Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete
breeth Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes,
and the yonge sonne Hath in the Ram [Aries]his halfe cours y-ronne,
And smale fowles maken melodye,
That slepen al the night with open ye…
Geoffrey Chaucer (1340?-1400): Prologue to The Canterbury Tales
April is a curious month here in Stockholm – I should rather say – capricious!
On one hand we are offered the promise of spring, with the brave appearance of snowdrops, crocuses, and daffodil blades through the frozen soil, and on the other, brief flurries of snow which dance and whirl around us with malevolent wintry glee. Warm coats and boots are still a burdensome necessity when stepping out, and some years the lake waters surrounding the city remain lightly, but treacherously frozen.
The clocks have been turned forward, and we are now officially in “summer time”.
At last the gravel has been cleared away, deliberately laid on pavements and pathways to prevent people from slipping on the dangerously frozen snow. This is a traditional signal here that winter is finally over. The snow begins to recede, leaving thin strips in the parks, and secret pockets in shaded hollows.
Like the daffodils which now fill the flower stalls, we gratefully lift our faces to the rapidly increasing sunlight.
The water birds, including many varieties of ducks and geese, gradually return to the bird sanctuary in nearby Järvefeltet nature reserve, some from as far afield as China.
In the mornings we hear the silvertärna (Arctic terns), distinctive by their little brown masks, wheel and cry in the dawn sky. Some have returned from as far away as our native South Africa.
Their small feathered friends, the sparrows and blue tits, twitter merrily in the courtyard below, in which there is still much old frozen snow and gravel, gathered into piles by the snow plough. Eventually it is all cleared away, and even though the trees and hedges are still starkly leafless, tiny green buds begin to appear.
After an unsuccessful cycle in the nearby nature reserve, which is still a morass of melting glaciers and slippery mud, I stick to the cycle-paths surrounding the town.
But like the “showers sweet” in Chaucer’s Prologue, the snow gives way to soft nourishing rain which melts away the stubborn icy swathes still bedeviling paths and sidewalks.
Café owners in the squares put out tables, and lure passers-by with the seductive aromas of coffee and freshly baked cinnamon buns. They offer the promise of sunshine, conviviality and the agreeable occupation of people-watching, even though the air is still bitingly crisp. Rugs are placed on the chairs for those bent on basking in the early spring sunshine – or having a smoke.
The Metro newspaper, offered free of charge in all public places, publishes an endearing photograph of the lemurs in Skansen (Stockholm’s popular theme park), warming themselves in the weak spring sunshine. Propped upright on their banded tails, we see soft white tummies and their eyes half-closed in soporific bliss.
On one of our walks along the canal which separates Djurgården from the mainland, the bears can be seen pacing their enclosure, and we know that with the awakening of these sleepy Nordic beasts from their long hibernation, spring has truly sprung in Stockholm.
One day, when crossing our square, I am delighted to see that the fruit and vegetable market has returned. Here we buy fruits from the southern hemisphere, or those Mediterranean lands already enjoying nature’s spring bounty.
I recognise the stall owners, the same Iraqi men who have been there summers before, and they greet me cheerfully: “Hejsan!” One young chap is there only on Saturdays, and, off from school, he practices his English with me. He in turn “corrects” my elementary Swedish. He tells me he is from the north of Iraq, and, like many others, assumes I am from England. Thus I have acquired the sobriquet “the English lady”, and since I am one quarter English, I do not quibble. The morning is bright, and the townsfolk are seated out in the square enjoying the warmth and companionship. We also enjoy the newly-planted tubs and hanging flower baskets that the Kommun has arranged in the square.
The wooden covers have been removed from the pond, and the water feature sparkles in the sun once more. The town park becomes a haven of cherry blossom.
The cultural season is still in full swing, with many cultural offerings available: evening concerts at the Konserthus and Berwaldhallen (home to the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra), and opera, ballet and lunch concerts at the Operan. There are plays in Swedish at the Royal Dramatic Theatre, affectionately known as Dramaten, and exhibitions of Edvard Munch, the “Normandy Impressionists” (including Renoir and Monet), and famous fashion photographers in the galleries. Lana del Rey and Justin Bieber sing at the Ericsson Globe, and vintage fairs, medieval markets, ballroom dancing, archipelago boat tours and cruises, and ghost walks in Gamla Stan (the Old Town) are available for both tourists and locals.
