The rich fragrances of cloves, cinnamon, and ginger, lightly tinged with the earthier aroma of saffron, simply envelop me as I step into the beautifully equipped and roomy kitchen at the home of Lena and Michael Isoz, deep in the countryside outside Stockholm, near the town of Trosa. The enchanting smells are emanating mainly from a pot of glögg, the Swedish winter specialty of wine mulled with spices, that is simmering on the stove. The saffron scent, however, is wafting from another source—a batch of lussekatts, plump, twisted buns, dotted with raisins and tinted gold with the precious threads, traditionally served at Christmastime.
Lena drops a few raisins and almonds into a cup and pours in some glögg. We sip the heady, aromatic brew and nibble on the old-fashioned thin ginger cookies called pepparkakor. "This is my mother's glögg," says Lena. Most people nowadays buy the wine already flavored, she explains, rather than concocting their own. With modern life keeping people so busy, she adds, it isn't easy to keep doing things in the good old ways.
Lena herself does double duty. She owns and manages a clothing store near Trosa, and also works at the family butcher shop next door—where she sells elk, boar, pigs, and deer, mostly raised or hunted on the family's 2,500-acre farm near the Baltic coast, about 40 miles south of Stockholm. Lena prepares some of the terrines, hams, and pâtés sold in the shop, as well as several varieties of breads—including votbröd, made with beer, and her own special bread, which contains, among other ingredients, walnuts and dates.
But she finds time at Christmas to honor many long-standing family customs—including the preparation of a sumptuous smorgasbord and the lavish decoration of her home with candles and other ornaments. In the festive kitchen, Christmas curtains embroidered with playful winter scenes cover the windows, small figurines in red felt hats adorn counters and shelves, and an Advent calendar hangs on a wall. "Christmas is important," she says, "especially for the children. It's really their holiday, though we all welcome the break in the long, cold winter. All Swedes love Christmas. We love the light so much, and in winter there isn't much of it. So for the holidays, we celebrate and light our houses up."
Frankly, Sweden had never been on my shortlist of places to visit. Friends who had toured the Scandinavian nation gushed about the beauty of its lakes and forests and its glorious archipelagoes, but they rarely mentioned the cities, and they certainly didn't rave about the cooking. Ketchup-sodden meatballs and pickled herring—my uninformed impression of Swedish food—weren't my idea of culinary treats.
When I did finally travel to Stockholm for the first time three years ago, however, I quickly discovered how much I had been missing—in terms of architecture, city life, and, especially, food. The freshness of the shrimp and crayfish was astounding, and the gravlax was rich and silky smooth. I came home from that visit craving herring, any herring—pickled with onions, in mustard, in sherry. I found myself ordering herring in cream—at breakfast. I also began frequenting the few Scandinavian restaurants in New York City. It was, in fact, after feasting on the Christmas smorgasbord at the elegant Aquavit (my favorite among them) that I decided to return to Stockholm. Only this time, inspired by that repast, I would go for the holidays. Håkan Swahn, the Swedish-born owner of Aquavit, applauded my idea and gave me some very specific advice: "You must go to the Christmas market in Gamla Stan, the old part of town," he said. "You have to try lutfisk and go to at least one Christmas smorgasbord. And you must call my friends Lena and Michael Isoz."
"Oh, yes! Håkan told me that you'd call," Lena says in near-perfect English when I telephone her from New York. "You are coming to experience Christmas in Sweden, no? Why don't you come celebrate with us? We celebrate Christmas on the twenty-fourth, but come a day early. The preparations are half the fun."
I decide to spend a full day in Stockholm beforehand, admiring the majestic but not excessively opulent capital; buying handmade ornaments and decorations at shops in the city's old town; visiting Skansen, the sprawling open-air museum of history and culture; watching elaborate mechanized figurines in the windows of the enormous NK department store (a sort of Swedish Harrod's); and, of course, eating. I peruse the aisles of the spanking clean, turn-of-the-century Östermalms Saluhall food hall, where traditional Swedish goods—fresh and preserved fish, splendid varieties of roe, and shellfish from nearby cold waters; wild game from the northern wilderness; vegetables and cheeses from countryside farms; jams and jellies made with the wild berries of the woodlands—meet under one roof.