Most of us are familiar with the Swedish term Smörgåsbord – Sandwich Table – a delectable array of cold cuts, herrings, salmon, cheeses and other delicacies laid out as a generous buffet, to be chosen individually and assembled with a variety of breads into a delicious meal.
The Swedish Julbord – Christmas Table – is something else altogether: an even more spectacular buffet, to both behold and to savour. Many age-old traditions go into the assembly of this feast, some of which are rooted in the pagan past. Long before the time of Christmas trees and decorations, sacrifices were made at Midvinterblotet (the Midwinter damp or cold.) Splendid Julbord are served in December at up-market restaurants in Stockholm such as the Ulriksdal Chateau Wärdshus and Ulla Windblahs in Djudgården:
The word jul has ancient Germanic roots, and was brought to England when the Saxons invaded during the 5th and 6th centuries. We still use the words yule and yuletide (yule time), though these are now somewhat old-fashioned.
Turkey was a central feature on the Swedish Christmas menu, as in the English-speaking world, until the 1700’s, but was gradually replaced by Swedish meatballs. Today only the Prinskorv and Veal Syltan are authentic remainders from the old Swedish peasant traditions.
But it is not only the Christmas feast that makes yuletide so special in Sweden, it is also the period that precedes it, filled with delightful traditions and festive fare.
The “Christmas journey” begins with Advent. By this time of year – early December – the light has dwindled considerably in Scandinavia, with the sun making but a brief, low arc across the horizon for little more than six hours each day. In northern Scandinavia there is no sunlight at all during mid-winter, and Christmas provides the perfect opportunity to introduce more light, along with the festivities to dispel the darkness. Advent is when the Swedes begin to set tea-light candles all around their homes, and to place ljusstakar (pyramids of seven electric candles) in the windows, as well as large illuminated white or red stars.
The first of the Advent candles is lit on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, followed by the remaining three on each successive Sunday during Advent. The atmosphere of expectancy intensifies with both young and old alike with the lighting of each candle.
On the 1st December a fragrant gran (pine tree) is bought from the local flower market or nursery, decorated, and illuminated with tiny white lights and decorations.
Potted Julstjärna (poinsettia) and Amaryllis are bought or given as gifts, and placed on tables in the living rooms. A wreath, fashioned from pine sprigs, red satin ribbon and a few baubles, is hung on the front door. Of course the commercial activities – shop window-dressing and advertising campaigns, have been under way since mid-November, as is the case in most of the Christian world. By early December Stockholm is fully gussied-up for Christmas, looking beautifully decorative and festive.
Locals and tourists alike eagerly await the unveiling of the NK (Nordiska Kompaniet) window displays – the principal smart department store in the centre of the city.
Real pine and fir trees are erected in the town squares,
and the Christmas markets appear, displaying a variety of handicrafts and goodies, drawing tourists from near and far. The best and most picturesque of these in Stockholm are at the animal theme park Skansen, Kungsträdgården – a central city park with an ice rink, and in Gamla Stan – the Old Town.
Here you will find stalls selling smoked meats, especially reindeer, elk, pork and wild boar, cheeses, knäckebröd – wheels of thick crisp bread from Leksand in Darlana, woollen goods, homemade jams and preserves, decorations and candies. Last but not least is the stall with small paper cups of glögg – hot mulled wine fragrant with spices, served with a spoonful of blanched almonds and raisins, and pepperkaker (spicy biscuits.)
Lucia is a tradition that possibly stems from St. Lucia of Syracuse who died as a martyr in 304, though the name may also be associated with lux – light.
Each year on the 13th December, a young girl is chosen as “Lucia”, and, wearing a crown of lit candles and wearing a white robe with a red sash, she leads a choral procession of similarly clad youngsters who sing the traditional Lucia songs. This entertainment may take place in a school, for the parents and teachers, or in a church. Every year there is a beautiful Lucia ceremony in the Stockholm Cathedral.
The harmonized singing, by several large choirs, is always sung a cappella, entirely by candlelight, and perfectly in tune. It was a beautiful sight to behold, and a movingly spiritual experience, in this magnificent old Nordic Gothic building. Here there is usually a performance of Handel’s popular oratorio, the Messiah – another altogether moving experience in this grand and vibrant setting.
Lussekatter – sweet, saffron-flavoured buns shaped like curled-up cats with raisin eyes are baked, sold and served with glögg or coffee on Lucia Day.
The yeasty scent of baking saffron emanates from the bakeries from the day before, adding to the festive atmosphere of the approaching Christmas celebrations.
The Nutcracker ballet is performed annually in December at the Operan – the Royal Opera House in Stockholm – but not the original Tchaikovsky version, rather one based on a Swedish children’s folk tale, with a little of the old, Classical ballet intact.
At last all the Christmas preparations are completed: the food has been bought and prepared, the children and their parents enjoy a short holiday, and relatives travel great distances to be with their families.
The Swedes celebrate Christmas on Julafton – Christmas Eve, the 24th December, and it is a lively occasion filled with light, excess, the exchanging of gifts, and merry-making.
