Frightful or fab fusion for Swedish Christmas?

We know it's only November, but as Sweden is readying for its annual Christmas culinary fetish, The Local asks if fusion deserves a spot at the Swedish julbord alongside traditional meatballs and sausages?

Frightful or fab fusion for Swedish Christmas?
The herring and fish spread at Fredriksborg tavern on Varmdö.

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.

INPICTURES: Should you tamper with the Swedish Christmas smörgåsbord? See what's on offer at Fredriksborg.

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.

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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.