigation, trying to figure out what is on the plate. Although we were left the menu at our side, we had very vague ideas about what we were actually eating at times (and had to google some of the ingredients like sorrel and verbena).
But aside from my excitement at the four-hour activity of eating eight little dishes in one evening, La Buvette in itself is a lovely place. It’s placed opposite its sister restaurant, the brilliant Café des Spores, but feels a bit more upmarket. When I asked for a nice red wine at Café des Spores, I was served a glass of their excellent house wine. At La Buvette you can only order by to the bottle, and if you ask for advice, the waiter goes to fetch the sommelier.
La Buvette is a tiny resturant, a little bit like someone’s house – the front still looks like the old butcher’s shop it’s housed in, and the upstairs like someone’s living room. The decor is simple. Getting lost trying to find the toilet, I ended up in someone’s artist studio at the top of the house. While the location far away from the centre, it is obvious that La Buvette doesn’t need a grand location to attract customers. The clientele seemed like local Bruxellois food lovers, not eurocrats.
As soon as we were seated, we were given sourdough bread with candied sunflower kernels and truly delicious porcini butter. We ordered a bottle of red organic Merlot at the recommendation of the sommelier, which was probably the biggest disappointment of the evening – it was a bit too dry, and not very special. The first dish, however, was very exciting: sea trout, seaweed, cucumber and some kind of vinegar-y wasabi-flavoured dressing.
The second dish was delicious, and perhaps the most visually appealing – potted rabbit with celeriac and lemon creme. The crunch of the celeriac against the tender, savoury rabbit was lovely. Fredrik, who opted for the vegetarian menu, was was served beetroot with blue cheese and celeriac, and wasn’t the biggest fan of the composition. However, the rest of the evening, I was impressed by how well they catered for a non meat-eater. The third dish was pretty: a colourful salad of sorrel, carrot, red onion, squash and ricotta cheese. Although we were delighted by the sorrel, which we used to eat in Sweden as kids, I thought the ricotta was too heavy, and there was not enough salty tangyness to the dish. It felt like a dessert-salad.
The fourth dish was one of our favourites: plaice with hay potato in a buckwheat broth. The fish was perfect: crispy brown on the outside, but falling apart into creamy little flakes, and soaking up the flavoursome broth perfectly. This was followed by the second main, which was confit lamb with aubergine cream and red cabbage. This was absolutely delicious, and I savoured every little bit of it. Fredrik’s option was also very tasty: Peeled, fried aubergine in some kind of soy vinaigrette. We were both very pleased with our mains, and I began to feel a little full.
The first dessert was absolutely perfect: white chocolate ice cream, meringue, blackberries and verbena sorbet. I think it was one of the nicest desserts I’ve ever tried. The fresh verbena sorbet unlocked a whole forest of flavours, which contrasted beautifully with the blackberry and the crispy meringue. The second dessert was a rice pudding with buckthorn sauce and salted caramelised almonds. This was also nice, but the least special dessert for me. The final dish was incredibly heavy, so it was lucky it was so small: dark chcolate tart with salty hazelnut praline. It was a grand finish of the evening, with very heavy flavours.
We finished off the evening with a small acidic coffee each, which was best combined with some sugar – somehow very apt for the kind of meal we’d had. While the eight course dinner in itself is not entirely unaffordable given the high quality of the food (45 euros), the wine, water and coffee upped the bill quite a lot. But for a very special treat, I would completely recommend La Buvette - great service, beautiful food, and actually quite exciting entertainment for a couple of hours. 8,5 meatballs out of ten.
Time to write about one of my favourite cafés in Brussels: Aksum. Their great coffee, sprinkled with nutmeg, is hardly a secret, and housed in a small venue decked out with vintage ethiopian furniture, they are often busy. Their hot chocolate is perfect, standing strong against the stiff competition in Brussels. But for me, the true star of this café is a cake – the passionfruit dacquoise. A thin layer of crème brûlée makes it perfectly crispy on top, which is followed by a velvety, intense passion fruit cream inside, and finished with a soft and chewy bottom of almond meringue. I cannot get enough of it. This beauty is actually not made by Aksum, but sourced from a local Marolles patisserie called Secret Gourmand (a hidden gem for ordering whole cakes). Apart from the delicious passionfruit dacquiose, they also serve pistachio and cherry cake, lime and almond cake, and a chocolate cake I never had the pleasure to try. But these cakes, coupled with the friendly service, delicious coffee and nice venue, makes it a good place for a Sunday treat.
Should you be heavily into coffee, Aksum is also a good place to shop – they import coffee beans from around the world, which is ground in a lovely old school grinder by the door. If you want to take some home, they have a selection of different beans and ways of grinding them. The Finnish owner gives clear advice about the best kind of coffee (and takes the time to answer emails about it). Finally, a little trivia for the Swedophiles: you might think of Italians first when listing coffee drinking nations, but people in the Nordics are even more crazy about their caffeine.
