Sweden is a land with some unique traditions and festivals, many of which are intimately connected to the changing seasons. They also tend to come with special accompanying foods, something of which we heartily approve! Here are just a few of our favourites throughout the year.
Midsummer, celebrated on the longest day of the year in mid-June, is a big deal in Sweden, where much of the year is cold and dark. For many Swedes, the day also marks the beginning of their five-week summer break, and families head to the countryside en masse, leaving towns and cities deserted.
On Midsummer morning, flowers are picked and made into wreaths, which are then placed at the top of a large maypole. This maypole is a major feature during the ensuing festivities, which involve a lot of dancing, eating and drinking.
A traditional Midsummer menu will feature pickled herring of many kinds, boiled new potatoes, grilled meat and a dessert using the first strawberries of summer. This will all be washed down with plenty of cold beer and akvavit.
Midsummer New Potato Salad
600g new potatoes
2 tsp wholegrain mustard
½ tbsp horseradish sauce
120ml sour cream
2 tbsp dill fronds, finely chopped
1 tbsp capers
Salt and Pepper to taste
Boil the potatoes until just tender and leave to cool a little. Mix the other ingredients together, add to potatoes and stir to coat.
This time of year is when Swedes traditionally sample the latest batch of surströmming – or sour herring. This fearsome delicacy sees fish being fermented for a period of months, before being packed into tins a few weeks before eating. As the fermentation process continues, the tins can be seen to swell, until they are opened at the end of August. This is usually done outside as it involves (unsurprisingly) a powerful stench of rotting fish.
Allegedly, the fish tastes better than it smells, with a rounded, sharp and savoury flavour, but even so, we think we’d rather go with a slightly safer autumnal recipe here. Swedish Apple Cake is a family staple, enjoyed year-round across the country, but no more so than in autumn, when Sweden’s renowned apple crop is harvested.
Autumnal Apple Cake
2 tsp baking powder
1¼ tsp ground cinnamon
3 Bramley apples, peeled and cored
150g golden caster sugar
150g butter, melted
3 eggs, beaten
1 tbsp honey
Preheat the oven to 180˚C, gas mark 4. Grease and line the bottom of a 23cm round, loose bottomed tin with baking parchment. Sift the flour, baking powder and 1 tsp cinnamon into a large bowl and stir in the sugar. Cut two apples into roughly 1cm cubes and add to the flour. Mix in the butter, then the eggs. Spoon the batter into the tin. Slice the remaining apple and arrange on top of the cake. Bake for 50-55 minutes until golden and cooked through. While still warm, mix the honey with the remaining cinnamon and brush over the top of the cake. Allow to cool before removing from the tin. Serve with vanilla sauce or custard.
The sunlight dwindles through the winter months in Sweden, until there are just a few hours to break the darkness each day. In the far north, the sun doesn’t make it above the horizon at all at this time of the year.
The traditional Swedish celebration of Lucia is marked on 13th December, and is a mysterious blend of Christian and Swedish traditions. It used to be celebrated on the longest night of the year, when it was believed dangerous supernatural beings roamed and animals were gifted the power of speech.
Nowadays, the festival focuses on Lucia as the bearer of light and is celebrated with a candlelit procession of singing children, dressed in long white gowns and led by that year’s chosen Lucia (a role very fiercely competed for).
The Lucia celebrations also include ginger snaps and sweet, saffron-flavoured buns (lussekatter), which are enjoyed with a glass of hot glögg. This Swedish mulled wine often has a shot of traditional akvavit added, which can easily be replaced with gin, as in the recipe here.
Warming Winter Glögg
1 bottle red wine (quality doesn’t matter)
1-2 sticks cinnamon
5g dried root ginger
5g dried Seville orange peel (or other orange if you can't get Seville)
7 green cardamom pods
15-16 whole cloves
splash of gin (optional)
Pour the wine into a pan, add the rest of the ingredients and heat to around 80°C, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Remove from the heat and leave to infuse for at least an hour then strain, before reheating to serve. Place a few flaked almonds and raisins in the bottom of your cups and pour in the glögg. For an extra kick, add a splash of gin to your cup as well.
On the last day of April, Swedes celebrate Walpurgis Eve, or Valborg, when bonfires are lit and songs are sung to welcome the coming of spring.
The celebrations stem from the Middle Ages, when merchants and craftsmen would celebrate the end of the administrative year by dancing, singing and playing trick-or-treat. For farmers, Valborg also marked the day when animals were let out to graze, and bonfires were lit to scare off predators.
These days, the fact that 1st May is always a public holiday in Sweden means many continue Walpurgis celebrations long into the night. The weather at this time is still chilly in the evenings, and nettle soup is a traditional way to keep warm.
Nettles are best gathered in the UK before they flower in late May. Wear washing-up gloves when gathering them to avoid getting stung and make sure you wash them well before cooking.
Spring Nettle Soup
1 tbsp olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
1 onion, chopped
1 carrot, diced
1 leek, washed and finely sliced
1 large floury potato, thinly sliced
1l vegetable or chicken stock
400g stinging nettles, washed, leaves picked
50g butter, diced
50ml double cream
Chives, to garnish
Heat the oil in a large saucepan over a medium heat. Add the onion, carrot, leek and potato and cook for 10 mins until they start to soften. Add the stock and cook for a further 10-15 mins until the potato is soft. Add the nettle leaves, simmer for 1 min to wilt, then blend the soup. Season to taste, then stir in the butter and cream. Serve the soup drizzled with extra oil and chopped chives.