I’m currently hiding away in a little cottage in the vast forests of Småland, after six consecutive nights of heavy Swedish Christmas dinners. The next few days I intend to eat only pizza and salad, and possibly a curry if I can be bothered making one. But it’s Christmas, so most likely I won’t. Since I’ve had the pleasure of being served food by everyone I’ve visited this Christmas, I will not present any recipes in this post, but rather a little run through of what Swedes eat at Christmas, and why it’s amazing despite its gluttonous repetitiveness (at Christmas, we tend to eat a variation of this for all too many nights).
The basis of Swedish Christmas food is our love for sandwiches – its basically sandwich food, just a bit over the top, and without much bread. Southern Christmas food (Skånskt julbord) tends to be the most over-the-top of them all, in line with the Southern tradition of exaggerating and bragging through food. You must start with the fish dishes (it’s always a buffet, all you can eat-style), and here the herring takes up most of the space. It’s normally eaten with eggs, caviar, boiled potato and dark bread. You will have several versions of home-made pickled herring (inlagd sill) and the guests are normally expected to contribute with a few kinds of their own. One of the tables I visited this year had ten different varieties, including the classics with mustard and onion. My undisputed favourite remains my stepdad’s curry herring with apple. It sounds weird, but it’s amazing.
The second staple of the fish table is gravlax. Ambitious people make this by themselves, by rubbing a salmon in sugar, salt, dill and pepper, and leaving it to ferment lightly under something very heavy in the fridge for a couple of days. The method of making gravlax actually stems back to VIking age, when people used to bury fish deep into in the salty banks of beaches, as a way of preserving it until they wanted to eat it. It tastes somewhat similar to smoked salmon, but with stronger hints of spices. The sauce that goes to it (gravlaxsås) is sweet, tart and full of dill.
However, the real star of the fish table is the smoked eel (rökt ål). It’s normally served with scrambled eggs, and its delicate smoky creaminess is simply sublime when done well. The conscious reader will know that due to over-fishing, fishing Baltic eel becomes illegal every now and then. However, stubborn traditionalists will still sneak it up on the table for Christmas with a sly smile to the general applause of other traditionalists. I’m not too bothered with tradition, but eel is one of my favourite kinds of food ever… and my aunt promised me that this year’s eel came legally, from a nearby lake.
Now, moving on to the meat table, the meatballs (köttbullar) are obviously a key feature, served with beetroot salad. The meatballs are so central that in some families, you will have several different batches of meatballs. One year my mother, gran, aunt and cousins had all set about making meatballs, with the obvious competition to go with it. Some opt for modern takes on meatballs, like putting thyme and parmesan in them. Others go with revival recipes from the 19th century which include sweet anchovy brine. My favourites remain my mothers: she makes them small, juicy and hot with white pepper. One thing is clear: never make them all beef, and never, ever, replace the butter with olive oil.
The Christmas ham (julskinka) is another central feature of the meat table, with different strong mustards (home-made, as seen in the background, makes for the strongest kind), cheeses and dark, sweet bread. One of Sweden’s most famous Christmas songs is about a julskinka that ran away. Julskinka is also the reason why you will be served so many home-made hawaii, capricciosa or other ham-based pizzas after New Years eve. No matter how much ham you eat, it just never ends. Adding to this equation, people tend to assume that the larger hams are tastier.
Danish paté (dansk leverpastej) with Cumberland sauce and cornichons is a sandwich-linked must-have on the Southern table. With home-made cumberland sauce it’s one of my favourites, as the aroma of the orange peel is delicious together with the creaminess of the paté and the salty pickle.
Janssons frestelse (The temptation of Jansson) is a creamy, potato based dish with onion, breadcrumbs and anchovies. Sometimes people sneak caviar into it for the perfect amount of saltiness. It’s eaten with the ham, meatballs or eel, or just about anything on the table. Beside the köttbullar and julskinka, Janssons is one of the most common things found on any Swedish Christmas table. No Janssons, no Christmas.
Lutfiskpudding is a weird one. This dish, prepared with white dried fish, butter and rice, is loved by many of the older generation but sadly not quite understood by me. But apparently there’s something irresistible about the crusty surface and the lutfisk flavour eaten together with loads of butter.
No julbord would be complete without sausages (julkorv). There are normally a few varieties of these, including reindeer, wild boar and normal smoked salami with green pepper. They are normally accompanied with four or five kinds of cheese as well.
All the savoury food is served with beer and frozen snaps of course, which is taken every five minutes with a rowdy or happy Christmas song. If you’re confused regarding which snaps to go for, always opt for Linie aqvavit, which is a safe bet and enjoyed by most. Try Piraten or Beska droppar at your own peril.
The dessert of the julbord is called risgryngröt and is a form of sweet porrige. In Sweden, it’s tradition to eat risgynsgröt with an almond smuggled into in. Whoever eats the almond is said to get married the following year. My aunt tends to cheat and add four or five, so that people have a bigger chance of getting married. 25 years and it still hasn’t worked. And for someone who’s not into desserts much, I have little love to spare for risgrynsgröt. It’s quite heavy, with lots of cream, and in the South it’s normally served with raspberry sauce (normally just wild raspberries, in the freezer since summer, and then gently simmered with some sugar on the stove). The anomaly on the picture is the Norwegian way of eating it, with butter and cinnamon (as preferred by my stepmum).
Of course, this is far from a comprehensive overview of what Swedes eat at Christmas, as I’ve left out dopp i grytan, rödkål, brunkål, svampgaller, lutfisk and many other dishes. But since it’s Christmas and I’m feeling lazy, I leave you with this for now. God jul!
I’m a little reluctant to write about Piola libri, because it is already always packed, especially on the Apero evenings. Eurocrats seem love to drink and socialise, yet the EU quarter in Brussels is anything but known for its abundance of charming little places to spend the evening. And consequently piola libri is always full to the brim. But don’t let the throngs of suits scare you away: the ambience always remains chic and cosy, often with jazz musicians accompanying the guest DJs. And the owner greets all the girls at the door with a large smile.
On aperitivi evenings at La piola, this Italian book shop-cum-bar serves up simple yet lovely, complimentary snacks at the bar. You just order something to drink, pay and then help yourself to a little plate of various snacks: feta cheese with chili, assorted olives, pickled onions, sticky rice, foccacia, crustini with various spreads, cold pasta with tuna and capers, and so on. It varies slightly from time to to time, but always hits the spot. There’s no strange ticketing system like in other aperitivi bars in Brussels, so you can go several times (although since it’s a system of trust, it’s one that of course shouldn’t be abused).
The wine is excellent, if a little more expensive than the average Brussels bar. But since you can skip dinner if you go here, that’s not really an issue. A good glass of spritzer is €5, and a glass of their very decent house red is €4.80. If you go a bit earlier, you can also browse their extensive selection of Italian literature and film, as it is a book shop during the day (with free wifi). Aperitivi is normally served on Thursday and Friday nights, but have a look on their website first, as they sometimes have live readings of Italian literature instead. And make sure to arrive early if you want a seat.
Piola libri can be found at 66-68 Rue Franklin, as seen below on the map: