Swedish Food; gravlax, herring..

You have a love of Swedish traditions. You're smart, curious, at ease with yourself, and interested in learning. And learning about the origins of traditional Swedish food is what this story is about. 

  • Gravlax
  • Impatient about trying your hand at Swedish traditional food? Try traditional Gravlax, easier than you'd expect: Gravlax, the recipe, and here's one for 'Jansson's Temptation' or, for the brave, Inlagd Sill - Marinated herring (Scroll down in story about Midsummer traditions..)

  • Gravlax, the recipe can be found elsewhere under food - or do a search from our start page.
  • What follows here is a condensed history of Swedish food traditions by the Swedish Professor of Folklore, Professor Jan-Öjvind Swahn

  • (Just in case you were looking for a quick way to set up your own Swedish Christmas or the perfect present, see our book, 'God Jul - Recipes for a Swedish Christmas' /Ed.)

  • Swedish notables
    Virtually only one Swede has attained real international eminence and that is the naturalist Carl von Linné. And virtually only one Swedish culinary specialty can boast a fame comparable with that of Linnaeus, namely the smörgåsbord. Strangely enough, there is a link between these two Swedish notabilities, in that the first international judgment passed on the Swedish smörgåsbord concerned the smörgasbord Linnaeus himself served up to a visiting English colleague, Thomas Blackwell, in 1765. Blackwell's verdict was short, concise and devastating: "Catsmeat!" And he reported back to the Royal Society that he had refused firmly even to taste the rubbish. The well-meaning Linnaeus had evidently produced the little salt, pickled or smoked Baltic herring with which Swedes like to start their orgies at the smörgåsbord to this day.

  • "These idiotic Swedes..."
    Mr Blackwell was not alone in rejecting the smörgåsbord. The renowned feminist Mary Wollstonecraft (mother-in-law to the poet Shelley and thus, as you might say, grandmother to Frankenstein's monster) reported from a visit to Sweden in the 1790s that "these idiotic Swedes attempt to improve their appetite before dinner by eating bread and butter, cheese, smoked salmon and anchovies and drinking aquavit, while the main dish cools on the table." What these outside observers appear not to have understood was that the smörgåsbord, or "snaps table", of those days performed a socio-psychological function that was probably much-needed among the not-very-spontaneously-sociable Swedes. A dinner or supper in good society began with the guests dividing up in the dining room into males and females. The ladies gathered in one corner and entertained each other with the gossip of the day, while the gentlemen flocked around a side table set with all kinds of cold salt dishes flanking a couple of decanters of aquavit. First they downed a brimming dram of snaps, dubbed for that reason "helan" or "the whole", using it to wash down a small selection of delicacies from the table. After that, it was comme il faut to fill the glass only half full, and for this reason the second glass was known as "halvan" or "the half". One or two were still in need of "klacken" - "the heel" - on top of that: a few more drops in the bottom of the cone-shaped glass. Thus fortified, the gentlemen were ready to turn their attention to the ladies and converse - the ladies, as we all know, being perfectly capable of holding fort even without this kind of inspiration. During the course of the 19th century the "snaps table" swelled to become the opulent smörgåsbord whose acquaintance it is still possible to make in Swedish country inns at weekends and in restaurants more generally in the weeks running up to Christmas, when the staffs of firms large and small sally forth together to eat their way through a "Christmas table", which may consist of as many as a hundred dishes. It is not difficult to see in the smörgåsbord an outburst of the joy experienced by newly-prosperous Swedes when they were at last able to eat their fill.