One day I joined friends for a ride on the Blå Tåg (Blue Train) which, apart from other routes such as to Gothenburg on the west coast, also travels from Stockholm to nearby Uppsala. We were seated in an elegant dining coach dating from the 1920’s, and treated to a meal of traditional Swedish fare: a slice of dark bread generously topped with mayonnaise, shrimps and sliced hard-boiled egg, followed by rich chocolate mousse cake and coffee. Between the courses we maneuvered our way to a narrow piano bar, where a young Russian lady entertained us with her own songs, accompanying herself on the piano. This pleasant and convivial excursion was over all too quickly, and after only two hours, we pulled smoothly back into the Central Station.
The social season begins to crescendo in April, before reaching a climax with other fund- raising activities towards the end of May, and the final diaspora to the mountains, lakes and beaches. There are meetings to welcome new-comers, and a mystical afternoon of “Soul Time” with poetess Nanna Svendsen in the attic at Sturekatten – a quaint, many- storied konditori (café-bakery) in the heart of Östermalm.
The group activities of walking, multi-cultural cooking, and French conversation continue apace, and I attend Paul Leopold’s lecture on Robert Browning at Mäster Samuel’s Gården in Gamla Stan, and Anna Simon’s Creative Writing Course at the Medborgarskolan. At our monthly Shakespeare Reading Group I take the role of Beatrice in Much Ado about Nothing, and, after an interval of many years, reacquaint myself with the Bard’s rich English usage and knowledge of the Classics.
I enjoy inviting new friends for dinner, and hosting the musical appreciation get- togethers, meeting ladies from around the world also passionate about music.
I enjoy tutoring the immigrant high school students with their English homework in the local library, and learning about their adventurous – and sometimes tortuous – journeys to Sweden. A pair of brothers from Somalia belong to a family of ten children; they came to Sweden via Uganda, where they quickly learned some English. I in turn go to informal Swedish lessons with Raili at the nearby Maria Kyrkan.
We have dinner with friends at a “period” restaurant on Södermalm island called Pelikan, which specialises in traditional Swedish cuisine: meatballs with mashed potatoes, lingonberry sauce and rich gravy, pork knuckle, and baked Arctic char. This quaint place has the high ceilings, geometric designs, and soft lighting of the 1930’s Art Deco period. http://www.pelikan.se/.
Also on Södermalm is the Söderhallarna – the Södermalm food hall – a glorious specialist food market selling cheeses, meats – including game and fowl, fish and seafood, exotic fruits and vegetables, teas and coffees, and freshly baked breads, pastries and cakes. There are also ready-made Swedish specialties such as Laxpudding (a kind of salmon lasagna, but baked with layers of sliced potatoes instead of pasta, and cream) and Jansson’s Frestelse, Gubröra and other delicious patés and meatloaves.
But it is the English Shop on the floor above to which I am heading, to buy Marmite, Mrs. Ball’s Chutney, Gingernut biscuits, Coleman’s hot English mustard, and Pears soap – those little things from “home” without which we cannot survive!
Another temple to gastronomy is the Saluhall in Östermalm, displaying splendid arrays of high-quality goods from field, sea, forest and bakery. It was opened in 1888 by King Oskar II, and is a fine example of Stockholm’s late-19th century architecture.
The Hötorget beneath the square in front of the Konserthus is another favourite with locals and tourists. I especially enjoy the counters overflowing with dried fruits and nuts, olives and pickles, the Moroccan stall with prepared lamb, chicken and beef casseroles, humus, dolmades, and trays of ready-made salads. There is a lively warm atmosphere there on cold days, redolent with the scents of roasting meat, baking bread, and freshly- brewed coffee.
It is possible to buy and eat lunch at any of these places – if you can find a free table.
Above ground, Hötorget (the Hay Square, or Plaza) is a bustling market for fresh produce and flowers; it has been thus since the 1640’s when it was a central place for trading meat, milk, vegetables and animal fodder (hay).
Nearby in Jårvefeltet, at the Säby Gård Café, the locals sit on wooden benches in the cool sunshine, enjoying strong Swedish coffee and delicious, freshly-baked vanilbullar (vanilla buns.)
In the courtyard below my window the children in the complex, collected from daggis (kindergarten) by their working mothers, can now play outside, bundled up warmly, in the lighter spring evenings. The days are much longer, with the sun rising at five and setting at eight-thirty. Overhead, the returned flocks of swallows and other birds gather and whistle in swirling circles in the crisp, cloudless sky.
April is also Påsk (Easter time.) Every year the flower stalls sell Päskliljor (Easter lilies, or daffodils), tulips, sprigs of pussy-willow, and brightly-coloured feathers. It is a tradition here to arrange these feathers indoors and in the porches of their homes. The Swedes have actually been decorating birch trees since the 19th century; they originally served as a reminder of Christ’s suffering.