This is my great grandmother Rut’s recipe, and perhaps my favourite recipe of all time. My grandmother, who would make this on Sundays, was born in a small unpronounceable village called Djurröd in Skåne. Only 84 people live in Djurröd. The centre of Djurröd looks like this, and perhaps the desolate nature of Djurröd explains why my family still eats chicken with plums and apples when other Swedes save it for medieval themed-feasts. But who cares – the sauce accompanying this chicken is superbly savoury, creamy and sweet, and the cucumber pickle goes beautifully with it.
- 1 whole chicken
- 1 apple
- 12 prunes
- Chicken stock cube
- 2 dl cream
- 50 grams butter
- Chinese soy
- Sugar, salt and white pepper to taste
- Boiled potatoes, to serve
Start by cleaning and preparing the chicken. Untangle the wings if they’ve been tucked into the back, cut off unnecessary fatty bits (by the neck and back), and remove any leftovers of feathers. Cut the chicken in half through the filets with a sharp knife, and rub it all over with the salt and white pepper. It’s handy to keep it in a mix on the table as you prepare the chicken.
When you’re done preparing the chicken, melt the butter and some tablespoons of oil in an oven-safe pan on the stove (it’s good if it has a lid, and can be put into to over, but you can also start in a frying pan and move the chicken to an over-proof form later). Add the chicken to the pan, and let it fry gently for about five minutes on each side. Brush it with chinese soy whilst it’s frying. Then add three decilitres of water, one cube of chicken stock, and put it into the oven on 200 degrees. In the meantime, peel the potatoes and let them rest in cold water. Start making the cucumber salad (recipe further below).
After about 30 minutes, take out the pan, prick the chicken and pour the juices from the pan all over it (make sure the filets face upwards). Add the prunes and apples to the pan, and put it back into the oven. Try to push the apples and prunes towards the bottom of the pan, or below the chicken. After another 15 minutes, take it out again to again douse it in juice. Put the pan back into the oven, this time without the lid on. After about another ten minutes, the chicken should be done and ready to take out. Watch the chicken carefully if it’s smaller, as the cooking time may range from 40 minutes to over one hour depending on size.
Remove the chicken from the pan, leaving the juices inside. Let the chicken rest by the side as your prepare the sauce, keeping it somewhere where it keeps its heat. Also remove the potatoes and the prunes and put somewhere else ( they’re not pretty, but you can serve them as condiments to the chicken later on). Sift the leftover juices if you prefer the sauce thin (I never minded random bits of chicken in it), and then carefully scoop out excess fat with a slotted spoon, holding the pan at an angle. Mix in some flour with a whisk, as well as sugar, and let it come to the boil and thicken. Then add two deciliters cream (or to taste, depends on how strong you want the sauce), and spice is more with salt, white pepper and soy according to taste. Remember that the sauce should be a little bit to strong in flavour on the tongue on its own, as it needs to liven up both the chicken and the potatoes. Serve the newly boiled potatoes with the pickled cucumber, chicken pieces and sauce right away.
Pressgurka is a classic component of Swedish traditional food (husmanskost) and can be served alongside most dishes where lingonberry jam would also feel at home. It is sweet and tangy, and contrasts perfectly to salty Swedish dishes such as roast chicken, fried herring, or even meatballs. You need:
- Half a cucumber
- 1 dl water
- 1 tablespoon ättika. Ättika is a form of Swedish vinegar, you’ll be able to get it at any Nordic shop. I haven’t tried making pressgurka with other kinds of vinegar, but perhaps that would work too. The proportions would have to be different, though: ättika is 24% acetic acid, and is therefore very strong and inedible to use just as it is; malt vinegar is typically 3% acetic acid, balsamic vinegar about 6%.
- Salt and white pepper to taste
- A small bunch curled leaf parsley (flat leaf is also fine, as the taste different isn’t huge: however the curled leaf smells more like fennel and dill to me, which is closer to the Nordic cooking tradition).
Making pressgurka is very easy. Slice the cucumber with a cheese-slicer, and squeeze it gently with your hands for about one minute. Mix together the ättika, water, salt, white pepper, and parsley, and put in the fridge for at least one hour. Serve alongside the chicken.
Behold the best tapas I’ve ever had. Two weeks ago I was in Barcelona, and was lucky enough to be taken to Cuidad Contal. Ciudad Contal is the old name for Barcelona, and also a beautiful and popular tapas bar.