  • Ale and potatoes
    As recently as a hundred years ago, the majority of Swedes still lived in the countryside in a subsistence economy, which meant that you lived on what your own farm could produce in the way of bread, ale and potatoes, pork, butter and cheese. Since Sweden is a long country, extending over more degrees of longitude than any other European country apart from Russia, the climatic and environmental conditions vary greatly between the northern regions, where reindeer herds graze on mountain and tundra, and the south, where conditions more or less resemble those of England or Germany. It therefore came about
    that, at a time when people still had to rely on the raw materials that were available in their own immediate vicinity, the raw materials and the dishes to which they gave rise varied considerably between north and south. At the sarne time, however, there existed some common factors which had a standardising effect on Swedish habits of life even at the table. Let's start with the differences. Swedish bread offers a very illuminating example in this connection. Swedish supermarkets stock three diff'erent kinds of bread: flal bread, crispbread and soft loaves of different kinds. Today all three can be found all over the country; but in the days of the subsistence economy, each held sway in its own particular region.
    In the northernmost threequarters of the country, people were by and large obliged by the climate to cultivate only one forrn of cereal, namely barley. Because of its low gluten content, barley is not particularly suitable for baking leavened bread. The barley flour was therefore used to make a kind of thin, unleavened cake, either crisp or soft, which furthermore did not require access to a proper baking-oven but could be fired, if necessary, on a heated hearth. South of the barley belt they cultivated rye, which gives excellent flour from which to bake loaves - but here another factor intervened, namely the technical standard of the flour-mills. In the past, small water-powered mills were the rule throughout almost the whole of the country, at any rate outside the towns. These mills required a large enough stream and a strong enough current if they were to function well. A big, gently-flowing river did not produce enough power, and too sharp a drop, or too violent a fall, would shake the little millhouses to pieces before very long. Streams of the right kind, however, were so short of water that they dried up in summer and froze over in winter. It was really only after the snow melted in the spring, and during the autumn rains, that they had the force needed to turn the mill-wheels, and for this reason people were obliged to grind their grain twice a year, and therefore grind about half their year's consumption of flour at a time. This wasn't the biggest problem however: the highest, problem was how to store the meal, which was exposed to parasites great and small -rats and mice as well as a multiplicity of insects and mites - and quickly lost its virtue. The only solution was to convert the lot into bread without delay. It was therefore essential to choose a kind of bread that would neither go mouldy nor become unmanageable when it dried out, and so was invented the kind of Swedish bread that has now captured a large market in the outside world under the name of crispbread - thin, brittle cakes of rye that have made a niche for themselves particularly on the breakfast table.

  • Technical improvements
    One technical novelty that reached the Nordic area in the Middle Ages was the windmill. These mills were first introduced in the towns, where a burgeoning bakery industry quickly grew up; but out in the countryside it was mainly in the southem and western areas, and around Stockholm, that the watermills were ousted by windmills. Where they existed, however, it became possible to grind your grain whenever it suited you, all the year round, and this made it possible to bake fresh, soft bread at short intervals, something which had long been the preserve of the above-mentioned areas and not least the urban population.

  • Regional patterns prevail
    During the first quarter of the 20th century, most people stopped baking their bread at home, although home-baking has come back in recent years on a small but growing scale, as a "green" virtue, and as a means of keeping down house-hold expenses. Industrial manufacture then took over, and today a mere handful of bakery giants despatch their trucks all over the country supplying packaged standard bread to all the grocery chains. But we are still so governed by tradition that the bakery statistics reflect very clearly the old regional patterns of the subsistence economy: far more soft loaves are consumed in the south of the country and in the towns, far more flat bread in the north and far more crispbread in between. In Northern Europe, the winter climate has been so cold for the past two and a half millennia that it has not been possible for cattle to graze outdoors all the year round: instead it is necessary to bring them in to protect them from the cold. But neither labor, technical equipment nor land resources were adequate to provide animals kept enclosed like this with sufficient winter fodder.

