Distinctive features of Swedish food

Quote and book cover by Jamie Oliver

Swedish food is on the up and gaining greater worldwide recognition. Jamie Oliver in "jamie does", his book about international food, included Sweden as one of the "big hitters", countries that produce fantastic food. He was glowing, describing the food as "big, bold, brave and definitely up there with the best in the world". Incidentally, his host in Sweden on the TV version of jamie does was our own Anna Bonde-Mosesson!

Image from Ocado's online Swedish shopOcado's online Swedish shop

But it is not just TV chefs who are recognising the potential of Swedish food. Britain's supermarkets are now regularly stocking Swedish products. Today, Waitrose routinely stocks Swedish products including Västerbottensost and Swedish crispbread, neither of which they sold even a few years ago. Marks and Spencer have the yellow and blue flag on a number of their food products and Ocado, the online supermarket, has a whole section "Try Swedish" with well over 150 Swedish products.

The seven wonders of Swedish food

But what is it about Swedish food that is big, bold and brave? It is a question I have been asked frequently. For many people, their experience of Swedish food has been restricted to meatballs and, possibly, smelly herring. I think there are seven features that make Swedish food distinctive and different to British or say, French food.

The great preservers

Three examples of traditional preserved Swedish food
Preserved beetroot, cucumber and salmon (gravadlax)

Sweden has a harsh climate that meant that Swedes had to become experts at preserving food. Although this is no longer necessary, it is deeply embedded in Swedish food culture, so Swedes are experts at salting, pickling and drying.

Poor foragers

Soups made from foraged ingredients
Soups made from foraged ingredients: mushrooms, nettles and rosehips

For several centuries Sweden was a very poor agrarian country. As a result they learnt to make the most of what was freely available by foraging for anything from the forests and hedgerows. This became established as a right to roam and pick and is now formally embedded in the Constitution of Sweden in allemansrätt. Many of Sweden's traditional dishes are based on foraged ingredients such as mushrooms, nettles and rosehips.

Spicing it up

Spices are frequently used in Swedish food
Kanelbullar (cinnamon buns), glögg and venison with liquorice sauce

Swedes were great sailors and traders. The establishment of The Swedish East India Trading Company in 1731, which went on to become Sweden's biggest trading company in the 18th century, led to a massive increase in the use of spices. Sometimes the spices were used to add interest to pastries, make preserved food more interesting or sometimes just to disguise the poor quality of the main ingredient. (Glögg originally used spices to mask the taste of poor quality wine and snaps used herbs and spices to disguise rough vodka).

Distinctive ingredients

Three ingredients not available in many other countries
Lingonberries, cloudberries and reindeer

Swedish food is also shaped by its geography: a long narrow country stretching from inside the Arctic Circle to the relative mildness of Skåne, just across the Bridge from Denmark. In Sweden you are never far from water or a forest. As a result there are many distinctive ingredients that are hard to find elsewhere, certainly in the UK, such as lingonberries, cloudberries, arctic char and reindeer.

Party goers

Festival food
A Midsummer cake, a plate of crayfish and Lucia buns

Swedes love festivals and celebrations and food always plays a key part in these annual events. Sometimes I think that Swedes get as much enjoyment from preparing for their festivals as from the events themselves, but that is another story. Midsummer, crayfish parties and Lucia are just three examples of festivals, each with traditional dishes that are central to the celebrations.

The science of deliciousness

Blackened celeriac, one of Daniel Berlin's signature dishes
Blackened celeriac, one of Daniel Berlin's signature dishes

Swedes are great inventors and designers. No other country has produced more internationally recognised inventors in proportion to its population. (Swedish inventions include zip fasteners, adjustable wrenches, dynamite, telephones and milking machines.) Swedish style is also legendary for being functional and practical, for clean lines and a minimalist style, and for the use of refreshing combinations of colours and textures. Not surprisingly, Swedish chefs have applied these qualities to creating award winning restaurants, 3 in the top 50 in the world, which is impressive for a country with a population of just 9 million. In short, the top Swedish chefs like Magnus Nilsson and Daniel Berlin are experimenters and innovators.

Carl Jan Granqvist and the Grythyttan Restaurant schoolCarl Jan Granqvist and the Grythyttan Restaurant School

The reason for this innovative streak is, at least in part, because Swedish chefs are thoroughly trained and taught about the science of deliciousness. The biggest restaurant school in Sweden is called The Grythyttan School of Hospitality and Culinary Arts and Meal Science. Once when I was talking to Carl Jan Granqvist, who established the school, I left science out of the title but he quickly picked me up on it in his quiet authoritative manner stressing that, "It is a university for culinary art and science".

Whilst this may only seem to be relevant to high-end fine dining, I think the approach is mirrored widely in Sweden. Sure it is often hard to separate developments in Swedish food from the wider development of Nordic food, but there is an increasing appreciation of the need for more science of deliciousness. We need to eat better. That means eating less whilst at the same time eating a more balanced diet with more whole grains, more seasonal produce and more fish, including oily fish. And as my doctor puts it, we need to move more and drive less. It's what Swedes have been educated to do.

The allure of the disgusting

For a nation with a reputation for being sensible and cautious, driving with headlamps on in the day, Swedes are unable to resist the allure of the disgusting. I'm not quite sure why they enjoy some things that most people with ordinary taste buds find unpalatable. Perhaps there is a macho side to Swedes or perhaps it is just fun to escape the sensibleness once in a while.

Whatever the reason, many Swedes are very proud of this quirky aspect of Swedish food. They love to offer foreigners some really salty liquorice and then laugh as they spit it out in disgust. Actually, I too have grown to like salty liquorice. By the way, they are meant to be sucked slowly, rather than being chewed and swallowed quickly.

A surströmming (fermented herring) roll being madeA fermented herring roll being made

Surströmming (fermented herring) is an altogether different beast. Surströmming is sold in cans and the fermentation continues in the can, releasing various acids and disgusting gases as it does so. The cans swell with age as the pressure from the gases builds up inside them. Most people find the smell so bad that it is normally only opened outside. Occasionally, when it has been opened in an apartment block it has caused the block to be evacuated! To be fair, most Swedes don't like it either, but a minority really enjoy it and look forward to surströmmingsskiva (a fermented herring party) in August when a new batch of surströmming is released.

Imagine your mouth full of a thick creamy, wobbly jelly tasting of fish treated with deadly sodium hydroxide. It is what Swedes call lutfisk. Many Swedes inflict this disgusting food on themselves every Christmas. American author Garrison Keillor famously described it as resembling squirrels' insides run over by trucks. In his novel, Pontoon, he wrote, "Most lutefisk is not edible by normal people. It is reminiscent of the afterbirth of a dog or the world's largest chunk of phlegm."

Enjoy trying Swedish food

If you are new to Swedish food, I hope you will be tempted to try some of our recipes and see why Jamie Oliver describes Swedish food as big, bold and brave. I hope you agree.

Happy cooking,
John Duxbury

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