How to Make Your Own Midsummer Magic

Once a year usually mild-mannered Swedes are known to dress in white, turn into leaping frogs and sing songs as we dance around a maypole. Single girls put flowers under their pillows in hopes that they’ll dream of their future mate. Bonfires are lit to frighten off evil spirits. This is the Swedish High Holiday, rivalling all others because it celebrates that most valuable of commodities in the north: sunlight.

Food and drink are every bit as important as the other rituals. No midsummer would be complete without new potatoes, herring and nubbe (schnapps). There is also likely to be grilled meat, gravlax, and strawberries for dessert. Those who are still partying when the sun comes up are rewarded with a second supper, often of Janssons frestelse, a casserole made of potato and sprats.

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If you find yourself in Sweden on Midsummer, you’ll be able to join in the festivities. But if you aren’t here to join us, there are celebrations taking place throughout the world. Or why not host one yourself? Here’s an introduction to the world of herring and nubbe and list of the best parties to help you make your own midsummer magic.

Much ado about matje

Each year during midsummer week, Swedes consume 640 tonnes of pickled herring and an additional 700 tonnes of matjessill, or “soused herring.” Derived from a Dutch recipe, the name means “virgin herring” and refers to the fact that the herring used for matjessill have not yet developed roe. Matjessill is often brined with salt, sugar, cinnamon, allspice, cloves and often sandalwood and chopped onions. It has a mild, sweet flavour. Herring that is immediately filleted and pickled has a film consistency preferred by many, but traditionalists like their matjesill soft. According to restaurateur Leif Mannerström, “by allowing the enzymes in the fish to break it down, you get a better, more rounded flavour.” He should know – when his former restaurant Sjömagasinet won a Michelin star, his herring buffet received special mention.

While purists make their own, several brands of matjesill are available: the ruddy-coloured Koster Fiskarn’s; mildly spiced Lysekil; Eldorado with its slightly sour taste and scent of sandalwood; and the popular version made by Abba Seafood, with a fragrant fruitiness and complex flavour. If you can, buy it in whole filets instead of pieces. Serve with sour cream and chives, or heap them all together in this trendy recent variation called matjesill tårta, a pie that combines the traditional toppings with a crust of dark bread.

Other fishy bits

Mustard-flavoured herring is staple of the smorgasbord, as are plain old pickled (inlagd) herring and skärgårdssill, or “archipelago herring,” a tasty mix of mayonnaise, sour cream, dill, chives and tiny lumpfish caviar. Many regions or towns have their own pickling blends – like the combination of dill and mayonnaise called Läckösill, and those hailing from Marstrand, Bohus, Brantevik and Torekov.

Not to overwhelm the novice, but herring can also be found flavoured with: lemon, fennel, curry, pimento, elderflower, ginger, tomato, dill, and black currant. There’s also Cajun, French onion, and even “anchovy-spiced” and “crayfish-flavoured” herring (in which the seasonings typically used with anchovies and crayfish are combined with herring). Naturally, you can also make or buy herring pickled in brännvin or aquavit and there are dozens of gourmet varieties popping up lately, like Fiskexporten’s apple and curry herring, and vodka and lime herring created by celebrity Chef Fredrik Eriksson for Abba.

Each year on National Herring Day Klädesholmen launches the winning entry from their “pickled herring of the year” contest. This year the winning variety is Blackberries and Green peppercorn. All proceeds go to the Swedish Sea Rescue Society.

Herring Pairings

Now that you’ve furnished your buffet table with enough herring to sink a ship, it’s time for the next question: which nubbe?

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Nubbe is a generic word for schnapps and there are almost as many options as there are herring marinades. The first hurdle is to choose spiced or unspiced. Renat is Sweden’s best-selling brännvin, with Absolut Vodka trailing close behind.

When it comes to spiced nubbe, Skåne is the #1 best-seller along with O.P Anderson, the oldest Swedish aquavit. Both taste strongly of cumin, anise and fennel. Today Altia Sweden produces these and many other classics, including Gammal Norrlands with its hint of sherry from the casks it was aged in. Herrgårds aquavit is also aged in sherry casks, which gives it a whisky-like taste. Spiced with cumin, fennel and coriander, this brännvin from the same company that makes Absolut may be the best accompaniment to herring. While harder to find unless you’re in Sweden, there is also a tradition of making bitter snaps like Piratens Besk, an award-winning wormwood-flavoured snaps. And among the newcomers on the scene, Nils Oscar has been getting rave reviews for their malt vodka and their aquavit, spiced with cumin, bitter orange and coriander.