  • Milk solely to invalids
    Fodder was rationed the moment the beasts were brought indoors, and in bad years they rnight be down to a starvation diet. Cows treated this way soon stop giving milk. The milk flowed during the summer, and was particularly generous in the northern parts of the country where they pastured their cows in summer on succulent alps at the shielings. But don't imagine for one moment that this meant they immediately started drinking milk on the farms - far from it! Milk was an important resource, not to be frittered away. Hardly anyone apart from invalids and old people was allowed to drink the nourishing liquid - the rest was converted immediately into the two milk conserves classical throughout the whole of northern and western Europe: the protein became cheese and the fat butter, and
    the residue of whey and buttermilk was boiled up, parlicularly in the north of Sweden, to form the sweet, brown mess that is a Nordic specialty and is known as whey-cheese or whey-butter.
    Meat - or rather pork, since pigs were the main suppliers of meat in the old Sweden - called for a different kind of preservation. The pigs were outsicle all summer long and late into the autumn, tattening up in the cob-rich oak and beech-groves. The point at which their fetching embonpoint reached maximum growth was of course the most profitable moment to send them to their fate, otherwise they would begin to waste away, and that was bad economics. So the vast majority of pigs perished sometime in October/November, thereby crealing a pork mountain that had to be preserved if it was to function as a fat and protein resource for the whole year, until the time of the autumn slaughter came around again. Only one method was really practical, and that was to salt it. When you wanted to use it, you steeped it in water, but the later it was in the year cycle, the saltier it became, and Swedes went around with a permanent taste of salt in their mouths.
    The enormous consumption of salt - 70 grams a day in the 18th century, of which a large part ran away as waste brine - created a powerful thirst that people tried to slake primarily with the help of ale, the preferred drink of Swedes since the Stone Age. They got through a goodly quantity - an adult Swede put away at least three litres a day, and beer was not light on calories. On festive occasions, intake was stepped up still further: it is no mere chance that so many Swedish festivals have names ending in "öl" or ale - haymaking ale when the hay was in, betrothal ale when you had proposed and been accepted, and funeral ale for a burial, just as in the old days, Swedes spoke of "drinking" Yule. Several modern Swedish dishes preserve the memory of the old salt meat: salted breast of beef with horseradish, pork in broth with mashed root-vegetables, and fried salt pork with onion sauce. Once a year Swedes enjoyed the treat of sinking their teeth into fresh pork, namely at Christmastime. The Swedish Christmas table groans today beneath hams, spareribs, pigs' trotters and pork brawn because one pig was held back at the autumn slaughter and saved until just before Christmas, when it was converted into the substantial delicacies aforementioned. Nowadays eating fresh pigmeat is no sensation, but tradition has preserved in our celebration of Christmas this remnant of a consequence of the problems of survival in the North in days gone by.
    The fruits of the ocean were also harvested in their season: salmon when it made its way up-river in the spring to spawn, and herring when it shoaled offshore for the same purpose. Along the coastline these fish were a very important resource, but they, too, could only be preserved using salt. The farther North, the more expensive the salt, which was shipped out from North German ports to the coastal towns along the Baltic. As a result, they were more sparing in their use of salt in the North, and, taken together with the natural environment, this created in Norrland two Swedish specialities that are still current, namely trenched salmon, or gravlax, and fermented herring.

  • A first for France
    In 1637, a French writer, Aubry du Maurier, visited the Swedish statesman Axel Oxenstierna, who at that time controlled the policies of the emergent great power. This French man-of-the-world noted with revulsion how the famous statesman ate thin slices of raw salmon, which he dipped in a sauce of oil, vinegar and pepper. Oxenstierna asserted on that occassion that this dish afforded him more enjoyment than the crayfish soup served him by Cardinal Richelieu. Clearly Oxenstierna's guest did not share his host's tastes, but he attempted with nausea to force down a morsel of the - as he thought - raw and therefore inedible fish.
    Trenched salmon is today - as it was in Oxenstierna's day - a dish that, with the help of salt, sugar, pepper and dill, has undergone a couple ot days' autolysis, which means that its flesh certainly does not taste raw. It is a typical Nordic restaurant dish, now however becoming more common in the world. It is a dish with a history, and has been known in the north ot Sweden since the 14th century. The word grav is the name used of the grave you dig in the earth, because that is how the original and much more primitive version of gravlax was once prepared.
    The fishing places were along the great rivers, which held as many salmon in the Middle Ages as Alaska holds today. But the farms that owned the fishing rights were often far away, in places where the ground was morefertile than in the sandy river valleys. When the time came tor the salmon to make their way up-river in spring, it was impossible for a cart to penetrate the sodden, snow- choked, pathless forests, and salt was too expensive for anyone to be able to afford proper salting. But you culd carry a few bags of salt on your back when you set off on foot or horseback for the salmon-fishing, and that was enough to preserve the fish using this method, You dug a deep trench, lined it with birch-bark and placed the fish in it, along with enough salt to ensure that it didn't rot but it did ferment. In their fermented state, the fish kept until the forests and the water-cour!ies began to freeze up in the autumn and it was possible to get about once more by cart or sled and fetch the by now highly-perfumed salmon, which were protected from marauding wild animals with the help of a "lid" of logs and stones.
    Travellers visiting the north of Sweden a couple of hundred years ago, particularly foreigners with sensitive noses, spoke from time to time of the extraordinary stink that blanketed the countryside when the salmon had fermented. One 18th century merchant wrote home complaining that on journeys in the north of Sweden it was necessary to abstain from kissing the otherwise attractive women on account of the smell of sour fish that enveloped them.

