One of our readers shares his memories from a Christmas with friends in Sweden—imagine a scene from Ingmar Bergman's Fanny & Alexander.
The Christmas season in Sweden is a six-week-long extravaganza, beginning in late November with the first Sunday in Advent, and ending January 13, Knuts Day, when the Christmas tree is ceremoniously removed. But the culinary high point is December 24, when family and friends gather around the julbord, or Christmas smorgasbord, for the most lavish meal of the year.
Traveling across the Atlantic to spend the holiday in the Swedish countryside with Thomas and Kerstin, I imagined a modern version of the Christmas Eve scene in Ingmar Bergman’s movie, Fanny and Alexander: the house festively decorated and illuminated by candlelight, the groaning smorgasbord, and young and old dancing through the rooms, singing the traditional carol, Nu är det Jul igen.. (“Now It Is Christmas Again”).
And indeed, from the moment we walked into Thomas and Kerstin’s home, at dusk on the twenty-third, I kept thinking of the Swedish word stämningsfull, which means “full of feeling, atmospheric.” The air was redolent with the scent of cloves, ginger, and cinnamon from the gingerbread house their fourteen-year-old daughter, Elin, was making.
Every room had a subtle touch of Christmas, from the ceramic figurines of mischievous tomtes, or gnomes, in the upstairs hallway to the twin gingerbread hearts, inscribed with the words God Jul,or Merry Christmas, hanging by ribbons from a kitchen curtain.
The most anticipated day of the year began with a breakfast of risgrynsgröt, thick, creamy rice pudding. My artistic sister-in-law had embellished the pudding’s surface with ground cinnamon sprinkled in a cross-hatch pattern. Alongside it stood a pitcher of slightly sweet, blue-violet blåbärssoppa, or blueberry soup, a sauce to cut the richness of the pudding.
Risgrynsgröt has a history dating back more than six hundred years. In C.E. 1328, Birgitta, the wealthy noblewoman who became Sweden’s first saint, introduced this porridge at her father’s funeral feast. By the
1700s, this dish, made from expensive, imported grain, had trickled down from the nobility to prosperous farmers but remained a luxury reserved for major holidays. Even today, when Swedes consume more rice than ever before in their daily diet, risgrynsgröt is usually prepared only on Christmas Eve.
In keeping with tradition, Kerstin had hidden a single almond in the rice pudding; according to folk belief, the finder will be wed during the coming year. My eleven-year-old daughter, Tina, poked and prodded her portion with the tip of her spoon, searching, then
burst out with, “I found it! I found it!” Her seventeen-year-old cousin teasingly asked “Who are you going to marry, Tina?” Feigning annoyance, she shot back, “Oh, be quiet!”
Young Swedish children leave a small bowl of rice pudding outside on the doorstep to placate the hus tomte, a mythical gnome usually portrayed with a full white beard and red stocking cap. According to legend, each farm had a gnome who lived in the barn or under the house like a guardian spirit. If properly treated, the gnome would help the farmer look after the animals, but if neglected, he would leave the pasture gates open or play other tricks.
The remainder of the morning was spent putting the final touches on the julbord, Christmas smörgåsbord. In the past, Kerstin might have spent days preparing everything from scratch. But this year, she taught school until the twenty-third and therefore included several ready-made dishes in our dinner. By one in the afternoon, fourteen of us were gathered in the candlelit parlor with another ten relatives arriving later for dessert.
We toasted the holiday with a glass of glögg, or mulled wine, customarily made with red wine simmered with cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and cardamom. A relatively recent addition to the Christmas beverage menu, glögg arrived in Sweden from Germany in the 1800s. For this occasion, Carl’s brother, Thomas, concocted a special version known as vitglögg, or white mulled wine, fortified with gin and pure alcohol. Rather than simmering the wine with the dried spices, which would evaporate some of the alcohol, Thomas flavored this potent drink with a liquid extract. The children joined in with a nonalcoholic glögg made from black currant syrup diluted with water. In keeping with tradition, everyone added a teaspoonful of whole blanched almonds and raisins to their drinks before toasting “God Jul!”
Like all smörgåsbords, this one began with fish. We had two kinds of pickled herring, one in a mustard sauce and the other in a cream sauce, along with a whole smoked salmon. However, in the rush to prepare everything, Kerstin had forgotten all about the lutfisk stored in the freezer. No one seemed to miss the bland gelatinous cod customarily hidden under a blanket of white sauce.
