This is the final post from the meatball and the salted cod. We’ve both left London: the salted cod has moved to Berlin for an awesome job as marketing manager for a new startup, and the meatball is in Brussels, having found a snug space between the fine dining and snail soup stands of the city. The blog will remain live for any recipes that might be of interest, and Ingrid will keep writing about Swedish food and Brussels adventures here.
Thanks for reading.
Isabel and Ingrid
Judging by the common complaints against the Swedish state train services (SJ) – the constant delays and breakdowns, the high prices, and the 50 years of overdue track repairs – I never expected much of their food. But given SJ’s weird booking system, I recently came across a first class ticket between Lund-Nässjö which oddly was cheaper than a 2nd class ticket. Having saved 100 kronor by travelling first class, I opted for the “Three Course Menu” for 145 Swedish kronor (appox. 16 euros) with quite some excitement.
Having rolled out of a rainy Lund with only 1h 30 to eat, I was delighted that the food arrived promptly after 20 minutes. It was so hot that I burnt my finger, and the entire meal was presented on a tray like airplane food. The heavy china with the SJ logo on was a nice touch, as well as the little note presenting the food. But my optimism was slightly quashed by the first forkful. The ‘starter’ consisted of marinated mussles with a slice of chorizo and some chopped red pepper. They were marinated in something tangy, but had a fishy aftertaste, and I set my hopes higher for the next dish.
The ‘main’ was, unfortunately, a slight downward ride from the mussels. Of course, it was foolish of me to get my hopes up for something blandly described as “Herby chicken with tagliatelle”. The chicken was hot, which was good, but rubbery at places, and the tagliatelle was overcooked. The most troubling part was the sauce, which was so thin that it kept splashing across to my fellow passenger (whom I didn’t know, and probably wasn’t appreciating my eager food analysis).
The dessert, a “Chocolate and blueberry mousse”, looked cute, but sounded like a combo that would be weird even in the poshest restaurant. Luckily, the promised fusion didn’t actually materialise – instead it tasted like soft chocolate sponge cake with some tangy chocolate mousse on top. It was decent.
All in all, the SJ lunch tasted much like airplane food, which I suppose is what you should expect given the price, the setting, and the standard of SJ services. So nothing terrible, yet not quite worthy of the lush “3 course menu” description on their website, or their elegant wine suggestions to go with it. I imagine it’s a lifetime of difference from the food on the Orient Express, where a single trip from Paris to Istanbul sets you back almost €7000. I long for trying it. Until then, I leave you with a wet photo of the Swedish countryside, to match the SJ gastronomic experience.
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:
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.
This is a rather short post, just a little shout-out to the best herring sandwich I ever had (I wrote about this Swedish delicacy and how to make it at home a while back). Two weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending my cousin’s wedding in the Swedish mountains, at Hotel Fjällgården in Åre, close to the border of Norway. The scenery is, as might be expected, breathtaking, but being an utter food-pig this sandwich was the star of my weekend. (Apart from the beautiful bride, of course).
This sandwich was more voluptuous than a normal matjessillmacka, as it was much bigger and, frankly a bit excessive. It had all the key building blocs: delicious matjes herring (the best kind, in my humble opinion), Swedish soured cream (gräddfil), red onion, chives, potato, warm sweet dark bread and boiled eggs. In addition, it was sprinkled with small bits of beetroot and capers, which sharpened the salty-sweet scale. But the magic ingredient was clarified butter, which was doused (very generously) on top and gave it a sweet, even caramelised flavour. Hardly healthy, of course, but ridiculously delicious. Not that one passes by Åre every other day, but if you do, make sure to take a trip up the ski slope to Fjällgården, for this sandwich is absolutely worth the hike.
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!
Pardon the following entry, I’m not endorsed by anyone in writing this but I feel so very strongly about this family-run business on Church Street and think more people should go. Think of it as a restaurant review, but for a shop. I would start by saying that Stoke Newington Green is the best greengrocer I’ve ever been to, but giving it some consideration I think it’s the best food shop I have ever come across. Perhaps the best shop full stop. (If it was a restaurant, it would receive 9 meatballs out of 10). Normally specialist shops like boutique bakeries or traditional butchers are beautiful but incredibly expensive, and exist primarly due to the proximity of wealthy yummy mummies (which, admittedly, is true for Stoke Newington). But Stoke Newington Green does three things which put it above those kinds of shops (or your local vegetable market for that matter).
1) It is cheap. Really, really cheap.
2) It is open from 7-11 every day, so most normal working people can pop by after work or on the morning jog.
3) They accept cards.
This would not be that amazing had it not for been for the fact that they stock local, seasonal produce as well as exotic spices and vegetables I’ve never heard of. Their fresh herb section involve English herbs I didn’t know existed. They have five different kinds of garlic, including incredibly aromatic fresh variants. They stock at least six different colours of courgettes and aubergines. All is beautifully stacked up inside the bamboo-walled shop and clear, handwritten signs display price (both kg and lb and sometimes per item), origin and other important details.
I just arrived home from the shop with two carrots, two onions, a celery, six mini-courgettes, one fresh garlic and two large bunches of spinach. It all came to 3,49. I wish these kinds of green grocers existed all over London. I’d eat much more vegetables, and I’d learn all about the new produce I find in the shop every day. It would be like 5-a-day heaven.
Stoke Newington Green, 39 Stoke Newington Church Street, N16 0LU.
Update: Newington Green Fruit and Vegetables (109 Newington green road, Islington, N1 4QY) is their sister-shop – I have now been and seen and smelled amazing things. This shop is slightly bigger and busier and just as amazing with all the things mentioned above.