  • Fermented herring
    On a somewhat smaller scale, this curious method of preparing fish survives in Sweden to this day, in the form of termented herring, an exotic delicacy you presumably have to be a native to appreciate to the full. At the end of August, there is a rush, particularly in the north of Sweden, to buy the new year's harvest ot' termented herring, sold in ordinary tins, by that time more or less spherical in shape on account of the fermentation of the contents, and set to let off a mighty fart of mercaptane gas when opened, a substance of which 0.000,000,000,04 of a gram per litre of air is quite enough to make it fully perceptible even to the underdeveloped human olfactory organ. Swedes who are devotees of the cult assemble on late summer evenings for their ritual consumption of this rare dish which they eat with - for preference - kidney potatoes, a very delicious variety native to Northern Sweden, and the aforementioned flat bread. Gravlax and fermented hering are good examples of the way that foods which once made survival possible in a harsh climate, and were eaten daily and probably ad nauseam, have since become expensive delicacies in our own generation. They also include salt herring, which now does duty inter alia in the smörgåsbord, sauced with spices and marinades. Eaten with new potatoes, soured cream, onions and dill - the most Swedish of all seasonings - and a couple of ice-cold glasses of snaps, the marinated herring is the main dish when Swedes celebrate the summer solstice at Midsummer.

  • Everyday home cooking
    But are there also dishes that have kept their character of "everyday home cooking" down through the ages? Of course there are. But to understand their true nature it is necessary first to note the difterences in cooking between different social classes in days gone by. Fried food, which required access to a spit or grill, was virtually unknown among farming people. All they had to cook on was an open hearth. Behind the hearth there was of course a big baking oven, but the oven consumed large quantities of fuel and was only heated up for the big seasonal bread bakes. Practically all the food was cooked in a single cooking-pot hanging over the fire. Large households, or large numbers of guests, were most easily catered for with the help of porridge, and porridge therefore often formed the main dish even at festivals like harvest home or Christmas. Swedes remain faithful to this porridge tradition to this day, particularly at breakfast time. You could also throw meat or fish into the kettle, with root-vegetables or legumes, and boil them all up together. Dishes like "mutton in cabbage" and "pea soup with pork" are therefore truly traditional everyday Swedish home cooking.
    Pea soup and pork has come to be something of a Swedish "national dish", if such a thing is possible, and is consumed in almost ritualistic form, always and exclusively on Thursdays. If a Swedish restaurant were to serve pea soup with pork on a Tuesday, for example, any righlt-lined Swede would clutch his brow and conclude that the owner must either be a foreigner or have taken leave of his senses. Pea soup wilh pork just can't be eaten except on a Thursday. This fixation goes back a long way, and undoubtedly arose in the Middle Ages when Swedes were still Catholics. Friday was a fast-day, and it was natural to lay in supplies against the privations of the fast. So the habit developed of eating your everyday salt pork on Thursday, along with the best they had available in those days, namely, neither the fibrous root vegetables nor the watery cabbage, but good boiled dried peas. By the time Swedes turned Lutheran in the 16th century, Thursdays and pea soup had become so wedded together that, 450 years on, we still sit there eating our pea soup on Thursdays. Could anything illustrate better the persistent nature of eating traditions, particularly with a bit ol ritual tacked on? There are many workplaces where a group of friends sally forth refularly on Thursays to eat their pea soup together, accompanied by the obligatory glass of warm punch, itself a relic of an earlier age, if not quite so remote.

  • Punch anyone?
    The special Swedish punch dates back to the 18th century when the Swedish transoceanic
    trade went to China and the East Indies, where they loaded the arrack to make punch. Swedish punch theref'ore developed into something quite different from the "punch" people are accustomed to drink in Western Europe and America, where this mixed beverage of Indian origin is made instead from rum, which has a completely different aroma. The reason these exotic spirits became so popular was because of their "pure" flavour: The aquavit manufactured in Europe at that time tasted more unpleasantly of fusel oil, which people only learned how to eliminate in the 19th century. For those who could afford it, punch also became a drink to accompany food, in which case it was always taken hot. It was not until the mid-19th century that it made the move to the coffee table; but then people began to drink it ice-cold instead, and at the end of the last century a kind of "punch custom" grew up in Sweden, flourishing particularly on the "punch verandahs'' of thesummer villas of the bourgeoisie out in the archipelago, where another curiou.s Swedish food tradition developed at the same period, namely the ceremonial consumption by the light of paper lanterns; And, preferably, a full moon, of cold crayfish cooked with dill. To be privileged to enjoy a Swedish crayfish party by an inland lake or an inlet in the archipelago on a summer's night, with an accordion playing waltzes on the record-player, and the guests growing more and more carefree under their silly little paper hats and special crayfish bibs with every snaps they consume, is in its combination of Nordic natural romanticism and childish party mood possibly the most exotic experience this rugged country has to offer the visitor from abroad. And Swedish crayfish are one of the foremost delicacies of the world, fully on a par with caviare and paté de foie gras. The Swedish table is more than just pickled salmon and fermented herring, and that's a fact!

  • Professor Jan-Öjvind Swahn, Lund Sweden