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#SwedishChristmas: The festive feast that has stood the test of time

With its Viking roots, the julbord is a Swedish tradition with true staying power.

#SwedishChristmas: The festive feast that has stood the test of time
A julbord contains a mix of savoury and sweet foods, with a lot of fish. Photo: Henrik Holmberg / TT
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The julbord, which literally translates to 'Christmas table', is a Scandinavian tradition with historical roots going all the way back to the time of the Vikings. As Christianity spread through the Nordic countries, the Viking mid-winter feast was reinterpreted as a part of the celebration of Christmas, but it wasn’t until the 1800s that the julbord as we know it today began to emerge.

While the modern julbord is as likely to be enjoyed at a restaurant as in a private home, it hasn’t always been that way. The early julbord was primarily a family event, hosted on or around Julafton (Christmas Eve). Accordingly, 19th century Swedish newspapers are filled with advertisements for caterers and confectioners offering their products and services to hosts. Many of the items common at a modern julbord, such as sweets like pepparkakor and savouries like julbullar (Christmas meatballs), were on offer as established julbord favourites by the mid-1800s.

Outside the home, a children’s julbord was commonly hosted by charitable and other organizations. In December 1867, for instance, Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter reported on one that had been hosted at Stora barnhuset, an orphanage in Stockholm. It was “a joyful celebration” during which the children ate julbullar, received a gift, and were allowed to “play, dance and enjoy themselves”.

Though the julbord has always been a celebration, the 19th century feast was more of a religious observance than it is today, as well as a time to think of those less fortunate. This is reflected in many of the stories, poems and letters published in Swedish newspapers.

On December 23rd, 1858, Norrköpings-Kuriren printed a letter from a reader who wrote, “…we all who, with health, set ourselves at the Christmas table and happily light our Christmas lights, let us be grateful to Providence, and not forget that there are many poor who may have no Christmas lights to light, no table to sit at; that many in the sickbed are celebrating their Christmas Eve counting their hours in tears, waiting for the last hour.”

By the early 1900s, it was becoming increasingly common for restaurants to host a julbord on or around Christmas Eve. Gradually, this was extended into the much longer julbord timeframe of today – roughly between late November and early January.

Over time, the julbord evolved along with the Swedish celebration of Christmas itself. As the power of marketing turned glögg from a nice winter drink to a Christmas staple, and the non-alcoholic alternative, Julmust, became the sensation it is today, both of these beverages were integrated into the julbord tradition. As jultidningar faithfully brought the best of Swedish literature and art straight to the doors of Swedish homes, and the age of television transmitted the SVT Julkalendern right into Swedish living rooms, the julbord withstood drastically changing times and successfully transitioned from the old days to the new.  

Each day until Christmas Eve, we're looking at the story behind one Swedish festive tradition. Find the rest of our #SwedishChristmas series HERE.

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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.