Nature’s cold room
WELL-PRESERVED doesn’t sound like much of a food recommendation but it does describe the singular qualities of Swedish cuisine. When I think of such food, pungent culinary memories swim into mind.
Pickled herring is at the forefront, with its powerful, promising odour, heady enough to make you swoon, and its sweet, rich, unctuous taste and, most memorable of all, its unique texture. Tongue-like itself, the fish is just — almost coquettishly — resistant to the teeth.
Few people know much about Sweden but one thing that is widely known is that it’s cold. The country’s growing season only permits one harvest annually and, in the past, most of that was gathered to be stored for the rest of the dark, frigid year. But, typical of human culinary ingenuity, the Swedes have made a virtue out of necessity and created a distinct and compelling cuisine from this tradition of storing food.
In my image of a typical Swedish meal, potatoes would be served with that oily, brain-nurturing herring: they would be fetched from storage in the cellar and boiled and topped with sour cream, a long-life version of milk. The only fresh ingredient would be the chives snipped over the cream, and the dish would be heartening and delicious.
Similarly, gravad lax — one of the better-known Swedish dishes and usually shortened, in Englishspeaking countries, to gravlax — is salmon, temporarily preserved, like ship’s provisions, in salt.
The fillets are rubbed with salt, sugar, pepper and dill, stacked on top of each other and left to ‘‘ cook’’ — or marinate — for 48 hours in the fridge, turned from time to time.
Similarly, milk in Sweden, when not being turned into sour cream, is traditionally used for cheeses such as vasterbottenost, a highly esteemed hard type from the north of the country, or for langfil or filmjolk, which are widely drunk yoghurt-like substances of varying consistencies.
In the Sweden of old, vegetables were rarely eaten fresh but pickled in vinegar or brine. Likewise, eating berries from the bush was a luxury; instead they were usually preserved as jam for the winter. Lingonberries and cloudberries are among the most common, the former containing a natural preservative that allows them to be made into jam without cooking.
Bread was baked according to this same frugal logic, either as dense, dark rye loaves, or as the dry, cracker-like rusks and crispbreads that have travelled well beyond Sweden’s shores.
Through drying, fermenting, smoking, pickling and preserving their food, the Swedes have conjured up a repertoire of potent flavours to call their own. But that is not the whole saga of the country’s cuisine.
The Swedes do eat fresh vegetables but only in the short spring and summer. Local strawberries are esteemed and, on a recent visit to Sweden, I ate newseason potatoes as sweet and tender as the dawn.
Elk and other game are another great feature of this survivalist cuisine. Sweden, stretching along more than 1000km of northern Europe, is the fifth-largest country on the continent, yet its population, at 9 million, is tiny. Much of the land is still forested and abundant moose and deer wander the woods, targets for hunters. Hare, wild fowl and other more unexpected creatures also appear on menus. Some restaurants offer smoked beaver and I have enjoyed a fillet of reindeer calf.
The country’s produce can be expected to be exceptionally pure. Sweden’s fierce winters kill off insects and bacteria that would survive in warmer climes, so less insecticide is used, diminishing the contamination of wild mushrooms, berries and other plants and of the animals that eat them.
The cold lies behind the quality of Sweden’s renowned seafood. Oysters grow very slowly, attaining a superlative level of succulence — those from the Bohuslan archipelago are especially famed— but the mariners’ harvest also produces lobsters and other types of crayfish, prawns and mussels. From the lakes (100,000 of them) come whitefish, pike and perch. It may often be too cold for swimming in Sweden but, happily, it is never too cold to eat.