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PAUL CONNOLLY

‘Sweden ticks all the boxes – except for one’

Ex-Londoner Paul Connolly loves living in northern Sweden. Really, he does. If only the local delicacies didn't taste of asbestos and insulation – and that's BEFORE you even get to the fermented herring.

'Sweden ticks all the boxes – except for one'
Sweden, you're letting yourself down, writes Paul Connolly. Photo: Kr-val/Wikimedia Commons & Jurek Holzer/SvD/TT & Restaurang Tre Kronor

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We've recently had some correspondence with Migrationsverket over our Swedish citizenship application. It's not gone particularly well.

Indeed, so badly has it gone, that yesterday I started to worry that we might have to move back to my place of birth, Blighted Blighty, the self-harming, laughing stock of the civilized world.

This induced real, gut-wrenching panic. I really don't want to go back to the UK. I've made this plain in other columns.

I love northern Sweden, truly I do. I love our house overlooking a lake; I love the friendly people; I love the work-life balance; I love the gender equality; I love the community spirit.

Why would I want to return to a country incapacitated by a spasm of senseless nostalgia and anti-modernity, and presided over by a political class that has abdicated responsibility and handed over the running of the country to the old, the dim-witted and the barbaric?

I want to live in a civilized country, a forward-looking country. And Sweden ticks all the boxes – except for one. And where does it let itself down? Its food culture.

Does any country that not only allows, but celebrates the existence of kebab pizza, deserve to be called civilized? I'd imagine not many Italians would think so.

You see, northern Swedish food is lousy. There's no getting away from it. I try to be positive about everything here but the cuisine up here is undeniably abominable. 

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There are people who rave about Flying Jacob, a recipe devised by an air freight worker in the 1970s, a dish with chicken, peanuts and bananas. 

“A recipe devised by an air freight worker in the 1970s.” Has there been a more dismal phrase written in culinary history? 

I suppose we should offer thanks that the recipe doesn't conclude with 'and garnish with brown linoleum shavings'.


You can find the original recipe (in Swedish) for Flying Jacob here. Photo: Kr-val/Wikimedia Commons

Of course, a principal ingredient in the Flying Jacob is cream. 

Northern Swedes have dairy products with everything. Bloodpudding (an utterly taste-free distant cousin of the UK's delicious black pudding) is eaten with butter. BUTTER!

It's the same with palt, a food that was used when the Swedish army had run out of cannonballs in 17th century warfare.

I'm not actually sure what palt is made from. 

It could be a wood industry by-product, or perhaps now that asbestos is banned from use in construction work, they've found another purpose for it as the principal ingredient in one of northern Sweden's least tasty and most-hard-to-chew, er, delicacies.

I've tried palt, of course I have. My twin girls love it and have insisted I try it (with butter, of course!). 

My verdict? I've never actually eaten insulation but I imagine it's not too dissimilar in texture and taste to palt.

But it's not been a complete dead loss. The girls, displaying that bewildering toddler fascination for terrible food, love it, for example. And there was a local dog that sometimes trotted onto our land for a spot of toilet action.

One well-aimed palt boulder soon disabused Lasse of the notion that Connolly Acres was a safe haven for a bowel movement. He's not been seen since.

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A ball of palt. Photo: Jurek Holzer/SvD/TT

Food is so terrible up here that I wasn't even going to mention surströmming – the rotting, fermented herring that all Swedes claim to love.

In any case, surströmming is a national rather than regional food. When I say 'food', what I really mean is 'dare'. Because that's what it is. It's a dare. The vast majority of Swedes don't eat it because they like the taste.

If they genuinely enjoyed the taste why would they place the tiniest flake of rotting flesh on a piece of tunnbröd and smother it in potato salad, cheese and onions? How can you taste that?

No, if Swedes really enjoyed surströmming, the way they proclaim to, they'd be scooping it out of the tin – in much the same way as Winnie The Pooh uses his paws to eat honey from those big jars – not covering it in a mountain of other ingredients that are used purely to disguise the foul taste of hell.

However, it's the north's pizza obsession that most baffles me. They don't even like proper pizza. 

Kebab pizza? Hamburger pizza? It's pizza for toddlers.


Kebabpizza, one of the most popular pizzas in Sweden. Photo: Maja Suslin/TT

Ask for extra fresh tomato on your pizza, and they look at you as if you've asked for the sacrifice of their first-born. But ask for another couple of kilos of kebab meat or a litre of bearnaise sauce and they'll smile and oblige happily.

Bearnaise, yeah, there's that butter again. This reliance on dairy is easy enough to explain. Cream, milk and cheese are all easily-accessible in the north; they're local foods in the same way that tomatoes, peppers and onions are staples in the Mediterranean. 

And, during the cold winters of the past, the populace needed to fatten up.

But it's 2019 now. We have central heating. How about trying something that isn't smothered in cream or invented by an air freight worker (would you want to fly in a plane designed by Gordon Ramsay?)? 

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How about some food with tomatoes?

Tomatoes have been our stock ingredient, the base of nearly everything (non-child related) we cook, since our London days. 

We've had northern Swedes over for dinner and they've been clearly discomfited by the pronounced absence of dairy in the food – one chap picked at his tiny portion of tomato-based food as if expecting to uncover a hand grenade.

I'm pretty sure most of the villagers here think we're part of some tomato-obsessed cult.

My neighbours are mustard-keen gardeners. They have a greenhouse where they grow huge numbers of tomatoes. A year or so after we moved here, I asked them what they cook with them.

The woman looked at me, puzzled, a big bowl of tomatoes in her hand.

“Cook? No, I don't cook with them. I just grow them because I like to. And because we know you like them.”