Christmas Day is spent relaxing with family and friends, and some may go to church in the morning. Boxing Day is equally informal, the left-overs of the Christmas feast enjoyed once more by all.
The Julbord traditionally consists of about seven rounds, or courses, during each of which family and guests help themselves from the generously-laden buffet table. (These lavish affairs are only to be found in the up-market restaurants in Sweden, while similar, but less extravagant fare is served at home.)
Glögg is served at the outset, to get everyone in the mood, with Julmust for the children – a traditional, very sweet stout-like soft drink originally intended as an alternative to the alcoholic beverage Mumma *.
Each course is accompanied by a shot of ice cold akvavit or snaps, and a traditional drinking song such as Helan går.
The first round is stuffed hard-boiled eggs topped with löjrom (roe – Swedish caviar), and a wide variety of inlagd sill (pickled herrings):Sill is fished in the North Sea to the west, and strömming from the Baltic on the east coast of Sweden. The herring are prepared in a wide variety of ways with various flavours: garlic, onion, spices (especially cloves and sugar – Fransk sill), mustard, herbs, lemon, tomato, etc., and served with boiled baby potatoes garnished with fresh dill.
The second round comprises böckling (buckling – a form of hot-smoked herring similar to kipper), fish-themed terrines, and salmon prepared in various ways: cold smoked (the most common), hot smoked, baked, and cured.
The third round is a selection of patés, cold meats, cold turkey, braun, and various sausages such as fläskkorv (pork sausages) isterband (smoked pork sausage), and smoked lamb sausage, all served with a variety of mustards and coleslaws. Beetroot salad with rich mayonnaise is another popular accompaniment to this course.
The fourth round is not to everyone’s taste: Lutfisk (lye fish) – a dish made from aged stockfish (hake) or dried/salted whitefish and lye. It is boiled, and its gelatinous texture is rather off-putting to some, though the taste is said to be delicious.
It is served with a white sauce or gravy, and is a particularly traditional addition to the Swedish Julbord best served with a red Burgundy.
The fifth round includes the traditional Swedish meatballs, made not only with beef mince, but also with game meat such as vildsvin (wild boar).
There is also revbesspjäll (spare ribs) – usually pork, and Fårfiol (literally “Lamb Violin”) – a smoked leg of lamb – which is easily obtainable in the supermarkets, and served with horseradish cream.
Then there is the breaded Julskinka – Christmas ham (recipe for the preparation below.)
Prinskorv – “Christmas sausages” – also appear in the stores at Christmas time. Rather like mini Vienna sausages, these are heated in a pan of hot water or sautéed in melted butter.
The only vegetables appear with this course: rödkål – sweet and sour red cabbage, brunkål – white cabbage flavoured with syrup, roasted root vegetables (parsnips, carrots and beet) and Brussels sprouts.
My favourite is a delicious potato gratin with anchovies called Janssons frestelse – Jansson’s Temptation (recipe below.)
Another typically Swedish potato dish is Gubröra (recipe below.)
The sixth round is a fabulous array of desserts:
There are cakes such as chocolate and cheese cakes – especially the subtly-flavoured Gotland cheesecake which is served with lingonberry sauce and lashings of whipped cream:
Chocolate and berry mousse, pannacotta in various flavours such as raspberry and saffron add to the visual feast, and last but not least, risgrynsgröt (rice porridge) –
a thick, creamy rice pudding sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar, and containing a single whole almond, the lucky recipient of which can then make a wish!
The seventh and final round is a wide variety of cheeses, typically Västerbotten (the signature cheese of Sweden), bondost, herrgårdsost and Prästost (Priest’s cheese), served with knäckerbröd and other crackers, and breads such as kavring – enriched with molasses, and vörtlimpa – a Swedish rye made with grated orange peel – with or without raisins – especially for Christmas. Blue cheese with the spicy pepperkakor is particularly delicious!
Sweets are also laid out – liqueur chocolates, knäck (Christmas toffee) and Julskum – seasonal pink and white Christmas marshmallows, usually in the shape of mini Jultomtar (Father Christmases.) Coffee with pepperkakor and cognac round off this pagan-modern feast.
Afterwards, it is time to gather around the tree and exchange gifts. There is Christmas music in the background, and maybe a Christmas television show to watch, or games to play.
And thus the dénouement of the magical Nordic Yuletide journey is reached and celebrated – a time of extraordinary feasting, celebration and fellowship – and far more authentic surrounded by real fir trees, decorated with Nature’s wreaths of silvery frost and snow.
Pickled Christmas herring (basic onion herring recipe)
Decant the herring fillet from a bought tin into a strainer, and rinse under cold running water. Leave to drain, then cut into bite-sized pieces. Mix 50 ml Ättika (12% acetic acid), 50 ml sugar and 200 ml water together in a pan, and dissolve over low heat, stirring occasionally.
Lightly crush 6 pieces of Allspice, 4 white peppercorns and 5 cloves with a mortar in a pestle, and add these spices to the Ättika mixture. Leave to cool.
