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The Swedish 'julbord': a beginner's guide

The Swedish 'julbord': a beginner's guide

Published: 22 Dec 2011 11:35 GMT+01:00
Updated: 22 Dec 2011 11:35 GMT+01:00

No Swedish-style Christmas is complete without a julbord buffet. Food blogger Maia Brindley Nilsson takes a look at what goes into making the perfect Swedish Christmas meal.

The Swedish julbord is an extensive spread that has evolved from a variety of traditions.

If you didn’t grow up with the julbord tradition it may appear to simply be a buffet of everyday foods, but the julbord (literally Christmas table) is near and dear to many a Swede’s heart.

Understanding the history of some of the more common dishes sheds some light on how the Swedish julbord came to be.

Although there is some variation from household to household as to what appears on the julbord there are several standard dishes that are usually tackled in three courses.

Click here for a look at some staple julbord foods.

The first generally includes a variety of pickled herring and cured salmon, the second is bread, ham, liver pâté, red beet salad, and cheese, and the final course is comprised of the warm dishes with Janssons frestelse, dopp i grytan, meatballs, sausages, pork ribs, and cabbage.

It wasn’t until the 10th century that Christianity began to take hold in Sweden and naturally many of today’s customs surrounding holidays emerged from those initial Catholic beliefs.

These traditions had a strong hold on society by the time of The Reformation under Gustav Vasa in the 16th century and they often continued despite the break from the Catholic church.

The flood of food on Christmas Day is reminiscent of the celebration after a period of fasting from the beginning of Advent until midnight on Christmas Eve.

Pork is a significant element in the julbord. The obligatory julskinka, or Christmas ham plays a starring role despite the fact it didn’t become common on the julbord until the end of the 1800s.

Pigs were important domesticated animals historically since they produce large litters in a short gestation period, grow quickly, and can be fed relatively inexpensively on a wide variety of food options.

Historically the slaughter of animals began in the fall and salt pork was the typical year-round meat ration. What was cured in the fall had to last until the following fall.

But a couple of pigs were always saved as close to Christmas as possible.

Their slaughter traditionally took place in the dark, often on December 13th or Lucia Day, which was long considered the darkest day of the year.

The Christmas feast was particularly special because it was the time of year when people ate fresh meat such as revben (ribs), boiled pork sausage, liver pâté, brawn, and even pig’s feet in aspic.

The broth in which the meats were cooked even became part of the festivities with dopp i grytan or “dipping in the pot.” Although you couldn’t eat the meat until the end of the fast, dipping bread into the cooking broth was allowed and it helped to soften hard bread.

The dopp i grytan tradition was so widespread that Christmas Eve became known as ”dopparedagen” or ”dipping day.”

Although they no longer play a significant role in daily life, homage to the pig can be seen at this time of year from marzipan creations in pastry shops to a variety of Christmas ornaments and decorations.

Lutfisk is a notorious Swedish Christmas dish and another remnant of the fasting tradition. It was common fare during the Christmas fast when meat was replaced by fish at a time when fresh fish was hard to come by.

The dried ling or sathe was alternately soaked in water and lye to make it edible again (although some people would say that doesn’t help).

Slathering it with a white sauce, melted butter, and even ground mustard in the southern part of Sweden helps to make the gelatinous, reconstituted fish more palatable.

Once only considered food for the poor, pickled herring has regained respect on holiday tables in Sweden. It has long-standing importance in Swedish culture providing valuable protein during the cold, dark Scandinavian winters.

Red beets and cabbage were standard winter fare and have earned their place on the Christmas table. Pickled red beets were a typical accompaniment to pork and today a red beet salad mixed with herring and whipped cream is often found on today’s julbords.

The importance of cabbage in the Swedish diet pre-dates the potato which didn’t become popular until the end of the 18th century.

Whether the spread includes white, red, or green cabbage often depends on geography with the white cabbage being more common in southern Sweden and red more common in the central part of the country.

Since the potato is a relatively late arrival to Sweden, Janssons frestelse is a more modern addition to the spread.

The recipe wasn’t published until 1940 but the casserole made-up of julienned potatoes, sliced onions, anchovy fillets and cream is a well-loved favorite at Christmas as well as other festive occasions throughout the year.

