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!
As any Swedophile will know, herring beats meatballs for the title of the quintessential Swedish dish. This recipe (if it can even be called that) is a Swedish classic, perhaps the ultimate herring sandwich. There’s a wide selection of spiced herrings in the land of frost and darkness: onion, mustard, tomato, curry, dill, crayfish, garlic… the list goes on. But the simple matjessill is my favourite. It’s both salty and sweet, spiced with cinnamon, sandalwood and allspice, and sometimes I get cravings for it which knows no boundaries. Every time I go to Scandinavian kitchen in Oxford circus I come home with several tins of the stuff, and then I try re-create this sandwich with English sour cream, imported Swedish bread, red onion and chives. Having served it to several people in London, I’m convinced you don’t need to be Swedish to appreciate the complex fresh flavours of this dish. It makes for an excellent starter in the summer. Or in the winter for that matter, it is always delicious.
For the sandwich you need:
- 1 tin of matjessill (can be bought at IKEA or Scandinavian shops around the UK)
- Sourcream (all the better if you can get a hold of gräddfil which is the Swedish variant)
- Red onion, finely chopped
- Chives, finely chopped
- 1 slice of dark sweet Swedish bread, kavring. This can be substituted with any sweet, dark rye you can find at Nordic bakery shops or anywhere else for that matter. In desperate times any darkish bread can do (in the picture below I used a walnut rye bread). Just make sure it’s not toast, we’re not dealing with shrimps or crayfish here!
- Bolied sliced new potatoes, cold (optional)
- Sliced hard boiled egg, cold (optional)
- Dark Swedish caviar (optional). This sounds posh but it’s just lumpfish roe. It has a delicate salty flavour to it and looks nice.
The making of this sandwich is very simple. For the base of the sandwich, you need a slice of kavring bread. This is hard to get a hold of outside of Sweden, so you can substitue with with a sweet rye kind, or make your own*. If you want to add potato or egg to make it more filling, you add them first. Spread some red onion on top of these as well as on the plate. Then add a generous dollop of sourcream on top of this, and add three juicy pieces of matjessill on top. Scatter generously with chopped chives.
* Making traditional kavring at home takes two days and lots of Swedish ingredients. I found an alternative which I refer to as fake kavring:
Good thing is it only takes one hour to prepare and bake! You need:
- 1 oven-proof pan for bread loaves
- Butter and bread crumbs to make it non-stick
- 3 deciliters sour cream
- 1 1/2 deciliters dark sirup
- 1/2 deciliters water
- 2 deciliters plain flour
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 4 deciliters sifted rye flour
- 1 tablespoon bicarbonate
- 1 tablespoon lingonberry jam
Butter and bread the pan for the oven. Put your oven to 180 degrees. Mix all the dry ingredients together and then add the sour cream, sirup, water and lingonberry. Pour into the pan up to 2/3 for a high loaf. Put in at the bottom of the oven for 1 hour until it is a dark golden brown. Let rest and then slice up thinly.