The centerpiece of this julbord—and almost every other around the country—was the julskinka, or Christmas ham. While some Swedish families today choose turkey or goose instead, pork remains the most popular holiday entrée. Kerstin cooked the ham in the traditional way, first curing it with salt, then boiling it for several hours with julkorv, or
Christmas potato sausage, then leaving the ham in the broth overnight to cool. The next day, she dried off the ham, covered the outside with a coating of egg and mustard, sprinkled it with bread crumbs, then baked the meat at a high temperature for fifteen minutes before serving. The ham emerged from the oven with a golden-brown crust, a complex, aromatic flavor, and a firm, meaty texture; in short, the best ham I’d ever tasted.
On the stove was a pot of water in which the Christmas ham and sausages had been boiled for doppar i grytan, the old peasant custom of dipping a slice of bread into this flavorful broth. Some Swedes still refer to Christmas Eve as doppare da’n, or dipping day. Once considered a treat, this dish seemed to attract few takers.
The smorgasbord included at least a dozen other de rigueur holiday dishes. There were meats such as leverpastej, or chopped chicken liver pâté, garnished with cornichons and Cumberland sauce; revbensspjäll, or ginger-flavored, oven-roasted pork ribs; julkorv, the Christmas potato sausage; and tiny smoked prinskorv sausages; as well as Kerstin’s delicious meatballs.
Winter vegetables appeared in several guises: braised red cabbage and apples; rödbetssallad, a tart salad of chopped red beets blended with sour cream and horseradish; and Janssons frestelse, or Jansson’s temptation, the same potato, onion, and anchovy casserole I enjoyed at Ingeborg and Peter’s wedding reception. The Swedish staple, kokt potatis, or boiled, white potatoes—peeled but otherwise unadorned—acted as a foil for these complex dishes.
Rounding out the meal was a yellow cheese, six inches tall and nearly as wide, studded with caraway seeds, and decorated with a red-and-white band embroidered with the words God Jul. The selection of accompanying breads included Kerstin’s homemade French-style
loaves, hardtack, and vörtlimpa, a holiday rye bread flavored with orange zest and vört, an infusion of malt used in beer-making.
Sju sorters kakor
In the middle of the afternoon, more of Kerstin’s relatives arrived for dessert and coffee. Almost all of her immediate family were now present: parents, two sisters, one brother, their spouses and children, even her older sister’s ex-husband. Only Thomas and Kerstin’s elder daughter, Frida, was absent; she was spending the year studying in the U.S., where Thomas was born and where his siblings still reside. With two dozen people, the house was too crowded for dancing around the Christmas tree, which was safely tucked into a corner.
In the past, Swedish housewives were expected to present their guests with at least seven kinds of Christmas baked goods. I was amazed that Kerstin and Elin had managed to turn out six different desserts. Elin had baked two cakes—an orange pound cake and a mjuk pepparkaka, or spice cake—while Kerstin had made four types of cookies. These included chewy, moist macaroons; slytbollar, or soft butter cookies with strawberry jam centers; kringlor, or butter cookies
shaped like pretzels; and, of course, pepparkakor, or gingersnaps, topped with slivered almonds. Rolled very thin, the pepparkakor dough had been cut in the shape of tiny boys and girls, hearts and pigs (a reminder of the Christmas ham) and baked at a high temperature for a few minutes, giving them their characteristic crisp “snap.”
Both the hard gingersnap cookies and the soft spice cake evolved from the spiced honey cakes imported in medieval times from Germany, where they were baked by monks and nuns for medicinal purposes. Flavored with exotic spices such as pepper, ginger, cinnamon, and cloves and sweetened with honey, these hard cakes were considered an aid to digestion, a remedy for diarrhea, poor eyesight, and melancholy—and a male aphrodisiac.
Darkness comes early this time of year. By three thirty in the afternoon, the light was so thin that the scene outside the kitchen window—the neighbor’s light gray house with white trim, the dark bare trees, the cloud-covered sky—looked like a black-and-white photograph tinted with the palest blue wash. But inside, the kitchen glowed with warmth and color.
Sitting in the cozy room, I contemplated the wallhanging my sister-in-law had embroidered, its simple message illustrating the season’s gustatory pleasures that Kerstin and her family had so generously shared with us. Three gnomes stitched in red each carried something for the Christmas feast—a three-pronged candle, steaming porridge, baked ham—while the fourth, smaller gnome sat with a basket of apples. Stitched above the figures were the words Gröt och skinka, lilla äppelbiten, Tänk vad gott det smakar Nisse liten (Porridge [rice pudding] and ham, the little apple bit, Think how good it tastes, little elf). And, indeed, it did.
Submitted by D.R. Anthony