Super-market Swede

Susanna develops a taste for unusual festive food in her adopted hometown, Lund
Lund, Sweden at Christmas

Jul is coming to southern Sweden. No, the pine fronds aren’t yet framing the shop windows, and yes, everyone keeps fairylights on their balconies all year round in gloomy Skåne anyway. And no, the eerie parade of white-frocked Lucias with their candle crowns has not yet been spotted on the cobbled streets of Lund, nor are the plain electric candelabras glowing austerely from windows. But in the local supermarket there are “limited editions” of squeezy cheese flavoured with saffron, or apple and cinnamon, and the Plopp chocolate bars have sprouted a Santa Claus with the legend JuleSkum or Yule foam. There is an entire wall of pepparkakor or ginger biscuit-type products, including crispy, salted rye nachos sweetened with ginger, cinnamon and clove.

Soon the pink Jul hams will appear with their frighteningly long consumption dates, and log-piles of white plastic sausages containing festive rice porridge. Chunky boxes of milk-chocolate pralines with “1kg” proudly prominent on the packaging. Whole smoked lamb legs. Queasy stacks of pig rib cages. Herring in every permutation. Swedish Christmas means a Jul Bord or buffet rather than a sit-down roast, and the table must groan.

A spiced svartsoppa of goose blood, cognac and red wine gave me pause

This supermarket, ICA, became my barometer of Swedishness when I moved here as an unvaccinated and very pregnant person during the pandemic. We knew no one, so it was my main chance to contemplate the unmasked, cheery locals and their habits, which seemed exotic enough after fifteen years in Berlin. Did they really milk elk for cheese? Why were the peppers individually wrapped in plastic? How many varieties of cheese and fish could you sell in tubes? I fantasised about an all-tube breakfast buffet, and the nearest hotel had a special stand for squeezing tubes of the salted cod roe “caviar” brand Kalles – made by a company called Abba.

Christmas rice pudding began as a treat because most Swedes could not afford rice

I bought two cookbooks: Magnus Nilsson’s weighty and authoritative The Nordic Cook Book and Rachel Khoo’s glamorous The Little Swedish Kitchen. To date I have made one porridge and one soup from these books, because it turned out that I did not have much time for slightly complicated cooking after having a baby. Life revolves around the Instant Pot and pasta, not chilled cucumber soup with beetroot and yoghurt granita or mashed pluck and pearl barley mash. Khoo takes traditional recipes a little further, turning the rice pudding into soufflé or a celeriac into a ham. Nilsson is a purist whose recipe for boiled veg makes salt optional. But I did learn something about Sweden’s food landscape, and why there was mass emigration in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Swedish Christmas treats include Risgröt, a cinnamon-flavoured rice pudding

Much of the traditional food speaks of poverty and subsistence, a reminder that Sweden was a very poor country indeed until the twentieth century. Their Christmas rice pudding began as a treat because most Swedes could not afford rice. The sausages are salty because they had to last the winter. Crispbread was cucina povera, not diet food, rolled out and hung over the stove to dry. The herring I saw an elderly lady consume with black coffee at a hotel breakfast buffet – an aggressive start to the morning for any tastebuds – was cheap and nutritious. Offal was a given.

“Will you be feasting on goose blood today?” asked The Local Sweden, an English-language publication on St Martin’s Day in November, when children carry lanterns and geese get scared. As a half-Scot, blood pudding doesn’t trouble me too much, so when the nurse recommended we give our toothing baby blood bread to gnaw, that wasn’t too alarming, but a spiced svartsoppa of goose blood, cognac and red wine gave me pause.

Sometimes today, despite the fertile fields and orchards around us in this southern breadbasket, I feel somewhat at the edge of the world when I see not just aubergines and peppers but also kohlrabi individually wrapped in plastic to make the journey to the north. You have to choose your onions from the budget supermarket carefully as many are part rotted and the potatoes are often sprouting in their sweaty plastic bags. Don’t eat the avocados – they taste of grass and should not be here in the first place.

But if traditional Swedish cuisine is conservative, and necessarily so in a Nordic climate, modern Swedes – if ICA is anything to go by – are adventurous. I don’t know who the buyer is at our local branch but their tastes are flamboyant. I take photos to send to friends, marvelling at the “Oriental Kitchen carbonara bacon instant noodles” or “C’est la BRIE” tube cheese, wagyu beef, or the locally made potato milk (“Dug”) that has not been as popular as Oatly, the locally made oat milk.