Like anywhere in the Christian world, the sweet shops display fabulous arrays of chocolatey festive fare. It is customary here to fill large cardboard eggs with smaller chocolate eggs and other favourite godis (sweets.)
Fresh eggs are also enjoyed, hard-boiled and stuffed, or topped with mayonnaise, caviar, chopped chives and shrimps.
Swedish children traditionally dress up as “witches”, with rosy-painted cheeks and daubed freckles, wearing discarded adults’ clothes and gaily-coloured headscarves. They go from door to door expecting sweets, as the American children do at Hallowe’en. Some families let the children search for the eggs themselves, while others have the “Easter Witch” fly through and hide them in the garden. On Skärtorsdag (Maundy Thursday, the day before Good Friday), children can already be seen with their painted faces and broomsticks.
This is a sure indication that the spring festival pre-dates Christianity; legend has it that witches flew around on broomsticks, and danced with the devil at a meadow called Blåkulla.
Our friends Anders and Jessica invite us to join them and their friends for an Easter Saturday lunch at their home on Lidingö island. There Jessica has prepared a traditional Swedish Easter smörgasbord (literally “sandwich table”, or a buffet): herrings (at the heart of every Swedish Easter meal) prepared in a variety of ways – with pickled onions, mustard sauce, cloves and spices (Fransk sill – my favourite), or in a rich creamy sauce, served with boiled new potatoes, several cheeses, salmon tartar, slices of crispy baguette, and bowls of fish roe, chopped red onion, chopped spring onions, and crème fraîche.
Another typical festive dish is Solöga (Sun Eye), consisting of an attractive arrangement of anchovies (salted sprats), finely chopped red onion, pickled beetroot, dill and capers, topped with a raw egg yolk.
Jessica has laid the table with a bright yellow, Easter-themed cloth, and flowers, birch twigs and coloured feathers. Each guest receives a coloured hard-boiled egg, and a game ensues wherein each taps the egg of their neighbour, while attempting to keep their own shell intact. The guest whose shell is unbroken by the end of this hilarious game is the winner!
Traditional drinking songs are sung with fresh rounds of bitter schnapps in tiny glasses throughout the meal, ensuring much hearty merriment and fellowship.
Dessert is vanilla ice-cream served with hot liquorice sauce.
At the English Church, St. Peter’s and St. Sigrid’s, the Easter Sunday service is filled joy and light: candles and bright yellow feathers and daffodils. There is much glorious music, supported by the choir and excellent organists Murdo and Christine. One choral item is accompanied by a trumpeter.
The church is packed with worshippers from throughout the English-speaking world who are working in or visiting Stockholm, all come to celebrate the joy of the Risen Christ.
Our pastor Nick encourages everyone to ring bells, blow party-blowers, and pop party- poppers in celebration of this Good News. Happy hymns are sung, peace wished upon one another, and prayers for those less fortunate are uttered.
After the service there is a merry thong in the hall, enjoying coffee, cake and conversation, and the children rush out into the garden, ablaze with Blåsippe, vintergäck, scilla and crocuses, in search of Easter eggs.
The preceding week, after the Palm Sunday service, cakes and bakes were sold to raise funds for the Middle Eastern refugee orphans in Athens. Nick successfully auctions buns and cakes for exorbitant prices, and a great deal of money is raised.
Easter is the first long weekend in the year, and, as in our own country, it is an opportunity to leave the city and enjoy the fresh air and peace in the countryside. Many city Swedes have a “summer house,” or cottage (some even without electricity and running water), by a lake, by the sea, or in the forest. They travel out to their summer retreats for the first time in the year, and open them up for airing and cleaning. Or they join relatives and friends on a farm. Many Stockholmers are proud of their summer
house on an island in the city’s magnificent archipelago, and invite family and guests to join them for the first longer evenings of the year.
Later in April the tulips come into bloom, brightening parks, gardens and traffic circles. The central avenue into Jakobsberg becomes ablaze with red and yellow tulips and daffodils that miraculously re-emerge each year without re-planting.
The dénouement of the early spring celebrations in Sweden is Valborg – Walpurgis Night
– on the 30th April. This pagan festival takes its name from St. Walpurga, an 8th century German abbess whose feast day occurs the following day. Walpurgisnacht was believed to be the gathering of witches on the highest peak in the Harz Mountains in Germany, where they flew around on their broomsticks enjoying a “witches’ sabbath”. Since there were many Germans living in Stockholm during the Middle Ages, it was there that the custom first developed.
