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TRADITIONS

Five odd Swedish things to taste at Midsummer

The Local brings you the low-down on the five weirdest Swedish foods we hope you try during Midsummer Eve celebrations.

Five odd Swedish things to taste at Midsummer
Strange Swedish Midsummer food for young and old. Photo: Lena Granefelt/imagebank.sweden.se

1. Inlagd sill – pickled herring

Sweden brought the world meatballs which we all know are among the yummiest things ever. It also has amazing access to fresh salmon and some of the most delicious cream cakes in the history of pastry. So why is it that pickled herring of all things is at the heart of every Swedish holiday celebration? If you missed trying this soaked-in-vinegar-and-left-to-sit-for-several-days Swedish delicacy over Christmas or at Easter, here's your third chance in just six months.

Pickled herring (inlagd sill) is basically herring fillets that have been cured in salt and vinegar along with various flavourings, including onion, mustard, garlic, lingonberries and so on. The list is endless. Endless. As in, there is no end to the madness. You must try them all (your Swedish host will make sure you do), after which you must pick your favourite and engage in a vigorous argument with fellow Midsummer revellers about which one is the best. It's tradition.


Swedish herring pickled with ginger, lemon and red onion. Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT

2. Jordgubbar – strawberries

The Swedish word for strawberries, jordgubbar, literally means “little earth men”. But what's odd is not so much the fruit itself, but the Swedes' unparallelled obsession with it. It's one of the most popular berries and Swedes stubbornly insist they are the best in the world. Apparently the cold climate and the long summer days are believed to pack in extra sweetness and flavour.

READ ALSO: How to make Swedish strawberry cordial

These red, juicy offerings are considered an integral part of Sweden's Midsummer celebrations, so much so that when the head of the Federation of Swedish Farmers one year warned the unusually chilly summer weather could cause a strawberry shortage he labelled it “a disaster for the Swedish people“.


Anyone for Swedish strawberries? Photo: Lena Granefelt/imagebank.sweden.se

READ ALSO: How to make Swedish strawberry cream cake

3. Akvavit – snaps

Take this advice from the expats at The Local: akvavit is the only way you're going to survive that five-hour Midsummer's Eve dinner with the in-laws (just remember not to drink and dive). 

You're in luck, though. As soon as pickled herring is served up in Sweden, there will be akvavit (snaps or 'nubbe' in Swedish) to accompany the occasion. And as soon as there's akvavit, there are drinking songs. There are few things more awkward than to lip sync along to a song which you don't know (and can't understand), so make sure you learn the lyrics to at least one before you hit those Midsummer parties.

READ ALSO: Sweden's best drinking songs

Akvavit is made from a vodka base and a huge variety of herbs and spices, although either dill or caraway must be included by EU decree. However, there are several regional variations and many Swedes make their own. Why not try this recipe by food writer John Duxbury


Don't forget to learn some Swedish drinking songs. Photo: Gorm Kallestad/NTB scanpix/TT

4. Gubbröra – old man's mix

Swedes are not big fans of surprises and prefer to lead a life where things happen much as they have in the past few decades. So just like pickled herring and akvavit, gubbröra is another dish that crops up more or less every time Sweden celebrates any kind of holiday, be it Christmas in the depths of winter or Midsummer.

Gubbröra consists of anchovies chopped up with eggs and sour cream. It's fishy, salty, easy to make, and actually works really well as a starter or a late-night snack.

The name literally translates to “old man's mix”. It comes from the word 'gubbe' which can be used flexibly in pretty much any context: as an endearing term for cute little babies or as a reference to the dirty old men your mother used to warn you about.

READ ALSO: How to make Swedish gubbröra


Swedish gubbröra is a surprisingly great snack. Photo: Jakob Fridholm/imagebank.sweden.se

5. Nattamat  – night snack

Nattamat (also known as 'vickning') is a tradition as common at Swedish parties as hugging your host or taking off your shoes. It literally means 'night food' and, helpfully, that is precisely what it is. This is the food that your Swedish host serves up in the wee hours of the morning after all that pickled herring and strawberry cake has settled and you're starting to feel a little peckish.

For obvious reasons (see number three in this list) the nattamat tends to be fat and salty, to combat the imminent Midsummer's hangover. The Swedes are known for their healthy lifestyle, but apparently on festival days or at least after midnight, those extra calories don't count. At least that's what your Swedish friends will tell you as you gorge yourself on nattamat.

Classic dishes include Jansson's Temptation, sausage sandwiches, or indeed the previously mentioned gubbröra. They are all helpfully washed down with another round of akvavit (with obligatory singing).


Prepare for a second round of food late at night. Photo: Susanne Walström/imagebank.sweden.se

READ ALSO: Ten Swedish dates every visitor must discover

For members

MIDSUMMER

The essential dishes for Swedish Midsummer

Midsummer is the most Swedish of Swedish holidays, widely considered to be the real National Day to celebrate all things Swedish. So, what are the essentials for a Midsummer celebration?

