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CHRISTMAS

How to make your own Christmas julbord if you live outside Sweden

Planning a Swedish Christmas meal – the scrumptious julbord – outside of Sweden this year? Here are The Local's tips on how you can make your own julbord, and where to source essential ingredients.

a swedish julbord
How can you source your essential julbord ingredients outside of Sweden? Here's our guide. Photo: Henrik Holmberg/TT

Not sure what a julbord is? Here’s our guide.

Plan the menu

The first, and perhaps most obvious step, is to decide what you want to serve at your julbord. There’s no point making ten different kinds of herring if there will only be a few of you eating, and it may not be necessary to source real Swedish prinskorvar if your guests are happy with some cold cuts and Christmas ham.

You can also let your menu be dictated by what you can get hold of, and what you can manage to make yourself – homemade meatballs use relatively simple, easy-to-source ingredients, whereas you might have trouble sourcing sprats or ansjovis for Janssons temptation, depending on where you live.

A handy list of recipes for Swedish julbord staples can be found on John Duxbury’s Swedish Food website here. Simply pick your favourites from each category, and get cooking.

What can you buy ready-made?

Once you’ve planned your julbord and decided what you want to include, split your dishes up into what you can buy where you live and what you need to make yourself. In some countries, you may be lucky enough to have a dedicated Scandinavian food shop with delivery – such as Scandikitchen in the UK or Nordic House in the US – in which case you’ll have a wide range of foods to choose from.

Most sides, like red cabbage, brown cabbage, kale, potatoes and beetroot salad are made from easily-available ingredients which you should be able to source wherever you are, so they shouldn’t be an issue.

An Ikea food market in Norway. But did you realise you could buy your julskinka here? Photo: Heiko Junge/Scanpix/TT

A surprisingly good source for hard-to-find julbord essentials is Ikea, who offer meatballs (both normal and vegetarian), prinskorvar, Christmas ham, herring and salmon in their food markets, as well as julmust, pepparkakor, crispbread and Swedish cheeses. Their choice is limited and many of their items are frozen, so you may need to plan ahead to make sure you can get hold of everything you need in time.

What do you have to make yourself?

If you don’t have an Ikea or a Scandinavian food shop close by, then you’ll have to make some dishes yourself. Here’s what you should keep in mind for your Swedish Christmas essentials.

Christmas ham

A Swedish Christmas ham or julskinka is made from fresh, unsmoked, salt-cured ham. For best results, it should still include the pork skin and fat. Gammon joints are suitable for making julskinka as they are uncooked and unsmoked, but it may be a good idea to ask your butcher for help.

A Christmas ham is usually boiled and then glazed with mustard and breadcrumbs and finished in the oven, but you can also try roasting it – although this is not traditional. Here is The Local’s list of Christmas ham recipes for you to try.

Herring is an essential part of many Swedish holiday celebrations. Photo: Leif R Jansson/TT

Herring

If you want to pickle your own herring, you have two options. Either you can buy ready-salted herring fillets 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 so requires a bit of advance planning.

Ask your local fishmonger if they can source ready-salted herring fillets for pickling, and if they can’t help you, try looking in Polish, Dutch or German grocery shops (or your local supermarket if you’re based in one of these countries) – pickled herring is not only popular in Sweden, so you might get lucky.

Can’t find suitable herring? Consider a vegetarian alternative – recipes exist for pickled courgette, aubergine, tofu and mushroom. They obviously don’t taste exactly the same, but may be a better alternative than avoiding the herring course completely.

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

Meatballs

Swedish meatballs are relatively easy to make at home, but one important thing to note – especially if you are using a Swedish recipe – is that meatballs are often made from blandfärs in Sweden. This is simply a mixture of beef and pork mince – often a simple 50:50 ratio – so you can just mix the two types of mince yourself if this is not available where you live.

Here’s The Local’s Christmas meatball recipe.

Bread

Depending on the type of bread you want for your Christmas dinner, you may have to bake it yourself. Wort bread (or vörtbröd in Sweden) is made from wort, a by-product of beer-brewing, but you can try substituting a dark beer such as a porter if you can’t get hold of wort.

Fresh yeast – the most common type of yeast in Sweden – is not readily available in all countries, but this can be substituted for dry yeast. Just divide the amount of fresh yeast by three to find out how much dry yeast you should use. For example, a recipe requiring one 50g packet of fresh yeast would need around 17g of dry yeast.

Crispbread may also be hard to get hold of outside of Sweden. Try looking in delis or cheesemongers, or look for similar alternatives such as Ryvita. You can also bake your own – it requires no kneading and no yeast, so is a good project for beginner bread-bakers.

Here’s a recipe for homemade crispbread.

Tinned sprats or ansjovis are essential for a Jansson’s temptation. But what can you do if you can’t get hold of them? Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT

Jansson’s temptation

Jansson’s temptation, a creamy potato casserole baked in the oven, can be difficult to make if you can’t source Swedish ansjovis, known as sprats in English. Although it may be tempting, you should avoid substituting ansjovis with anchovies – the former are much milder and spiced, whereas the latter will be far too salty.

