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Nobel Banquet: the feast of feasts

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Serving a banquet to nearly 1,400 people is no mean feat, and when the event is the Nobel Banquet, the stakes are high. Charlotte West goes behind the scenes at the grandest event in Sweden's calendar.

A feast fit for a king would be an exaggerated description of just about any meal, no matter how palatable, with the exception of the annual Nobel Banquet. The weeklong blitz climaxes on Monday with the feast of feasts – arguably one of the grandest dinners in the world.

The whole event is shrouded in mystery, and the menu is top secret until the almost 1,400 guests are seated at the banquet in the Blue Hall of the Stockholm City Hall at 7 p.m. on Monday, December 10th.

The composition of this year's menu is the result of the combined culinary prowess of chefs Krister Dahl, head of the Swedish Culinary Team, and Magnus Johansson, proprietor of the Xoko dessert cafe in Stockholm. This will be Johansson's sixth year of providing the Nobel dessert.

Last year, the eight Nobel laureates – and 1,240 other guests celebrating the memory of Alfred Nobel – enjoyed a spread featuring mosaic of salmon and scallops, herb-baked saddle of lamb and pineapple parfait.

Of the 2007 menu, however, those involved remain silent. “It will be good. Really exquisite tastes,” was all the tight-lipped Dahl would tell newspaper Göteborgs-Posten.

“We have prepared everything for the Nobel Committee four times, and it has obviously been approved,” he said.

Simplicty, Dahl said, was the key to success. “It's about creating a functional menu, which should be relatively easy to make, and then everything must be served quickly,” he said.

“It's a really big secret,” Linda Johansson of Xoko told The Local.

Whatever the delicacies turn out to be, they have been designed around a Scandinavian-related theme and are sure to whet the appetite – and keep the 30 chefs and 200 servers on their toes.

There are tables to set and food to buy. According to the Nobel Foundation, one year the shopping list for the banquet consisted of 2,692 pigeon breasts, 475 lobster tails, 100 kilos of potatoes, 70 liters of sweet and sour raspberry vinegar sauce, 67 kilos of Jerusalem artichokes, 53 kilos of Philadelphia cheese, and 45 kilos of lightly smoked salmon, among other ingredients.

With so many cooks in the kitchen, Ulf Östenius, General Manager of Stadshuskällaren restaurant, must run a tight ship. Östenius, along with Chef de Cuisine Gunnar Eriksson, is the man charged with the small task of making sure the logistics of Nobel Banquet go according to plan – something which is not to be taken for granted.

In an interview with the City of Stockholm, Östenius said that one year the main course was some kind of poultry that had been pre-cooked. It was supposed to be warmed up in the oven right as the electricity went out. They had to begin again with new raw ingredients, but nevertheless managed to make it appear seamless.

Another year, there was a panic because one of the laureates suddenly haunched over the table, but it turned out he had simply fallen asleep.

Despite the stories about near-disasters, Östenius somehow manages to coordinate his team of 200 and still make the entire production seem effortless.

On the morning of the feast, more than 7,000 porcelain pieces, 5,000 glasses and 10,000 pieces of silverware must be meticulously laid out on the 470 metres of linen that adorns the banquet's 65 tables. And while expectant guests anticipate their royal meal, it takes six minutes from the time the waiters begin the procession down the steps until everyone has been served. The king is served first, immediately followed by the queen.

The menu is decided upon months in advance. In August and September, the chefs prepare sample menus and present them to the Nobel Committee for tasting. Linda Johansson of Xoko told The Local that they presented three different dessert options to the Nobel Committee, which then chose the final selection.

The good news is that you don't have to be a rocket scientist to get the red-carpet culinary treatment. As of Tuesday, December 11th, you can order the Nobel menu at Stadshuskällaren, also located in the Stockholm City Hall.

Unfortunately, the restaurant will only be serving the three-course meal to groups of 20 or more until January 7th, when the 2007 Nobel menu will become standard fare. The only exception is December 31st, where you can book a table to celebrate New Year's Eve Nobel-style.

Stadshuskällaren also offers every Nobel menu served since 1901 for groups of eight or more. Reservations must be booked one week ahead.

Xoko will also serve the Nobel dessert, including for takeaway, beginning on Tuesday. As an added bonus, they will also serve the entire Nobel spread on Wed-Saturday nights this week. But call quickly, as a representative of the cafe said there are only a few spots left.

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