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CHRISTMAS

Dissecting the delights of the Swedish Christmas smorgasbord

Does anybody actually eat pig's feet? Why do Swedes think of porridge as a delicious holiday treat? Contributor Clara Guibourg reveals the essential components of a seasonal Swedish smorgasbord.

Dissecting the delights of the Swedish Christmas smorgasbord

Are you thinking of taking on the challenge of preparing your very first Swedish Christmas dinner – the traditional buffet-style “julbord” – but don’t quite know where to get started?

Or perhaps you’re just feeling increasingly baffled at the office?, as your colleagues have started to bandy about distressingly bizarre phrases such as “Jansson’s frestelse” which in no way convey that they denote a foodstuff of any sort.

Either way, after reading the following guide to the must-have dishes and drinks for the Swedish festive season, you’ll hopefully feel as though you’re beginning to find your feet.

The mechanics of a julbord are actually fairly straight-forward – you’re going to be making your way to the buffet table at least three times, or more, depending on how roomy your trousers are. Fish dishes are the focus of your first foray, cold cuts which include the “julskinka” centrepiece feature in your second, and the warm dishes of the third round are sure to require a loosening of your belt a notch or three.

Inlagd sill (pickled herring)

Generally speaking, pickled herring tends to find its way onto Swedish buffet tables no matter the season or holiday being celebrated, and thus Christmas is no exception.

The pickled herring is one of the first dishes you’ll be digging into, and will most likely come flavoured in a number of different inventive ways, from mustard and dill for traditionalists, to lingonberries and oranges for the more adventurous among us.

Julskinka (Christmas ham)

The Christmas ham. The evening’s main event, which is so popular it even comes in a tofu version for vegetarians who can’t bear to miss out.

“Julskinka” is also the only dish on the julbord to have spawned a second dish of its own: “dopp i grytan”, which loosely and somewhat unexpectedly translates to “dip in the pot”. This is usually eaten directly after the ham, and is bread dipped in the stock that the ham was cooked in.

Grisfötter (Pig’s trotters)

This is exactly what it sounds like. I’m sure that there are several families in Sweden who love nothing better than digging into this delicacy every Christmas, but your author is not among them them. Pig’s feet? Yuck.

Sylta (Brawn)

This dish translates to either brawn or head cheese, depending on which side of the Atlantic you call home. Either translation sounds pretty grim, but what it refers to is a meat dish prepared by mixing boiled meat with its broth and leaving it to harden. Not nearly as bad as it sounds, and usually eaten together with beetroot salad.

Köttbullar (Meatballs)

Swedish meatballs may come mass-produced from market leader Mamma Scan at the supermarket the rest of the year, but no self-respecting Swedish family is going to be serving anything other than home-made, home-rolled “köttbullar” come Christmas dinner.

Janssons frestelse (Jansson’s temptation)

Despite the mysterious-sounding name, this dish is nothing more exotic than a potato gratin, with some onion and anchovies thrown into the mix.

Risgrynsgröt (Rice pudding)

Serving porridge as a Christmas treat might seem distressingly meagre, but don’t let the name fool you! The fact is that this rice pudding is delicious, and a steady favourite on Swedish Christmas tables.

If you really want to go all out on Swedish holiday tradition, pop an almond in the porridge pot – the more superstitious among us claim that whoever gets it in their bowl will be married before the end of next year.

Julmust (Root beer)

This soft drink’s unique taste stems from its flavouring with malt, hops, and several other spices, which give it a taste reminiscent of root beer. Be warned, however, it’s not for everyone!

“Julmust” is usually only available at Christmas and it is perhaps this exclusivity which makes it so popular. For one month of the year, Sweden’s Coca-Cola consumption drops by 50 percent as people throughout the country stock up on the seasonal alternative.

The question of why julmust has such firm supporters during the holidays, only to be forgotten the rest of the year is best avoided as dinner conversation. Furthermore, “påskmust”, served at Easter, has an uncanny resemblance in taste, texture and colour.

Snaps (Schnapps)

Don’t be coy. You already know what this is. A steady intake of shots of vodka or akvavit is the social lubricant that’s going to keep a five-hour dinner with the in-laws a pleasant affair. Tradition also demands that these shots be accompanied by increasingly raucous choruses of snapsvisor, or drinking songs.