Arriving in the afternoon, we avoided the worst queues and were seated rather rapidly after a quick, ice cold beer in the bar (and very cheap at that). The bar had a beautiful display of some of the cold, prepared tapas, and I fell straight away for a beautiful creature resembling a black egg with pink stuff coming out of it. Once seated, Victor managed to decipher my description and ordered fig with mascarpone and jamon (montadito de higo, mascarpone y jamón ibérico, below).
If it’s possible to pick one favourite from the various tapas dishes, this would be it. The sweet, crispy fig mixed with the velvety and rich mascarpone posed a perfect contrast to the salty jamon. It’s no revolutionary dish or combination, but proof that classics are classics for a reason.
Aside from my personal star of the table, a favourite between the three of us was the black rice (arroz negro con sepia). This was also displayed at the bar, steaming and glittering, and quickly vanishing. Just as the other dishes, it was very simple: rice with squid ink and gently cooked octopus, served with a dollop of allioli. It was also accompanied by small pieces of bread rubbed in tomato, olive oil and salt (pa amb tomaquet), which were perfect for scooping the rice. This staple way of making bread has won my heart over, after a long struggle against indulging in olive oil.
We also ordered in some grilled green peppers, doused in sea salt flakes (pimientos del padrón). The grill made them smoky in a mellow way, which contrased very well to the sweetness of the pepper and the salt.
The deep fried baby squid (calamares a la andaluza) was incredibly tender and juicy, perfect with a little dash of lemon. We finished this very, very quickly. Such a simple dish, yet with the added lemon, one of the most bite-friendly things ever.
The seafood at this place was so tender it’s difficult to compare it to anything. The gambas (gambas a la plancha) were no exception. I would assume these were steamed, then quickly dressed before going onto the table. They were too hot to hold when they arrived. Again, delicious.
Victor’s personal choice was a little entrecote on a stick (montadito de solomillo). It was charred in the edges and oozing red inside, absolutely perfectly cooked. Blissful.
All in all this was a near-perfect meal (I’m not sure what could be changed gastronomically to improve it). If you’re in Barcelona, you should ignore the fact that this magnificent place is placed at the bottom of touristy La Ramblas, as well as the fact that it’s packed nearly all the time. You should just dive in, and gratefully accept a cold beer (or three) while you wait for a precious table. Our meal landed at 17 euros each with was a bargain given the high quality of the food, and I simply cannot recommend it highly enough. 9,5 meatballs out of 10.
Last week my best friend and I discovered a little gem in Saint Gilles called Cafe des Spores. It’s a restaurant specialising completely in mushrooms. We thought it sounded quirky, as well as brilliant – we are both mushroom lovers. But we didn’t expect it to be exquisite gourmet food.
The meal began with three little dishes: truffle soup, fried mushroom dumplings and stuffed champignons. The truffle soup was delicious, and as expected with truffle, the smell was divine. The dumplings were nice, but probably my least favourite part of the meal – indeed tasty, but rather simple.
However, the stuffed champignons were spectacular, on many levels. First of all, they arrived sprinkled in some sort of dried fish flakes, which fluttered like butterflies in the heat for several minutes. Marianne and I were so freaked out about it that we had to ask the waitress if part of the food was alive. She just giggled at us. Having overcome our fear, we dug in and were shocked by the taste explosion. Tangy ginger, umami-fishy flakes, rich meaty stuffing and mellow mushroom mixing wildly. Perhaps that sounds weird, and it was, but it was also absolutely delicious.
For starters we had a salad of watermelon, tomato and mushroom (pictured at the top of the post). It was very refreshing as the sweet and sour flavours came together with the dense mushrooms rather unexpectedly. But it was very tasteful, and we scooped everything off the plate rather quickly. We also has mushroom gnocchi, which was mellow and autumnal, tasting of porcini (although, as can be seen from the picture, it was some other sort of mushroom – I’d never tried it before). It wasn’t as sensational as the salad, and the gnocchi were a bit too soft, but it was still nice.
For mains there were two choices: duck with girolles and a salmon dish. As salmon is more staple than chicken in Sweden, we both opted for the duck, especially as it was accompanied by our favourite mushroom. The duck was perfectly pink inside, and the girolles packed with flavour. While it looks like a rather small main, it was just the perfect size at this point.
Since none of us are dessert people, we opted for the cheese with cherries instead of mushroom-infused sweet stuff (which would perhaps be the most intriguing part of the menu). The truffle pecorino was very strong, and tangy to the point where it almost hurt our mouths. It was again something of a taste sensation, and a perfect finish to the meal.
These unexpected taste trips coupled with high-quality house wine, friendly service and nice atmosphere meant it was a lovely food experience, perhaps the best I’ve had in Brussels so far. The bill, which came at 71 euros, felt perfectly reasonable given the high quality of the food. I will definitely be going here again. Nine meatballs out of ten.