As the sidelong light hits the table, it’s time to switch to the softer-tasting Hallands Fläder, a brännvin fragrant with elderflowers, or Absolut Kurant. This also means it’s time to bring out the first strawberries of the season, piled high with whipped cream on top of a simple sponge cake.

Remember, each time the glasses are filled with nubbe, it’s an indication that your fellow revellers are about to break out in song. The most popular of these is “Helan Går,” which encourages you to drink the entire shot in one go – no matter which nubbe is in your glass.

Where to get your midsummer party on in Sweden

Though every Swede has his or her favourite place to celebrate midsummer, many Swedes would agree that Dalarna does it best. While in the rest of the country it’s standard practice to arrive wearing sundresses or dressed all in white, in the heart of Sweden, many still put on traditional costumes, or värendsdräkt.

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Tällberg, Dalarna
With snow-peaked mountains in the distance and Lake Silian shining like plate blue glass in the sun, this is considered by many to be The Best Place to celebrate midsummer. While usually home to only 200 inhabitants, in late June 20,000 people flock to Klockargården, a small complex of rust-red painted houses dating back to the 1400s. There are locals who can trace their family lineage back 20 generations in the village and it is considered one of the best-preserved sites in the country. Be prepared to dance, sing, eat and jump like a frog for several days.

Rättvik, Dalarna
There’s a traditional midsummer celebration at the open-air museum in Rättviks Gammelgård if you want to experience a typical Swedish tradition.

Leksand, Dalarna
This is considered to be the country’s largest midsummer celebration with thousands of visitors from all over the world, dancing around the maypole and midsummer night concerts by well-known acts.

Mora, Dalarna
Every year on June 23rd, there’s a free children’s midsummer in the old courtyard of the Zorn Museum. Juice is included.

Stockholm and the vicinity
If you should find yourself wandering the empty streets of Stockholm, find your way to the midsummer festival at Skansen, the outdoor museum or hop a ferry to the island of Sandhamn. There are also festivities at Djursholm Castle, in the charming village of Sigtuna, and by the island fortress at Waxholm.

Gothenburg and around
Here’s a list of places to celebrate midsummer in Gothenburg’s parks, at nearby castles or out in the archipelago.

Malmö
In Malmö midsummer is celebrated every year the People’s Park and outside at Bulltofta Sports Centre. Visitors are asked to bring flowers.

Riksgränsen
Or why not celebrate midsummer under the midnight sun? At Riksgränsen, way up on the Norwegian border, you can hit the slopes all night long and dance around the maypole in your ski boots.

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Where to get your midsummer party abroad

Stonehenge
Each year approximately 20,000 visitors celebrate midsummer in this unique prehistoric location. There is no official ceremony, but visitors are invited to “conduct their own forms of ceremony and celebration providing that they are mutually respectful and tolerant of one another.”

London
Last year Rekorderlig Cider hosted a midsummer house in London, and one organization or another usually heads up a celebration in Hyde Park. Look for info on Meetup and Facebook.

U.S.
According to nordstjernan.com in 2013, at least 48 cities celebrated midsummer in at least twelve states. Here are a few of them.

New York City, New York
The Swedish Midsummer Festival takes place annually in Battery Park hosted by Battery Park City Parks Conservancy and the Consulate General of Sweden in New York.

Los Angeles, California
Vasa Park in Agoura has been hosting an annual Midsummer Celebration for almost 100 years.

Chicago, Illinois
The Midsommarfest in the Andersonville district of Chicago has been going strong since 1965, with 50,000 visitors annually and three days of music on six stages.

Kenmore, Washington
Here the Skandia Folkdance Society has a been hosting a Midsommarfest, since 1959 – complete with maypole, costumed dancers and musicians, Swedish meatballs, lingonberries, mashed potatoes and hotdogs.

Geneva, Illionois
Each June the town hosts a whole week of events called Swedish Days. There’s an Ice Cream Eating Contest, concerts, book sales, a talent contest, night golfing and martial arts events. Oh – and such American-fusion specialties as Swedish meatball pizza.