Dill: the king of Swedish herbs
Dill: kungen av svenska örter
Dill is the king of herbs in Sweden. It is a key ingredient in many dishes and the attractive feathery fronds are so often used as a garnish that it is almost a symbol of Swedishness. Swedes living abroad, who may go for weeks or months without ever even seeing dill, miss the iconic herb.
Every supermarket has stacks of dill krugor (dill pots) lined up waiting for eager customers keen to get their hands on yet more dill. The pots are very small, a mere few centimetres in diameter. Quite why they sell such small pots is a mystery to me. Dill was originally a summer herb, but is now sold all the year round.
Of course, Swedes use many other herbs as well. Bay leaves, thyme and parsley are widely used, but it is dill that is unquestionably the king.
Dill crowns and seeds
In the UK we normally only use the fronds, but in Sweden dill crowns, the flower heads, are widely used and sold on every Swedish farmers' market in the summer. In the UK the best way of getting dill crowns is to grow your own (see below).
The seeds are also widely used for pickling. You can sometimes find dill seeds in UK supermarkets or you can buy them online. If you grow your own dill it is easy to harvest the seeds: tie a paper bag over each flower-head and hang the stems upside down in bunches.
Dill in the UK
Ten years ago it would have been hard to buy fresh dill in most British supermarkets. Such is the growth in interest in Swedish food that most supermarkets now stock a few packets of fresh dill, although I have yet to see any dill krugor. Dill seeds are often stocked, but I've never seen dill crowns for sale, although I am told that you can sometimes buy them from florists.
By the way, you can't use dill crowns or dill seeds in place of dill fronds as they have a quite different, more caraway-like, taste. Also dried and frozen dill is not really a good substitute for fresh dill fronds either.
Crayfish parties are a highlight of the Swedish calendar and are very enjoyable events. Most Swedes buy imported frozen fresh water crayfish that have already been cooked in lots of dill, beer and spices. Once they have defrosted the crayfish they will then garnish them with dill crowns, so that they can imagine that they are enjoying the pukka item: Swedish crayfish. Should you ever get the chance to cook your own freshwater crayfish it is easy to do, but they need cooking 24 hours in advance of the party to give them time to absorb the flavours of the marinade. Read more...
Sweden's best shellfish is to be found on the west coast of Sweden where open-fronted kiosks dispense mounds of wonderful hand-shelled prawns (shrimps) and tasty large crabs. Sweden's black gold (lobster) is also found on the west coast in the autumn. As the name implies, it is so expensive that it is mainly freighted off to the wealthy 08s (the disparaging name for Stockholmers whose phone numbers begin with 08).
One of Sweden's most popular salads, west coast salad, is a mixture of prawns, mussels, crab and mushrooms and uses lots of dill in the sauce. Swedes love sauces and often find British food too dry, whereas Brits can find Swedish dishes saturated in sauce. Of course, if you make your own west coast salad you can adjust the amount of sauce to suit your own taste. Read more...
Fish is a natural partner for the slightly aniseed taste of dill. Nearly every fish dish in Sweden makes use of dill, even if only for a garnish. The best example is Gravadlax, Sweden's most famous dish, which is made by curing fresh salmon with salt, smoothering it in lots of dill and then, at least traditionally, burying it in sand for a couple of days. (Gravadlax means salmon grave). Homemade gravadlax is so much better than shop-bought fish and is easy to make, but needs making at least 48 hours in advance. Read more...
New potatoes must be tossed in butter and lots of dill before they are served; never mint. Dill is also used a lot in salads and when pickling. One of my personal favourites is cucumber salad with dill which is very quick and easy to prepare.
Dill has been used to fight headaches since ancient times. Dill is also thought to aid digestion. Despite these claims I have only ever used dill for its taste and not for its health benefits!
Dill is an annual herb and can be grown from seed in March in the UK. Dill hates disturbance so sow the seeds where you want the plants to grow, although you can buy small pots in the herb section of most garden centres.
It isn't the easiest of herbs to grow unless you have the right conditions, so many Swedes are unable to grow dill, much to their frustration. It requires a sunny spot with well drained soil, but on the other hand it likes moist soil. As Swedes get a lot of sun (an average of 10 hours per day in the summer) but a lot of rain (an average of 75 mm (3") in Stockholm in August, compared with about 55 mm in London), it is not surprising that dill generally grows well in Sweden.
One of my obsessional questions is why do Swedes love dill so much? I have never received a really good answer. Some Swedes go into denial and claim that dill isn't used much! Others say it is because it grows well in Sweden, but so do many other herbs. They say they like the aniseed-like flavour, but is that sufficient explanation?
Is it because it has become iconic, a symbol of Swedishness? Swedes are passionately proud of their Swedishness; you only have to witness the sea of yellow and blue faces at any football match when the Swedes are playing to see the proof. They also love traditions. The combination of the iconic status of dill and its traditional contribution to Swedish cuisine gives it a special status.
Whatever the reason, I've not been to any other country where one herb is so dominant. Dill really is the king of herbs in Sweden; there are no other contenders for the throne.
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