Meatballs are another standard dish and everyone has their own family recipe. Although meatballs are found in many different world cuisines Swedish meatballs are arguably the most well-known with the world-wide phenomenon of Ikea.

Initially they were a dish that was only enjoyed by the upper classes but the increased availability of wood stoves and meat grinders in the 1850s made meatballs accessible to the middle classes.

And just when diners are about to pop, rice pudding rounds out the julbord meal.

Historically it was the principal Christmas and harvest feast dish because it was easy to make in large quantities. For about 200 years, rice has been the main grain but prior to that it was barley.

Every culture has their own traditions and customs and understanding their background is key to getting the most out of them.

If you are new to the julbord tradition embrace it on Christmas Eve and share your new-found knowledge of the julbord with your hosts.

If you still aren’t feeling the julbord love and are in a bind because you will be staying with Swedish relatives over the Christmas holiday, consider offering to be the chef for Christmas Day.

It’s the best of both worlds; a chance to share your own culture as well as provide a well-deserved break from the kitchen for your hosts.

Happy holidays!

Maia Brindley Nilsson is a designer and food enthusiast based in Malmö, Sweden. Her food blog semiswede is "sort of about Sweden, and sort of not."

Paul Rapacioli (paul.rapacioli@thelocal.com)

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Your comments about this article

13:19 December 22, 2011 by HYBRED
But in the end, the Swedish Christmas food is lame. Toe jam, smegma, and dingleberry's are about as appetizing. The only good thing about Swedish Christmas food is that it signals Semla season will soon be here.
13:22 December 22, 2011 by Liefje
oh I have had an honour to be on the company Julbord, thank you very much!

The herring and the fish part was nice, all cold meat table, was....erhm.... not edible, beside the sylt. I did miss the horseraddish to it, and there was no MAYO! when it came to the warm food, all was fine, except i could nto find a leaf of a lettuce! So when I dared to ask ' Where is the salad?" , there was a loud laughter. Anyways I went back to the fish table and stole lots of decorations there- sliced cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, onions and letuces....

So I would say if you are nto Swedish, do nto expect much form this festivity, it migh be a way to loos some weight.... and fast
13:53 December 22, 2011 by gabeltoon
After reading this my mouth is watering. It all sounds good. Sea food and pork have always played a big part in my families festive menu.The red beet came as diced beetroot in a blackcurrant jelly.I will be trying out some of these recipes this year.Here in SCOTLAND the turkey rules on the table but you end up eating it for days.Ham, pork, and salmon are a better alternative with loads of roast potatoes. MERRY WINTER FEST EVERYONE.
14:27 December 22, 2011 by skogsbo
I'm guessing the author has just been to her first one and done some rapid research. Many places will probably finish julbord today or tomorrow and close for holiday. Xmas ham or ham rarely makes up a significant part of it, I would say the 10-20 variety of herrings, or the upteen types of fish terraine, 3 or 4 varieties of cabbage, or cold meats from elk,boar, cattle, lamb etc.. or trotters..

Family meatball recipe, I think not.. there is so much variety is these bland little suckers, UK faggots no that is a proper meatball.. family recipes are moer likely for Smörgåstårta

Most julbord has a sweet tooths heavan at the end with coffees, lots of different handmade chocs, cheese cakes etc..

Also many have a choice of drinks menu, with different xmas beers, vodka and then an end drink, where you can pick your mix.

Lief, unless you a very narrow band of food you like, it is anything but bland, I would just seek out a better one next year based on recommendations.
17:03 December 22, 2011 by Harnessworks
It was fun to read this and the comments that were pertinant. It gave me some insight here in the US to what the holiday fare is like. Love the photo too.
18:24 December 22, 2011 by abaeterno
HYBRED i am with U on this. If it wasn't for the bad food, the terrible weather and the idiotic driving I would say Sweden is great.
18:45 December 22, 2011 by HYBRED
I live in the south of Sweden and I like the weather here. Very mild compared to where I am from.

But I agree with you about the driver's, total morons.
00:17 December 23, 2011 by JulieLou40
The swedish julbord is f****** disgusting.
09:47 December 23, 2011 by Da Goat
they should forget the lame reconstituted cardboard crap foods (historical) and eat some decent food for Christmas as it is modern times and good food is still available! maybe soon you will need to eat the poor mans food again so on that note keep in practice and I will eat the good stuff!
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