Layer the herring pieces with thinly sliced leek, red and yellow onions, crumbled bay leaves and 1 tsp mustard seeds in sterilised jars. Pour the Ättika liquid into the jars up to the top, and refrigerate for 3 days before serving.
Other flavours may be added to the herrings, such as slices of ginger, orange, or star anise.
Slice the herrings from a packet of ready-to-use 5-minute SILL into strips about a centimetre wide, and reserve the brine. Combine the mustard sauce (below) with 100 ml crème fraiche or gräddfil (thickened sour cream) and finely chopped dill. Add salt and pepper and some of the brine to taste. Store in sterilised jars, and refrigerate overnight before eating.
In a bowl mix 2 Tbsps sweet mustard, 2 Tbsps sugar and 1 ½ Tbsps white vinegar with an electric beater. Slowly add 100-150 ml vegetable oil (sunflower seed or rape seed oil) whilst still beating. Season with 2 Tbsps chopped fresh dill, salt and pepper.
To the sliced 5-Minute SILL add 1 finely sliced white onion, and some rind slices from an orange, a lemon and a lime (using a vegetable peeler). Add the following spices, crushed in a mortar: 6 white peppercorns and 3 bay leaves. Add the brine, and refrigerate in jars overnight.
These pickled herrings are served with gräddfil (sour cream) and finely chopped red onion.
Gravad Lax (Cured Salmon)
1 kg salmon – preferably a cut from the middle of the fish, deboned and frozen before preparing, to eliminate any harmful bacteria.
2-3 days before eating the salmon, remove it from the freezer and defrost it completely.
Rinse it under cold running water, and pat dry with paper towel.
Mix together 100 ml salt, 100 ml sugar and 2 Tbsps crushed white peppercorns. Spread the mixture over the salmon, and massage it into the flesh on both sides.
Cover the fish with plenty of fresh dill and lemon zest. Place it into a sealed plastic bag in the fridge, and weigh it down with a heavy object. Leave it to cure for 48 hours, turning occasionally.
When it is ready, discard all the dill leaves and sugar-salt mixture, and wipe the fish with paper towel.
Slice into very thin slices with a special salmon knife, away from the tail.
Serve with Mustard sauce (as above), boiled baby potatoes, dill, and lemon wedges – and icy cold lemon aquavit!
For the Julskinka (Christmas ham), most Swedes simply purchase a ready-cooked ham from the local supermarket. It comes in a sealed plastic bag with brine, which is then discarded.
Remove most of the fat from the surface of the ham, and score the remaining layer in a criss-cross pattern. Mix 2 Tbsps of Swedish mustard and 2 Tbsps of Dijon mustard with 1 Tbsp of sugar and an egg yolk. Sprinkle corn starch (Maizena) over the ham, and then spread over the mustard mixture. Sprinkle 50 ml of fine breadcrumbs (from a box) all over the ham, and bake it at 200˚ C for about 15 mins. It may be decorated with cloves after being removed from the oven. This savoury course is usually accompanied with a good ale.
Janssons frestelse – Jansson’s Temptation
Grease an oven-proof dish with butter. Layer alternately 500 g (4 very large) peeled potatoes cut into strips, 1 sliced yellow onion, and a 125 g tin of Ansjovis (anchovy fillets in brine.) The onion may be sautéed in advance for a softer flavour.
Pour 250 ml heavy cream and most of the brine over the potatoes. Sprinkle with 50 ml fine breadcrumbs, flavour with black pepper and to taste, and dot with butter.
Bake at 200˚ C for about 50 mins, or until the potatoes are soft, and the surface is golden brown.
Gubröra (Old Man’s Hash)
In a bowl, stir the following ingredients together gently, but well: 1 chopped yellow or red onion, ½ cup chopped chives, 1 cup chopped dill, 4 potatoes, boiled, peeled and cubed, 2 finely chopped hard-boiled eggs, 1 can Ansjovis, chopped, and some of the brine. Add black pepper and Grädfill or crème frâiche to taste. Chill in the fridge before serving. Serve the Gubröra with pieces of wholewheat bread or knäckebröd (crisp bread.)
From ToStockholm (https://www.tostockholm.com/ ):
The Vikings drank mjöd with their food. Now, during the Christmas season, Swedes enjoy a drink called Mumma. This can be ordered in some of the restaurants where traditional Julbord is served. For those who wish to make their own, here is the recipe:
ToStockholm’s Christmas Mumma
A bottle of beer (330 ml lager beer)
A bottle of porter (if you can’t find this, use 330 ml stout beer)
500 ml Sockerdricka (or 7-Up)
100 ml Port wine/Madeira/Sherry (sweet wine)
1 tsp cardamom
2 tsp sugar
Crush the cardamom seeds in a mortar, add them to the sugar and pour into a large pitcher. Add the sweet wine. Stir until the sugar dissolves. Carefully add the beer and sockerdricka (7-up), there will be a lot of froth when this is added. If you find this to be a bit too strong, then you can add more Sockerdricka (7-up).