Swedish ‘bacon water’ tops Queen and sprouts

Following in the tradition of many an Anglo-Swedish family, The Local's northern columnist Paul Connolly this year enjoyed two Christmas celebrations. Did Swedish "bacon water" outgun the turkey in the eyes of this English foodie?

Swedish 'bacon water' tops Queen and sprouts
Swedish 'bacon water' and the British regent. Photos: Jon Åslund/Flickr, AP

One of the most jarring aspects of any new immigrant's life is dealing with major public holidays that are celebrated in different ways than those we are accustomed to. And major public holidays don't come any bigger than Christmas, at least not in the Western hemisphere. Even those of us who try not to become set in our ways don't like too much change when it comes to Christmas – it often proves to be an anchor in a constantly fluid world.

Last Christmas was spent continuing to renovate our tatty old farmhouse in northern Sweden but this Christmas, six-month-old twins and all, we were invited to spend Julafton (Christmas Eve) with some of our new Swedish friends. Of course, given that the Swedes celebrate their Christmas on Julafton, we were able to have a traditional English Christmas the next day. How did they compare?

1. The food

As a committed (some would say 'over committed') foodie, this was my main concern.

You see, I love turkey, sprouts, roast potatoes and all the other staples of the English Christmas dinner. And, as I have mentioned before, I'm not a great fan of the food of northern Sweden.

We arrived late (yes, as tardy English people we do fit most of the stereotypes attached to us by the Swedes) and were immediately faced with lunch. My friend, Rune, explained to me the traditional delicacy, blöta or dopp i grytanwhich is old crispbread soaked in bacon water, then slathered in butter and covered with cooked ham and apple sauce. Sounds disgusting, right? Wrong – it was absolutely bloody delicious, the creaminess of the dunked bread/ham water/butter combo contrasting perfectly with the saltiness of the ham and the tartness of the apple sauce.

The same cannot be said for watery, tasteless (unless you tip a kilo of cinnamon on it) risgrynsgröt, the rice porridge served by our lovely hosts as an alternative to blöta. Yes, I know it's traditional. But so was slavery and dunking witches. It's like grits from the southern states of the US – wallpaper paste for the belly.

The julbord, however, the buffet of fish, meat and vegetable dishes that constitutes the main sustenance of Julafton, was simply sensational. Where else would you find such a variety of fantastic food? Spare ribs, gravad lax, chilli chicken thighs, pomegranate salad, salmon steaks…..I could go on but I'm making myself hungry again.

By contrast, although our traditional English Christmas dinner was tasty, with its juicy turkey, succulent pigs in blankets and crunchy roast potatoes, it felt just a little staid and fusty compared to its Swedish counterpart.

2. Post-prandial entertainment

Although we're enduring an unseasonably warm winter up here, there was still just enough snow for us to be able to go for a sleigh ride after our Swedish Julafton food. That's right – a sleigh ride. After our English Christmas lunch we watched an old lady in a yellow dress waffle on for ten minutes about her great-grandson. OK, so it was the Queen's Speech but we may as well have been standing at a bus-stop listening to a pensioner prattle on about her bunions to anyone who would listen.

So, an early lead for the Swedes. But that was before the 3pm Kalle Anka and Friends Disney hour on Swedish television. Many of the clips are terrific, reminders of just how good the Disney studio was before it overloaded on saccharine. The stupendously violent Donald Duck clip, for example, is genius. But – and you knew there was a 'but' coming – the Jungle Book clip is, essentially, criminal. How on earth can you justify dubbing The Bare Necessities into Swedish? The song no longer makes sense.

Most of that great song's rhythm comes from the words – without them, it just plods along. And those awful, awful voice actors. Shere Khan sounds exactly like Baloo – that's just wrong. I voiced these concerns, rather robustly, and was greeted with blank stares by my friends and their family. This mediocre abomination is what they've become used to. Gasp! They may not have even seen or heard the original. Never mind the Thomas Quick farrago, this is the real national scandal.

The overall result?

An honourable draw. We're very lucky that we can dip into Swedish Jul (and enjoy the fantastic julbord) and luckier still to have the luxury of a traditional Christmas Day as a back-up. Just keep me away from Kalle Anka and all will be well.

Have a great new year!

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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.