Don’t feel quite ready to start cooking up a storm? Don’t worry, there are plenty of options. Believe it or not, IKEA’s got a julbord with all the essentials. If you dare to brave the crowds, the double whammy of Swedish furniture giant and Swedish Christmas food can be yours for just 149 kronor ($22).

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DISCOVER SWEDEN

The three tasty treats that make spring in Sweden a forager’s dream

Although parts of Sweden are still under snow at this time of year, spring is in full swing here in Skåne in the south of Sweden. Here are The Local's top tips for what you can forage in the great outdoors this season.

The three tasty treats that make spring in Sweden a forager's dream

You might already have your go-to svampställe where you forage mushrooms in autumn, but mushrooms aren’t the only thing you can forage in Sweden. The season for fruits and berries hasn’t quite started yet, but there is a wide range of produce on offer if you know where to look.

Obviously, all of these plants grow in the wild, meaning it’s a good idea to wash them thoroughly before you use them. You should also be respectful of nature and of other would-be foragers when you’re out foraging, and make sure not to take more than your fair share to ensure there’s enough for everyone.

As with all foraged foods, only pick and eat what you know. The plants in this guide do not look similar to any poisonous plants, but it’s always better to be safe than sorry – or ask someone who knows for help.

Additionally, avoid foraging plants close to the roadside or in other areas which could be more polluted. If you haven’t tried any of these plants before, start in small doses to make sure you don’t react negatively to them.

Wild garlic plants in a park in Alnarpsparken, Skåne. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

Wild garlic

These pungent green leaves are just starting to pop up in shady wooded areas, and may even hang around as late as June in some areas. Wild garlic or ramsons, known as ramslök in Swedish, smell strongly of garlic and have wide, flat, pointed leaves which grow low to the ground.

The whole plant is edible: leaves, flowers and the bulbs underground – although try not to harvest too many bulbs or the plants won’t grow back next year.

The leaves have a very strong garlic taste which gets weaker once cooked. Common recipes for wild garlic include pesto and herb butter or herbed oil, but it can generally be used instead of traditional garlic in most recipes. If you’re cooking wild garlic, add it to the dish at the last possible moment so it still retains some flavour.

You can also preserve the flower buds and seed capsules as wild garlic capers, known as ramslökskapris in Swedish, which will then keep for up to a year.

Stinging nettles. Wear gloves when harvesting these to protect yourself from their needles. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

Stinging nettles

Brännässlor or stinging nettles need to be cooked before eating to remove their sting, although blanching them for a couple of seconds in boiling water should do the trick. For the same reason, make sure you wear good gardening gloves when you pick them so you don’t get stung.

Nettles often grow in the same conditions as wild garlic – shady woodlands, and are often regarded as weeds.

The younger leaves are best – they can get stringy and tough as they get older.

A very traditional use for brännässlor in Sweden is nässelsoppa, a bright green soup made from blanched nettles, often topped with a boiled or poached egg.

Some Swedes may also remember eating stuvade nässlor with salmon around Easter, where the nettles are cooked with cream, butter and milk. If you can’t get hold of nettles, they can be replaced with spinach for a similar result.

You can also dry nettles and use them to make tea, or use blanched nettles to make nettle pesto.

Kirskål or ground elder, another popular foraged green for this time of year.
Photo: Jessica Gow/TT

Ground elder

Ground elder is known as kirskål in Swedish, and can be used much in the same way as spinach. It also grows in shady areas, and is an invasive species, meaning that you shouldn’t be too worried about foraging too much of it (you might even find some in your garden!).

It is quite common in parks and old gardens, but can also be found in wooded areas. The stems and older leaves can be bitter, so try to focus on foraging the tender, younger leaves.

Ground elder has been cultivated in Sweden since at least 500BC, and has been historically used as a medicinal herb and as a vegetable. This is one of the reasons it can be found in old gardens near Swedish castles or country homes, as it was grown for use in cooking.

Kirskål is available from March to September, although it is best eaten earlier in the season.

As mentioned, ground elder can replace spinach in many recipes – you could also use it for pesto, in a quiche or salad, or to make ground elder soup.

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