Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Temptation of a Swedish Christmas

First published on, a US website dedicated to all things travel related.


I lived in Sweden for 5 years and still miss it now that I am no longer there. It's a country that everyone should visit. The summers are glorious, filled with light and greenery and the coastal areas are wonderful to explore. Bohuslän, which is the coast area around Göteborg, on the west coast, is stunningly beautiful with an archipelago of large and small islands. You might take your boat out to a small island; just big enough to have a small cabin with steps down to the boat and picnic there, swimming off the rock and relaxing.  People spend most of the time outdoors in the summer as the winters are so long and dark but, even so; winter is also a gorgeous time. With bright blue skies and deep snow, the outdoors in winter can be exciting and, if you like skiing and skating, it is a wonderful place to be.
One of the things I loved about Sweden was the ritualistic nature of life there.  There are countless traditions that pass from generation to generation. For example, there are certain foods you only eat at certain times of the year or on certain days of the week. Things like hot cross buns in the UK, which used to be eaten only on Good Friday, are now eaten for weeks or months around Easter. In Sweden, at Easter, they make wonderful cardamom flavoured buns called Semlor (that's plural; one is a Semla).   The top is cut off; the center scooped out and filled with a marzipan mixture, covered in whipped cream and the topped with the rest of the bun. Some people like to eat it in a bowl of hot milk. I liked it just as it was. I knew that it was only going to be around for a short while so, I, like everyone else, indulged when I got the chance.
One of the other great traditions in Sweden is having coffee and cakes. They even have a whole verb for it. It's called to 'fika'. If you visit someone, they will invariably serve you coffee that's extra strong, with small cakes and biscuits. It's said that, in the past, when a woman was to be married she had to know at least 40 different types of biscuit recipes.
Each day of the week has its own food. Husmanskost is the name for traditional Swedish food. If you go into any Swedish restaurant, they will always have the daily meal on the menu. On Thursdays, it's pea soup with ham, served with warm punsch, a sweet alcoholic liqueur. On Fridays it's Pyttipanna, a sort of hash with potatoes, left over meats, topped with a fried egg and with a side order of beetroot.
Another favourite is Jansson’s Frestelse (Jansson’s Temptation).   A traditional part of the Christmas meal, it’s very easy to make. Here’s a good recipe:

NOTE: The spice-cured sprats mentioned can be substituted with herring pickled with spices and onions.  If you live near an IKEA store, you can easily get the right of herring or sprats. Sometimes people mistranslate the Swedish ‘ansjovis’ as anchovies but they’re actually sprats. If you like, you can use anchovies but don’t add any salt and be sparing with them, to your taste.

6–8 servings
1.2 kg (2½ lb) potatoes
400 g (14 oz) onions
375 g (13 oz) spice-cured sprat filets (or pickled herring)
600 ml (3 cups) heavy whipping cream
salt, white pepper

·         Peel the potatoes and cut them into thin slices. Peel and cut the onions also into thin slices.
·         Sauté the onions in a little butter, without browning.
·         Grease an ovenproof baking dish and cover the bottom with a layer of potatoes, then add half the onions and half the sprat (or herring) filets.  
·         Then add another layer of potatoes, then the rest of the onion and sprats.
·         Finish with a layer of potatoes.
·         Add some ground black pepper and a little salt (Be careful with salt as the sprats (or herrings) are usually quite salty.
·         Pour the cream over until it is almost visible through the potatoes.
·         Place a few pats of butter on top and sprinkle with a good handful of breadcrumbs.
·         Bake in the oven (250oC/475oF) for about an hour.

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