One option could be to use similar spices to create the same flavour you would gain from the ansjovis. Try simmering the cream used in your Jansson’s for a couple of minutes with a pinch of ground allspice, a pinch of ground cloves, a pinch of ground ginger, a pinch of white pepper and a few bay leaves instead. This also has the benefit of giving you a vegetarian version of the popular casserole, which may be useful if any of your guests don’t eat meat.

Check out this Jansson’s temptation recipe from our archives.

Drinks

The main drinks offered at a julbord are julmust and glögg. Your best bet for sourcing julmust is probably Ikea, where they sell their own brand under the name vintersaga. If you can’t get hold of it, we’ve heard reports of people mixing low-alcohol beer and Coca Cola for a similar taste, although we have no idea if this tastes anything like the original, so try at your own risk… Otherwise, root beer is an option.

If you skip the julmust, it’s worth knowing that wine is not part of a traditional julbord, but beer is comme il faut.

You’ll be pleased to know that glögg is easy to make at home. Here’s a recipe from The Local’s archives.

Are there any julbord essentials we’ve missed? Let us know and we’ll be sure to update our guide if we can help!

Member comments

  1. Our family has always made potato sausage, potatis korv, for our Christmas meal. The recipe was brought from Sweden by my grandfather in the late 1800’s. We mix ground beef, ground pork, ground potatoes and onions, salt and pepper, and stuff it into casings. It is so delicious and is a lot of fun to make. I always made it with my mother, but now I enlist the help of friends who seem to enjoy the process, and the sausage, even if they are not Swedish!

  2. I live near Nordic House (linked in the article above) and unfortunately, they will be closing permanently next month. I was just there with my parents last week — the store was mobbed and we bought over $100 worth of food. If anyone wants to open a Scandinavian food market in the San Francisco Bay Area, please do — we will miss Nordic House! Their selection is SO much better than IKEA’s.

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For members

SWEDISH TRADITIONS

OPINION: Seven things that make Sweden magnificently different

As we gather for Midsummer, Sweden’s unofficial national day, here are seven things we should celebrate about the country that mark it out from the rest, says David Crouch.

OPINION: Seven things that make Sweden magnificently different

With Sweden preparing to abandon its final vestiges of neutrality to become a Nato member, many are asking whether the country is losing the features that have helped to make it distinctively different as a nation. As we gather for Midsummer – Sweden’s unofficial national day – here are seven things we should celebrate about our home that mark the country out from the rest:

1. Midsummer itself

Imagine having a national holiday that has all the cultural significance of Christmas in Europe or Eid in the Muslim world, but which takes place outside when the sun never sets. That, in a nutshell, is Midsummer – all the anticipation, ornament and tradition of a big religious festival, but without the religion and on a day that goes on and on forever. The whole country moves outdoors and mingles with family, friends and neighbours. It’s like an annual street-party with added singing, dancing, garlands and games. 

Like many Swedish festivals, Midsummer has Christian roots, originating in celebrations to mark the birthday of St John the Baptist (June 24). But that date handily coincides with the summer solstice and a moment when nature is at its best. Christianity fought it out with paganism, and paganism won. The roots of Midsummer traditions are centuries old, but now the only worship that takes place is veneration of the season and exaltation at being alive. This, in theory at least, makes Midsummer a very inclusive festival that reaches over boundaries of creed, colour, age, class or political outlook.

Photo: Anna Hållams/imagebank.sweden.se

So when you raise a glass of aquavit or skewer a chunk of pickled herring this Friday, you are doing more than enjoying the moment – you are celebrating an aspect of life that is quintessentially Swedish.

2. Support for working families 

When I describe to people back home in Britain the Swedish system of support for families with small children, they go green with envy. I am sure you know the stats already, but it’s worth writing them down, printing them out, nailing them to a piece of wood and making a small shrine in the corner of your living room. Then you should light a candle at the shrine every time you drop off your child at the well-funded kindergarten at 7am, or use one of the 120 days a year you get paid to be at home with the child when it is sick, or whenever you take one of the 480 days paid parental leave you get with each offspring. 

It is usually assumed that this is all a residue of Sweden’s leftist past, but that is only one side of the picture. It is true that Olof Palme, the country’s emblematic left-wing leader, talked in the 1970s about the need to “provide children with a stimulating and diversified environment” outside the home and strengthen “women’s ambitions to achieve equality in working life”. But in fact it was centre-right governments in the mid 70s and early 90s who really watered the seeds that Palme had sown. Sweden’s liberals saw gender inequality as inefficient and a brake on the economy. So the system of early years childcare and parental leave is actually a great Swedish national achievement.