Potato and oat milks are typical of a strong genre of body-hack, start-up-type food. I’ve also found vegan “mackerel” or MacREAL, “functional latte” made from chocolate and chaga mushrooms in which every ingredient must have a health-optimising purpose, and “PROfeel FLUFF” protein mousse. Yes, the porridge oat section is tellingly large, but it also includes a mix with extra protein and cinnamon-bun flavouring.

The comically (to us) titled Plopp chocolate bar with “JuleSkum” which means Yule Foam.

Most striking is the Scandinavian love of Tex-Mex, and every supermarket has twenty types of tortilla or taco on offer before you even get to the sauces and powder mixes that construct a family Friday evening in. Our ICA had a special Mexican display, complete with sombreros, saguaro cacti and maracas. The filthy-tasting avocados were piled high. At least the staff didn’t dress up. Nilsson’s book includes the unique “tacopaj” – a quiche filled with mince and taco mix and topped with cheese, mayonnaise and crème fraîche.

I still feel as though I am on the outside looking in when it comes to Swedish food. I want to cook more of it, and must, because our other preoccupation since moving here has been the staggering prices, which have climbed higher and higher as inflation rachets up and the economy tanks. Food prices have risen 10.5 per cent year on year. Why were these exotic goods still stacked in ICA? Who was buying them? Surely Swedes must only be eating potatoes and the worryingly cheap pork products to keep within budget?

ICA stands for Inköpscentralernas aktiebolag, reflecting its original structure as a collective of retailers who coordinated four purchasing centres. It is now a more conventionally corporate entity, and just four retail chains – ICA, COOP,  Axfood and Bergendahls – share an oligopoly in Sweden. The supermarkets even host the post offices. You’re hard-pressed to find so much as an independent greengrocer or newsagent in these suburbs. The weekly market in town is not impressive, and the direct-from-the-farm organic boxes are dear. As food prices soared, the oligopoly finally dropped some prices, goaded by criticism and the German Aldi, which lacked their Scandinavian clannishness and cut-and-cut costs.

Tyrkis Peber ice cream flavoured with liquorice and ammonium cholride

My other reason for turning locavore is that my picky toddler is becoming a small Swede. At preschool she eats meatballs, licks the butter off open crispbread sandwiches and celebrates the various national days for waffles, pancakes and cinnamon buns. One morning she asked for a liquorice muffin instead of cereal. Perhaps she will learn to love not just salted liquorice but also “Tyrkisk Peber”, black ice cream flavoured with salmiac (ammonium chloride). Soon she will be old enough to demand the bags of pick-and-mix that Swedes consume on Saturdays, and – in theory – Saturdays only, thanks to some nightmarishly eugenic dental research undertaken on intellectually disabled patients here in Lund in the 1940s and ’50s. A whole other dark side of social democracy.

Svartsoppa is a festive, spicy soup of goose blood, cognac and red wine. It is sometimes served garnished with boiled goose neck and wings as well as boiled plums, apricots and/or a slice of apple

We will also have to tackle the country’s embarrassing social media exposé of 2022, when news broke that Swedish parents often made visiting children sit alone and unfed while the family ate their dinner. I saw various historico-sociological explanations for this, concerning a fear of debt and Vikings, but the best was that they didn’t want others to know they were just eating ketchup on pasta. Which might explain how everyone stays on budget. That reminds me of the first Swedes I encountered years ago, who insisted Sweden didn’t have a cuisine – just pasta.

Me, I find the local cuisine rich in variety, surprises and significance. Each plastic basket of purchased food unravels a little of the country’s story for me. Soon, Christmas won’t be Christmas without some Plopp, ammonium chloride, smoked lamb and ten silvery tubes of salty, saffron-tinged nutrients. Assimilation proceeds with the belly, having first conquered the taste buds.

Susanna Forrest is the author of “The Age of the Horse” and “If Wishes Were Horses”. She’s writing a book about stars of the nineteenth-century European circus, “Amazons of Paris”. Visit: susannaforrest.substack.com

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