The essential dishes for Swedish Midsummer

Traditional Midsummer fare is served buffet-style, similar to the food served at Christmas or Easter, with a focus on summer crops such as new potatoes, radishes and strawberries, rather than winter vegetables like cabbage and kale. 

Midsummer is always celebrated on the Friday closest to the summer solstice, which falls on June 24th this year. It’s not technically a public holiday so you may be in work, but lots of employers will give their staff a half or full day off anyway.

Here’s what you’re likely to see at a Midsummer celebration, as well as how you can make it yourself.

Matjes-style herring served with crispbread, boiled new potatoes with dill, cheese and diced onions. Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT

Herring

It wouldn’t be a proper Swedish celebration without pickled herring or sill. In many families, one member of the family (often a grandmother) is tasked with preparing sill for the Midsummer meal weeks in advance.

If you’re based in Sweden, you can buy herring in the supermarket, although most will say that homemade pickled herring is superior. Vegetarian or vegan pickled herring substitutes such as svill (made from mushrooms) and tofusill (made from tofu) are also commercially available.

If you are planning on making your own pickled herring for Midsummer, you have a few options. Either you can buy ready-salted herring fillets in the supermarket which can be pickled straight away, or you will have to buy fresh herring fillets which you salt yourself – the latter option can take up to two weeks though, so you’ll have to save that for next year if you want to try doing it yourself.

You can also make your own vegetarian options: try pickling auberginecourgette or tofu. Most recipes will take at least two days, with the herring or alternative of choice needing to marinate overnight before serving, so get planning now if you want to have it on the table for Friday.

Here are a selection of pickled herring recipes from John Duxbury’s Swedish Food website.

Herring is usually served alongside bread or crispbread, cheese and butter, referred to as an S.O.S. (sill, ost och smör), so make sure you pick up some bread and hard mature cheese such as västerbottensost if you want to recreate this dish.

Summer crops

Some early varieties of potato are ready just in time for Midsummer, making them a feature on the Midsummer table. New potatoes, färskpotatis (“fresh potatoes”) in Swedish, are delicious by themselves, so you’ll often see them just served boiled, cooled, and sprinkled with dill.

Radishes are also a popular feature on the Midsummer table as they are ready at this time of year, although it can be difficult to find Swedish radishes in the shops. They’re often served raw, perhaps with a dip of sour cream or gräddfil on the side.

Finally on the summer crops front, strawberries are the crowning glory of the Midsummer table, with pundits closely monitoring the harvest in the weeks leading up to the holiday. Strawberries and cream are a classic combination, either served as-is or in some sort of strawberry tart or cake.

Strawberries are the crowning glory of the Midsummer buffet. Photo: Carolina Romare/imagebank.sweden.se

Salmon

Most Midsummer buffets will feature at least two sorts of salmon, one is often a baked side of salmon. Along with baked salmon, you’re likely to find smoked salmon and/or gravad lax (literally “buried salmon”, preserved in salt, sugar and often dill) alongside hovmästarsås, a mustard and dill sauce which is also served at Christmas.

If you don’t eat fish, you can make a vegetarian or vegan version of gravad lax from carrots. This is usually referred to as gravad morot. Here’s a recipe (in Swedish) from the book Vegansk husmanskost by Gustav Johansson. Again, it needs to be marinated overnight, so make sure to plan this in advance.

Eggs

Although not quite as important at Midsummer as they are at Easter, eggs are another mainstay of a Midsummer buffet.

You’ll often see them served simply hardboiled and cut in half, or potentially topped with mayonnaise, prawns and cod roe, known as kaviar in Swedish. This is sold in small glass jars in the fridge section of the supermarket, and can be orange or black – and is not the same as Kalles kaviar, sold in blue tubes, which is much saltier.

To make these vegetarian, you can leave out the prawns and use a vegetarian version of kaviar made from seaweed. Look for tångkaviar, which may be in the fish section of the supermarket, or the vegetarian section, if your supermarket has one of these.

If you live outside Sweden, you may be able to source tångkaviar in the food market at your local Ikea.

For a vegan option, try sliced tofu topped with vegan mayonnaise (spiked with black salt, if you can get hold of it, which will give it an eggy flavour). Top with tångkaviar and a sprig of dill and you’re good to go.

Make sure to brush up on your snapsvisor if you want to fit in at Midsummer. Photo: Janus Langhorn/imagebank.sweden.se

Snaps

Finally, don’t forget the snaps. Midsummer is the booziest holiday of the year, with Swedes taking breaks throughout the meal to drink nubbar (small bottles of flavoured snaps or akvavit) and sing snapsvisor (drinking songs).

Make sure you eat a lot of food to soak up all that alcohol, and you’re certain to have a great Midsummer – maybe grab a couple of frozen pizzas for the next day, though, when you’re busy nursing your hangover.

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