No one ever woke up and said, “Let’s eat Swedish tonight.”
Swedish cuisine was not nouvelle. Not nuanced. Not post-modern. It was about cream and cabbage and neon-green cakes.
Or that’s how it was.
Gastronomically, however, Stockholm is undergoing a cosmic rebirth. The New York Times recently pronounced the Swedish capital “cooler by the minute.” Foodies are waxing lyrical at the ny svensk cuisine of superstar chefs like Mathias Dahlgren.
But my guests from Paris requested Olde Sweden. They wanted meatballs and herring.
There is no more authentic way to eat Swedish than the smörgåsbord, an insitutution almost as famous as the ombudsman and the Volvo Amazon. The most traditional smörgåsbord in Stockhom is at the Grand Hotel, itself an institution, where the Dalai Lama, Madonna and Nobel prizewinners sleep, presumably not together.
From the Grand Veranda you look out over a Disney-Stockholm: the tour boats tied up at the quay just outside; the Royal Palace and the Parliament across the water.
If “smörgåsbord” conjures up visions of All You Can Eat Las Vegas, rest assured: this smörgåsbord is to other feeding frenzies bearing that name what Dom Perignon is to Blue Nun.
The attentive waiting staff, in formal long aprons and black tie, glide through the acres of white linen. Their impeccable service is limited to keeping you in bread and water and pouring drinks. For the real food, you serve yourself. Smörgåsbord protocol dictates that you get up at least six times and take just a little on a fresh plate.
Swedes waiting on line are patient and well-behaved – except when alcohol is involved. I am greedy, so greedy that I never met a food I didn’t like, though maybe I’m not too keen on chickens’ feet. You get my drift: I want to push, shove, jump the queue and heap everything on my plate at once. But the subdued elegance of the Grand forces me to behave with restrained dignity…until I spot the pot of löjrom.
I go weak at the knees over löjrom. Bleak roe (red caviar) is for many non-Swedes an acquired taste. Here is one way to acquire it: get a couple of shots of aquavit under your belt.The Grand has 22 kinds, from Årstabrännvin (Seville orange saffron) to Bäska droppar (wormwood). Aquavit is sometimes washed down with beer. The aquavit irrigates the food; the beer irrigates the aquavit.
After disgracing myself with an obscene portion of löjrom I swoop down on the dozen flavored herrings. Swedes call herring strömming or sill or böckling, but not fish. My French guests call it sublime.
Next stop, six kinds of salmon, including a transcendental gravlax, marinated with dill and served with mustard sauce. After cold fish, cold meats; a local specialty, smoked leg of lamb, is the most interesting.
It is by now a matter of seeing who explodes first, but we have only just come to the warm classics, including, to the joy of my Parisian guests, meatballs with lingonberry sauce.
At this point the divine desserts are entirely superfluous.
To assuage any residual guilt over gluttony, we remind ourselves that the smörgåsbord is an endangered species. There are few left in Stockholm. Gastro-classicists have a duty to preserve the institution. Or let them eat sushi.
Smörgåsbord: 390 SEK
Aquavit: 24 SEK for one cl. Who drinks only one cl? You need at least 4 cl.
Wine: Grand Hotel’s own excellent house red, 390 SEK
Million kronor view: free