Holidays in Sweden: Lighting Up The Season
I eat my first lunch at the casual restaurant at Lisa Elmquist, one of the fishmongers in the market, and order a Spendrup's Christmas ale (a holiday specialty), a platter of assorted fish, and lutfisk. The beer arrives cold, and the platter is heaped with sweet baby shrimp in dill-speckled mayonnaise, bright orange bleak roe on toast with sour cream, and velvety gravlax; next comes herring in sweet sherry sauce. By the time the lutfisk in cream sauce arrives, I'm not hungry. Or that's my excuse, anyway. Lutfisk is a kind of cod that has been dried and cured in lye, then soaked thoroughly and reconstituted into an unsettling gelatinous mass. I take a nibble and immediately decide that this Christmas staple must be an acquired taste—even though it has practically no taste at all!
That night, at the julbord (Christmas smorgasbord) at Gondolen—a hip, modern restaurant with floor-to-ceiling windows and a panoramic view of the city—I am struck by the perseverance of customary Swedish dishes. Swedes have imported exotic foods and spices for decades, but they still cling to husmanskost, traditional Swedish cooking. Pea soup, thick and gruel-like, is commonly served on Thursdays, a practice going back to the Middle Ages (when Fridays were fast days and hearty fare was consumed the day before). And though refrigeration has made it unnecessary, Swedes continue to pickle and smoke fish and meats and to make long-lasting crispbreads. The Swedish love of combining savory and sweet flavors hails from the days when sugar was used to preserve certain foods, including salmon. Salted herring is served in a sweet mustard sauce, lingonberry jam accompanies smoked reindeer, and salty bleak roe is served atop sweet butter on crispbread.
I arrive at Åda (pronounced "O-dah"), the farm owned by Lena and Michael Isoz, on the appointed day. The imposing manor house has been in Michael's family for almost two centuries. Lena, who has short red hair and intense blue eyes, motions me into the impressive foyer. Pine-scented candles burn, arrangements of pine, poinsettia, and winter leaves decorate the table, and a porcelain stove warms the room.
Most of Sweden's Christmas customs, Lena explains, are descended from ancient pagan practices. "The lussebocken," she says, pointing out a decorative straw billy goat in the window, "is one of Sweden's oldest Christmas symbols, dating to the Middle Ages. He started out as Lucifer, the Devil. Over time, legend has it, he ended up helping needy boys beg for food. Until the late 1800s, when we adapted the German St. Nicholas into our Jultomten [Christmas elf], it was the goat that handed out presents to children at Christmas."
Lena ushers me into the kitchen, where she is busily preparing the Christmas buffet. She gathers together potatoes, onions, tins of pickled sprats (which the Swedes call anchovies), cream, and butter for the construction of Jansson's temptation, a fish-and-potato gratin that is always a part of the Isoz Christmas. This dish, like the other food Lena serves at her Christmas smorgasbord—smoked salmon, marinated herring, red cabbage salad, boar ham, meatballs, sausages, ribs—is simple. "We raise most of what we eat at Christmas," she tells me. "And though what I serve is traditional, it's also what we like. I've simplified the meal that my mother used to make. I don't make lutfisk, for example. My children don't like it." (I was secretly relieved to hear this.)
Lena pours warmed cream over the casserole and puts it into the bottom oven. Then she pulls out a boar ham that has been cooking in the top oven. "I like to prepare everything in advance," she says as she coats the meat with a mustard glaze, "so that on the twenty-fourth, I too can enjoy." She even sets the table for the next day, filling her elegant dining room with holiday-inspired items—Spode Christmas china; aquavit glasses hand-painted with images of santas, elves, and Christmas trees; dessert knives with the Nativity scene on their handles; red and green linens; and enormous angel candleholders. The prominence given to holiday themes in the Isoz home might be viewed as kitschy in the United States, but to me, the overall effect seems somehow refined and elegant.
Lena offers us a light, informal supper of quiche studded with cubes of ham from the family shop and a crisp green salad drenched in a garlicky dressing. As she prepares the meal, the front door suddenly flies open, and Michael and Lena's children—Josephina, 9, Calle, 8, Petter, 7, and Michaela, 4—come tumbling inside. In rapid Swedish, they tell their mother that they have found the most beautiful Christmas tree ever. Michael, his face flushed a deep pink by the cold, drags an eight-foot Norway spruce up the front steps into the house. "I think it's bigger than last year's tree!" he announces proudly.
The next morning, the household is up early. The children run into the living room, eyes on a mountain of wrapped gifts, to be opened that evening, arrayed beneath the tree—which has been decorated with handmade straw ornaments in the shapes of stars, bows, goats, and angels. They join their parents and their maternal grandmother, Mary-Ann Andersson (who has come from Östergotland, in the south), for a breakfast of rice pudding and warm cocoa. The grown-ups eat Lena's homemade rye bread and drink dark, flavorful coffee. When everyone has finished, Michael and the three eldest children bundle up to hunt for wild hare, as they do every Christmastime. "It doesn't matter if we find one or not," laughs Michael. "It's just to get some air and work up an appetite."
In preparation for the return of the hunters, Lena's mother warms glögg on the stove and sets out a plate of pepparkakor and raisin-studded ginger cake on a table in the living room. Michael and the children burst in, sans hare but in great spirits. After snacks, everyone pitches in to set up the Christmas buffet. "We must hurry so we can eat before Donald Duck at three o'clock," Michael says. I'm surprised to learn that an annual presentation of Disney cartoons on TV is as much a part of Swedish Christmas celebrations as the visit of Jultomten. "In the 1960s, when the tradition started, Channel 1, the only television station at the time, showed the cartoons to occupy the children while their mothers prepared the Christmas table," Michael explains. "Now, even the parents like to watch."
From the buffet, we fill our plates with home-cured gravlax and tangy herring in mustard sauce, easily the best I've ever tasted. The rye crispbread, spread with sweet butter, is a nice complement, as is the ice-cold aquavit. After a slice of pâté, eaten with crispbread, we start in on the warm dishes. Prince sausages, little pork links that appear on every smorgasbord, were made at the Isoz butcher shop and have more savor than any cocktail wiener I have ever eaten. The meatballs are distant cousins of the sickly sweet ones I picked out of chafing dishes in the '70s, and the wild boar ham tastes of the earth—pure and deeply flavored.
We finish the last bites of the leisurely meal just before 3 p.m., and soon the family is giggling at the antics of Disney characters. After the show, Lena brings out a big bowl of rice pudding with raspberry coulis and spoons it out. As we eat the creamy porridge in front of the Christmas tree, the children retell the funniest parts of the cartoons, laughing again.
Thanking my hosts for having offered me the gift of a true Swedish Christmas, I leave Åda shortly before Jultomten (in the form of a neighbor dressed as Santa) arrives to hand out packages to the children. As I drive back to Stockholm through snow-covered forests glowing blue under a giant moon, I find myself reflecting on the closeness of the Isoz family and the splendors of their Christmas table. And then I find myself giggling—images of a Swedish-speaking Donald Duck and friends dancing in my head.