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NORTHERN DISPATCHES

PAUL CONNOLLY

Warm apple pie and a slice of Swedish paradise

Having survived nearly a year living in northern Sweden, former Londoner Paul Connolly shares the unexpected reaction of his British in-laws on their first visit to his "little slice of paradise".

Warm apple pie and a slice of Swedish paradise

When we first announced our intentions to move to northern Sweden last year, my girlfriend’s parents were not best pleased. They told us we’d hate the cold and that the 24-hour darkness would corrode our souls.

I’m not entirely sure they even knew exactly where Sweden was.

One of them kept referring to our daft plans to move to Switzerland. They are rather insular souls, though – few of Donna’s family have lived outside the county they were born in. London, for example, a thirty-minute train ride away, is regarded as a sordid fleshpot full of exotic people and weirdos. I think this impression was formed on a trip to the West End to see Cats.

So their visit last week to see our new home and their new twin granddaughters was pregnant with the possibility for conflict and tension. They really did have the notion that northern Sweden was some icebound hell-hole for ten months of the year. I think they fully expected to see polar bears picturesquely marooned on bobbing ice floes. Incidentally, I think the kommuner of northern Sweden are fully to blame for this fallacious perception – they only seem to promote the region as a winter destination, so it’s no wonder that most people seem to think we live a few kms shy of the North Pole.

IN PICTURES: Stunning views of the northern lights in Sweden

To say that the in-laws were won over by northern Sweden is an understatement. Within minutes of their arrival on one of our many fabulous summer days, they were surrounded by inquisitive locals. Although Donna’s parents soon resorted to English tourist stereotypes and started shouting at people to make themselves understood (“Why are they talking so loud,” asked one of our neighbours – “Do they have hearing problems?”), the locals were forgiving. Ten minutes later we walked away with two dinner invitations and at least four offers of fika.

Keen walkers both, Donna’s parents also availed themselves fully of the benefits of allemansrätten, Sweden’s right of public access. Long stomps were undertaken, piles of berries were picked, hidden beaches were lounged on and impromptu boat trips with neighbours were enjoyed. It was incredible that they had any time at all with the baby twins but they did and they loved it.

Upon their departure, Donna’s father talked about our “little slice of paradise” and the extreme friendliness of our new neighbours. We both felt as though they actually got it, that they not only finally understood the appeal of northern Sweden but the draw of travelling and living in – and experiencing – other cultures.

SEE ALSO: Swedes’ ten most common mistakes when speaking English

That was until this morning when, after a brief e-mail exchange in which Donna explained that we were trying to arrange some domestic help to assist with the twins, her father tried to score some cheap points by saying that if only we had listened to him and we had stayed in England, we wouldn’t have needed external help with the girls. Donna was briefly depressed by this retrograde development.

But this sour mood only lasted 20 minutes. Then there was a knock at our door. It was our neighbour Marie. She walked in (unannounced as is northern Swedes’ wont), homemade apple pie in hand, and said, “Do you want me to take the girls for a couple of hours? You can have a lie-in and some breakfast in bed.”

SEE ALSO: Ten soul-satisfying Swedish comfort foods

Paul Connolly

Read more from Paul here, including his Striking a Chord music column

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PAUL CONNOLLY

‘Sweden ticks all the boxes – except for one’

Ex-Londoner Paul Connolly loves living in northern Sweden. Really, he does. If only the local delicacies didn't taste of asbestos and insulation – and that's BEFORE you even get to the fermented herring.

'Sweden ticks all the boxes – except for one'
Sweden, you're letting yourself down, writes Paul Connolly. Photo: Kr-val/Wikimedia Commons & Jurek Holzer/SvD/TT & Restaurang Tre Kronor

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We've recently had some correspondence with Migrationsverket over our Swedish citizenship application. It's not gone particularly well.

Indeed, so badly has it gone, that yesterday I started to worry that we might have to move back to my place of birth, Blighted Blighty, the self-harming, laughing stock of the civilized world.

This induced real, gut-wrenching panic. I really don't want to go back to the UK. I've made this plain in other columns.

I love northern Sweden, truly I do. I love our house overlooking a lake; I love the friendly people; I love the work-life balance; I love the gender equality; I love the community spirit.

Why would I want to return to a country incapacitated by a spasm of senseless nostalgia and anti-modernity, and presided over by a political class that has abdicated responsibility and handed over the running of the country to the old, the dim-witted and the barbaric?

I want to live in a civilized country, a forward-looking country. And Sweden ticks all the boxes – except for one. And where does it let itself down? Its food culture.