The cost of childcare is capped in Sweden, so you’ll never pay more than a certain figure. Photo: Gorm Kallestad/NTB scanpix/TT

3. A melting pot 

Love it or loath it (lots of Swedes do), immigration to Sweden is a fact of life. According to this year’s numbers, just over one-third of registered inhabitants of this country have some sort of foreign background, namely they were born abroad or born here to a foreign-born parent – although this also includes those born abroad to Swedish parents. A quarter of the population has a language other than Swedish or one of Sweden’s minority languages as their mother tongue – that’s the highest proportion of any country in the world. 

The transformation from a largely monocultural society has taken place at lightning speed, during barely three decades. One in five of today’s Swedes were born abroad, putting Sweden in 6th or 7th place in the world in terms of the proportion of foreign-born people after Luxembourg, Australia, Switzerland, New Zealand and Israel. The proportion of non-white Swedes is at least 20% (30% among children and young people), which means that Sweden is in 3rd or 4th place in the western world after the USA, Australia, and possibly France.

Speaking personally, I find this hugely stimulating and exciting. Large-scale immigration comes with lots of challenges, but if Sweden can only get it right, it could be a beacon to the world. 

4. The hidden welfare state 

We all know about Sweden’s famous tax-payer funded welfare state, which is now rather frayed around the edges thanks to several decades of upheaval (with the possible exception of childcare, see above). But the country also has a set of large and powerful institutions that together constitute a “hidden” welfare state that even many Swedes are barely aware of. These are the organisations of the omställningssystemet, or transition system. 

A large majority of Swedish companies typically pay 0.3 per cent of their wage bill each year into the trygghetsfonder, or job security councils, which are run by the trade unions. TRR, one of the largest agencies, is backed by about 35,000 private sector companies with nearly 1 million employees – almost a quarter of the workforce. If you lose your job, a job security council will be there to give you counselling and training to help you get back into the workforce as quickly and painlessly as possible. 

The transition system is an important part of explaining how Sweden’s economy maintains its global competitiveness. Helping the unemployed back into work, enabling them to improve their skills or recover from the stresses of redundancy, has a strong economic rationale. It makes it much easier for companies to downsize, restructure, and even close factories altogether. This is a great Swedish invention, and one that deserves much more recognition internationally. 

A customer buying spirits at Systembolaget. Photo: Isabell Höjman/TT

5. Systembolaget 

Love it or loath it (most Swedes love it), the state alcohol monopoly is a fact of life. In a country that has privatised almost everything that can’t be nailed down – including the postal service, the trains, telephones, schools, elderly care and aviation – Systembolaget sticks out like a sore thumb. As a result, it is easier to find somewhere to play a round of golf in Sweden than a shop where you can buy a bottle of wine over the counter. 

It is paternalistic, moralistic, clumsy and exasperating. But Systembolaget is also a caring institution that represents society as a whole taking responsibility for citizens who are vulnerable to the ill-effects of a dangerous drug. If only the same principle was applied to gambling or pornography, for example, the world would be a better place. More broadly, Systembolaget is an embodiment of public service, an unfashionable but essential element of any functioning society. Hooray for Systembolaget, a great Swedish invention!

6. Gadgets and gizmos

If you have played a game on your telephone today, listened to music online, or video-called a friend, the chances are that you have used technology from a Swedish company. You can bid on a house via SMS, and credit a friend’s bank account instantly with your mobile phone. In the European Commission’s 2021 European Innovation Scoreboard, Sweden again ranked as the most innovative country in the EU, just as it has done ever since the index began in 2001.

The country has far more world-leading tech companies than it should in relation to its population. During this century, Stockholm has developed more billion-dollar tech companies, known as “unicorns”, than any other city in Europe. Successes include names such as Spotify, Skype, iZettle, Klarna, Trustly, Mojang and King. Sweden is currently in a sweet spot for innovative enterprise, creating a fertile environment for people who want to turn ideas into stuff that can actually change the world. 

7. Work-life balance 

In Sweden, 25 days holiday a year are enshrined in law. That means anything less is illegal, irrespective of your age or what you do for a living. Many jobs come with more days off than the statutory minimum. And for many employees, neither weekends, bank holidays (röda dagar), Easter, Pentecost, Midsummer, Christmas or New Year’s Eve are counted as part of your 25 days.

This is a great start for anyone seeking a healthy balance between work and home life. During their frequent days off, Swedes don’t sit around watching daytime TV. The concept of friluftsliv, or open-air life, is deeply embedded in Swedish culture and means spending time in the great outdoors for spiritual and physical wellbeing. The country boasts 25 organisations with 1.7 million members based on friluftsliv, while around a third of Swedes engage in outdoor activities at least once a week. This is closely linked to allemansrätten, the legal right of public access to anywhere in nature. 

But what about all that other crazy Swedish stuff?

I have tried to sum up those features of life in Sweden that are fundamental, structural, or so deeply engrained that one cannot imagine any major change taking place without some sort of major upheaval. But I am sure I have overlooked some things. Do please write to The Local with your suggestions for other reasons to celebrate Sweden and Swedishness here: [email protected] 

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.

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