All across Sweden, taverns, eateries, and restaurants are preparing to dish up tonnes of meatballs, sausages, and ham. Delish, but done to death, perhaps. But it remains to be seen if the traditional Swedish julbord is a friend or foe of fusion.
What is undisputed is how overpowering and samey it can get. Come Christmas Eve, after weeks of julbord feasting, Swedish chefs embark on an Argentinian-style protest to all things ham and herring. They shun the traditional smörgåsbord and instead slap a fat juicy steak on the grill and open a bottle of red.
Such is Swedish smörgåsbord fervour in the run-up to Christmas (your mother-in-law will invite you, your boss could also do it, and maybe some lobbyists too) that most staff in the restaurant business simply tire of the lavish spread. All honour to tradition, but there is a limit to how to spice up a traditional Swedish Christmas offering. Or is there?
Noomi Sanchez does not seem to think so. Let's start with the pickled herring. The head chef at the Fredriksborg Hotel and Restaurant has added black currant and lemon grass to the offering. It works. It is fresh and adds a beautiful purple dash to the table.
It is the first of several hints of Asia in the ensuing menu at the inn on the massive archipelago island of Värmdö, about an hour from central Stockholm. Wasabi on the ham (kinda looks like mold) and a pineapple sage touch to the veal tripe (kalvsylta). An Italian twist turns up as well – reindeer carpaccio, pistachios with the venison paté. A sprinkle of walnuts in a salad to lighten things up.
The end result, is it all too much to digest? (well, a Swedish julbord usually is). As both Swedish and many Asian culinary traditions rely on the interplay between sour, savoury and sweet they mesh surprisingly well, but a rather random bowl of glass noodles and a forlorn bucket of kimchi has at least one food critic at the press lunch mouthing the words "big no no". So does it work?
It's worth bearing in mind that many "traditional" staples of the julbord were once imports. Ginger snaps – or pepparkakor – obviously rely on foreign spices (which are also referred to as "colonial goods" in Swedish). The Swedish Christmas sausage (julkorv, not the smaller prinskorv) taste very little different from Kashmiri meatballs (cardamom galore). So Asian is not as new as one might think.
The key, as always, is moderation, and, especially in this case, curation. Asian in a classic Swedish menu…. it is, despite the initial impression of disarray, an appealing mash up, although Sanchez could do well reining in the disparate threads (turkey makes an appearance, but in the shape of thin greyish slabs – she should edit it out, it offends my half-English sensibilities).
The November dusk falls outside the inn, which once served as barracks for soldiers in the 1700s. It is now leased from the state and renovated into a discrete and calm restaurant that thank heavens stays clear of interior deco trends (although some fabric in the dining hall would do wonders for the unnecessarily echoey dining room). The inn is perched above a steep drop to the Baltic Sea. A ferry heading out toward the greater Baltic squeezes through the narrow sound, the captain's deck near level with the diners. It certainly is a place to eat julbord slowly, taking time to savour it.
On the way back to town, the confidence-inspiring face of celebrity chef Leif Mannerström beams down on weary commuters. He adorns a banner on the massive ferry in the harbour. What's he up to? Lending his cred to ferry operator Viking Line's… you guessed it… julbord. And maybe that is the main point of finding your favourite julbord in the jungle of julbords. They are easy to mess up. A lot of dishes, a lot of ladles, a lot of bacteria-sensitive minced meat…. the task is not just culinary but logistic, and for everyone's well-being you want it in the hand of experts.
Noomi Sanchez and her team at Fredriksborg spent two days preparing their spread – grinding licorice by hand for the punch in the taste bud-punching and truly titillating panna cotta that tasted like molten Tyrkisk peber sweets.
So find your gems. And if tasting your way through the many options has you fed up by Christmas, buy yourself an entrecôte and sip an oversize glass of new-world red instead.