Does any country that not only allows, but celebrates the existence of kebab pizza, deserve to be called civilized? I'd imagine not many Italians would think so.

You see, northern Swedish food is lousy. There's no getting away from it. I try to be positive about everything here but the cuisine up here is undeniably abominable. 

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There are people who rave about Flying Jacob, a recipe devised by an air freight worker in the 1970s, a dish with chicken, peanuts and bananas. 

“A recipe devised by an air freight worker in the 1970s.” Has there been a more dismal phrase written in culinary history? 

I suppose we should offer thanks that the recipe doesn't conclude with 'and garnish with brown linoleum shavings'.


You can find the original recipe (in Swedish) for Flying Jacob here. Photo: Kr-val/Wikimedia Commons

Of course, a principal ingredient in the Flying Jacob is cream. 

Northern Swedes have dairy products with everything. Bloodpudding (an utterly taste-free distant cousin of the UK's delicious black pudding) is eaten with butter. BUTTER!

It's the same with palt, a food that was used when the Swedish army had run out of cannonballs in 17th century warfare.

I'm not actually sure what palt is made from. 

It could be a wood industry by-product, or perhaps now that asbestos is banned from use in construction work, they've found another purpose for it as the principal ingredient in one of northern Sweden's least tasty and most-hard-to-chew, er, delicacies.

I've tried palt, of course I have. My twin girls love it and have insisted I try it (with butter, of course!). 

My verdict? I've never actually eaten insulation but I imagine it's not too dissimilar in texture and taste to palt.

But it's not been a complete dead loss. The girls, displaying that bewildering toddler fascination for terrible food, love it, for example. And there was a local dog that sometimes trotted onto our land for a spot of toilet action.

One well-aimed palt boulder soon disabused Lasse of the notion that Connolly Acres was a safe haven for a bowel movement. He's not been seen since.

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A ball of palt. Photo: Jurek Holzer/SvD/TT

Food is so terrible up here that I wasn't even going to mention surströmming – the rotting, fermented herring that all Swedes claim to love.

In any case, surströmming is a national rather than regional food. When I say 'food', what I really mean is 'dare'. Because that's what it is. It's a dare. The vast majority of Swedes don't eat it because they like the taste.

If they genuinely enjoyed the taste why would they place the tiniest flake of rotting flesh on a piece of tunnbröd and smother it in potato salad, cheese and onions? How can you taste that?

No, if Swedes really enjoyed surströmming, the way they proclaim to, they'd be scooping it out of the tin – in much the same way as Winnie The Pooh uses his paws to eat honey from those big jars – not covering it in a mountain of other ingredients that are used purely to disguise the foul taste of hell.

However, it's the north's pizza obsession that most baffles me. They don't even like proper pizza. 

Kebab pizza? Hamburger pizza? It's pizza for toddlers.


Kebabpizza, one of the most popular pizzas in Sweden. Photo: Maja Suslin/TT

Ask for extra fresh tomato on your pizza, and they look at you as if you've asked for the sacrifice of their first-born. But ask for another couple of kilos of kebab meat or a litre of bearnaise sauce and they'll smile and oblige happily.

Bearnaise, yeah, there's that butter again. This reliance on dairy is easy enough to explain. Cream, milk and cheese are all easily-accessible in the north; they're local foods in the same way that tomatoes, peppers and onions are staples in the Mediterranean. 

And, during the cold winters of the past, the populace needed to fatten up.

But it's 2019 now. We have central heating. How about trying something that isn't smothered in cream or invented by an air freight worker (would you want to fly in a plane designed by Gordon Ramsay?)? 

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How about some food with tomatoes?

Tomatoes have been our stock ingredient, the base of nearly everything (non-child related) we cook, since our London days. 

We've had northern Swedes over for dinner and they've been clearly discomfited by the pronounced absence of dairy in the food – one chap picked at his tiny portion of tomato-based food as if expecting to uncover a hand grenade.

I'm pretty sure most of the villagers here think we're part of some tomato-obsessed cult.

My neighbours are mustard-keen gardeners. They have a greenhouse where they grow huge numbers of tomatoes. A year or so after we moved here, I asked them what they cook with them.

The woman looked at me, puzzled, a big bowl of tomatoes in her hand.

“Cook? No, I don't cook with them. I just grow them because I like to. And because we know you like them.”

And she handed over the bowl of lovely tomatoes. And has continued to do so every summer since.

It's an exchange that encapsulates northern Sweden: wonderful neighbourliness and a total aversion to good food.

Paul Connolly is a Skellefteå-based writer and monthly columnist for The Local. Follow him on Facebook and read more of his writing on The Local.

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