Na­ture’s cold room

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence -

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.


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