And she handed over the bowl of lovely tomatoes. And has continued to do so every summer since.

It's an exchange that encapsulates northern Sweden: wonderful neighbourliness and a total aversion to good food.

Paul Connolly is a Skellefteå-based writer and monthly columnist for The Local. Follow him on Facebook and read more of his writing on The Local.

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HOUSING

Moving to Gothenburg? The best areas and neighbourhoods to live in

Whether you're moving to Sweden’s second biggest city for the first time or are looking for another neighbourhood, The Local talks you through some of your best options.

Moving to Gothenburg? The best areas and neighbourhoods to live in
Which neighbourhood of Sweden's second city is right for you? Photo: Per Pixel Petersson/imagebank.sweden.se

First of all: where to look? The city of Gothenburg suggests on its website that sublets, houses and townhouses to rent all across West Sweden can be found on Blocket, a popular digital marketplace (in Swedish).

Other alternatives for rentals include the sites Bostaddirekt, Residensportalen and Findroommate, as well as Swedish websites like Hyresbostad and Andrahand. Note that some of the housing sites charge a subscription or membership fee. There are also Facebook groups where accommodation is advertised. An example in English is Find accommodation in Goteborg!.

If you’re buying, most apartments and houses for sale in Gothenburg and West Sweden can be seen on the websites Hemnet and Booli. Local newspapers often have property listings. Real estate agents (mäklare) can also help you find a place.

Majorna on a hot summer’s day. Photo: Björn Larsson Rosvall/TT

Majorna

Majorna is a residential area in Gothenburg that has transformed from being a classic working-class district to becoming a hip and restaurant-dense cultural hub in Gothenburg. The buildings typical for Majorna are three storey buildings with the first storey built in stone and the topmost two built with wood — the houses traditionally called Landshövdingehus. This neighbourhood just west of the city center, beautifully positioned between the river Göta älv and the park Slottsskogen, is hugely popular with young families.

Majorna was traditionally populated with industrial workers and dockers. The area is still supposed to have a strong working-class identity, with many people living in Majorna seeing themselves as radical, politically aware, and having an ‘alternative lifestyle’.

This doesn’t mean, however, that one can live in Majorna on a shoestring. The average price per square meter here is approximately 55,000 kronor as of May 2021, according to Hemnet.

Eriksberg on Hisingen. Photo: Erik Abel/TT

Hisingen

From the centre of Gothenburg it’s only a short bus or tram ride across the river to Hisingen. It’s Sweden’s fifth largest island – after Gotland, Öland, Södertörn and Orust – and the second most populous. Hisingen is surrounded by the Göta älv river in the south and east, the Nordra älv in the north and the Kattegat in the west.

The first city carrying the name Gothenburg was founded on Hisingen in 1603. The town here, however, was burned down by the Danes in 1611 during the so-called Kalmar War and the only remnant is the foundation of the church that stood in the city centre.

Hisingen housed some of the world’s largest shipyards until the shipyard crisis of the 1970s. Over the last 20 years, the northern bank of the Göta älv has undergone major expansion. Residential areas, university buildings and several industries (including Volvo) have largely replaced the former shipyards.

Hisingen comprises many different neighbourhoods — Kvillebäcken, Backa and Biskopsgården are only some examples. At Jubileumsparken in Frihamnen, an area bordering the Göta älv, there is a public open-air pool and a spectacular sauna. Further inland you’ll find the beautiful Hisingsparken, the largest park in Gothenburg.

Apartment prices are still relatively low in certain parts of Hisingen, while the housing market in other neighbourhoods is booming. The average metre-squared price on Hisingen lies around 41,000 kronor.

Gamlestaden

Gamlestaden or the Old Town was founded as early as 1473, 200 years before Gothenburg’s current city centre was built. You can take a seven-minute tram ride towards the northeast to this upcoming district (popularly known as ‘Gamlestan’) which, like Majorna, is characterised by the original Landshövdingehus in combination with an international atmosphere.

What was once an industrial centre, mostly the factory of bearing manufacturer SKF, is now rapidly turning into something new, as restaurants and vintage shops move into the old red-brick factory buildings.

The multicultural neighbourhood is also close to the famous Kviberg’s marknad (market) and Bellevue marknad, where you can buy everything from exotic fruits and vegetables to second-hand clothes, electronics and curiosa.

The Gamlestaden district is developing and should become a densely populated and attractive district with new housing, city shopping and services. In the future, twice as many inhabitants will live here compared to today, according to Stadsutveckling Göteborg (City development Gothenburg). Around 3,000 new apartments should be built here in the coming years. The current price per metre squared in Gamlestaden is 46,000 kronor.

Södra Skärgården. Photo: Roger Lundsten/TT

Skärgården

It might not be the most practical, but it probably will be the most idyllic place you’ll ever live in: Gothenburg’s northern or southern archipelago (skärgården). With a public bus or tram you can get from the city centre to the sea and from there, you hop on a ferry taking you to one of many picturesque islands just off the coast of Gothenburg.

There are car ferries from Hisingen to the northern archipelago. Some of the islands here are also connected by bridges. The southern archipelago can be reached by ferries leaving from the harbour of Saltholmen.

Gothenburg’s southern archipelago has around 5,000 permanent and another 6,000 summer residents. The archipelago is completely car free and transportation is carried out mostly by means of cycles, delivery mopeds and electrical golf carts.

Most residences here are outstanding — wooden houses and cottages, big gardens — and always close to both nature and sea. Finding somewhere to live, however, is not necessarily easy. Some people rent out their summer houses during the other three seasons. When buying a house here (the average price being 5.5 million kronor) you have to be aware that living in a wooden house on an exposed island often comes with a lot of renovating and painting.

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