In Sweden today it is a popular public event during which massive bonfires are lit on hilltops all over the country, sending sparks, cinders and acrid smoke swirling into the cold twilight sky.
Skansen is a favourite destination for tourists and locals, where fiddlers in national dress play folk songs, and students in white hats sing spring songs by the bonfire.
Traditionally it was the opportunity to burn unwanted items or broken furniture from the farmstead after a good spring clean; it was also a time when domestic animals were released from their barns, and the fires were lit to ward off predators.
Choirs sing traditional songs to the spring, such as Sköna maj, välkommen and Vintern rasat, and brass bands entertain the hundreds of onlookers who have come to enjoy the fires.
Everyone enjoys this age-old pagan ritual which marks the last night of winter, and elcoming in the spring.
ECCO LA PRIMAVERA! – HÄR ÄR VÅREN! – SPRING IS SPRUNG!
JESSICA’S SALMON TARTAR
200 g smoked salmon
200 g gravad lax (prepared or cured salmon) 2 tablespoons dill
2 tablespoons crème fraîche 2 teaspoons mustard
1 teaspoon crushed rose pepper 40 g red fish roe
Salt to taste
Red roe, lemon, white pepper Chopped lettuce and dill to garnish
1. Dice the salmon with a sharp knife
2. Finely chop the dill and mix it in a bowl with the crème fraîche, mustard, rose pepper, salt and dill.
3. Carefully fold in the salmon and the fish roe
4. Serve the salmon mixture on a bed of chopped lettuce (or pieces of bread), and garnish with slices of lemon, pepper, dill and a dollop of red roe.
This serves as a delicious appetizer before dinner, served with halved, stuffed hard- boiled eggs.
JESSICA’S SEMLOR or FETTISDAGBULLAR (Shrove Tuesday SEMLA BUNS)
(makes 18 large or 30 small)
In Sweden we have a proverb, Kärt barn har många namn, which means that we have many names for the things we love!
This is the case with the Mardi Gras (fat Tuesday) bun or in Swedish Fastlagsbulle, Fettisdagsbulle or simply just Semla (in plural Semlor).
These usually appear in the supermarkets and bakeries after New Year, with a crescendo early in March. Mardi Gras is the Tuesday that falls between Shrove Monday and Ash Wednesday.
Some Swedes like to eat their Semla with hot milk; then it is called Hetvägg (from the German heisse Wecken, as it was originally a wedge-shaped bun that was boiled and eaten hot.) During the 19th century the centre of the bun was scooped out, and filled with cream, marzipan or butter.
Put the oven on at 200° C
2 tsp ground cardamom (Kardemumma) 300 ml milk
50g fresh yeast 50ml sugar
½ tsp salt
150g soft butter 1 egg, beaten
1100 -1200 ml flour
1. Melt the butter, add the milk and heat to 37° Celsius.
2. Crumble the yeast into a bowl and let it dissolve with the milk mixture adding the sugar, cardamom, salt and egg.
3. Add the flour (a little at a time) and work into a smooth dough. Let it rise to double the size under a towel for about 40-50 minutes.
4. When ready – turn out the dough on a floured table. Divide the dough into 18 pieces and roll them into round balls. (I prefer small ones so approx. 30).
5. Place them on baking paper on a baking tray and leave to rise under a kitchen towel for another 45-60 minutes.
6. When they have risen, brush with the beaten egg and bake in the oven for 6-7 minutes.
HOME MADE ALMOND PASTE
250 g almonds, blanched
A touch of ground cardamom Confectioner’s/icing sugar to taste Cream
1. Blanch and peel the almonds, if not already blanched and peeled.
2. Crush the almonds to a fine powder in a blender.
3. Add sugar and cardamom and mix until it becomes a smooth paste. You can add a bit of cream to make it smoother.
Once the buns have cooled. Cut out a triangular “hat” from each, and fill the hole with some of your home-made almond paste. Add some sweetened whipped cream on top of the filling, replace the “hat”, dust with confectioner’s sugar and serve.
See Jessica’s website to learn more her recipes, events and activities: http://www.tostockholm.com/
From you have I been absent in the spring, When proud pied April, dressed in all his trim, Hath put a spirit of youth in every thing, That heavy Saturn laughed and leapt with him. Yet nor the lays of birds, nor the sweet smell Of different flowers in odour and in hue, Could make me any summer’s story tell,
Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew: Nor did I wonder at the lily’s white,
Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose; They were but sweet, but figures of delight, Drawn after you, you pattern of all those.
Yet seemed it winter still, and you away, As with your shadow I with these did play.