A Swedish Christmas table primer: What to eat and where to find it
From as early as November 18 and up until Christmas, Swedes start preparing for julbord – the Christmas buffet. Home cooks start making, baking and freezing their meatballs and Janssons Frestelse, pickling their herring, flavoring their aquavit and curing their salmon. And at restaurants all over the country, a special seating often replaces the regular lunch and or dinner service. Reservations must be made in advance, and almost every business in town treats their employees to this annual, multi-course feast. If you happen to be passing through during the holiday season, here’s our guide to what to expect at Sweden’s best julbords.
How do you like your herring?
Herring always comes first – and it is the specialty at some julbords. Many Swedish cruise lines offer julbord on the high seas. You can for example taste nine different types of pickled herring as you sail past frozen inlets and rocky isles on a 22-hour mini-holiday with Birka. To recreate the experience at home (boat not included), you need only make one stop, at the seafood producer, Abba, where you’ll find four different types of matjes herring alone – and eighteen other different types of pickled herring, with limited edition annual flavors like the Asian-inspired citrus herring with yuzu and shiso.
You could also celebrate at the Gröna Lund amusement park in Stockholm, with its 35-meter-long buffet table (they claim it’s the longest in Sweden) containing, among other things, herring pickled in gin and juniper.
Cold, cured and sliced
While Swedes are known for their love of seafood, Christmas is a time when the pigs that were fattened all summer finally make their debut. On this table, charcuterie reigns supreme, starting with the prized boiled Christmas ham (julskinka), often coated with a breadcrumb and mustard mixture. Scan, one of Sweden’s largest meat producers, offers julskinka from pigs that have been fed rapeseed in their fodder to create a juicy, tender and marbled meat. They sell it lightly smoked, breaded, pre-sliced and/or pre-cooked. But show up with an organic beaut from Nibble Gårdsgris under your arm and you’re sure to be the hit of the party.
Beyond ham you’ll find charcuterie like those made by Signal & Andersson outside Gothenburg, including rullsylta, pork belly rolled up with herbs and spices, compressed, baked and chilled until slice-able; and senapsroulad, a similar treat lathered in mustard. Every product seems to have a corresponding Christmas version in Sweden: the Christmas pâté (julpaté) and the Christmas sausages (julkorv) are spiked with allspice and other Christmassy flavors. Tip: Sweden’s best-selling spreadable liver pâté, Arboga Pastej, is easily smuggled home in your suitcase, as are the sausages, like these made by Hemgården, which has been making charcuterie near Karlstad since 1894. Hemgården’s other seasonal favorites include Christmas salami, pig’s feet and juniper-smoked lamb roast.
Perhaps no julbord is better known for its meat than Oaxen’s, not least because of Chef Magnus Ek’s award-winning cookbook dedicated entirely to the subject (sorry, it’s not in English yet). This is one of the few places we know where you can try kalvaladåb, a cold cut made of pork shank preserved in aspic.
Meat lovers in the vicinity of Malmö should celebrate julbord at Ängavallen farm, which prides itself on humane animal husbandry and all-organic products – from pâtés to julskinka, classic pork ribs and other cured and smoked meats. Or, just a 25-minute boat ride from Stockholm in the inner archipelago, you can celebrate at Restaurang Rökeriet on Fjäderholmarna where the julbord is studded with meats from their smokehouse.
Christmas gifts from the sea
While meat is in full focus, no julbord would be complete without Janssons Frestelse – a casserole of potatoes, onions and flavored with sprats; gravad lax; and dried, reconstituted ling fish (lutfisk). What few salads there are on a typical julbord also contain some seafood for good measure, like the traditional beet salad with apples and herring. Or gubbröra, an egg salad with anchovies and dill.
If you’re more into fish than pork, you might want to try a seafood julbord. Gothenburg Chef Leif Mannerström’s recipe for Janssons is famous throughout the land and you can eat it by the open fire at Sjömagasinet along with other specialties like fish and seafood pâté and the classic Swedish shrimp salad, skagenröra. In Malmö the place to go is Årstiderna By The Sea and in Stockholm the buffet at Grodan is flush with lobster soup, mussels, salmon (cold-smoked, warm-smoked and gravad), oysters and more.
The season for fattening up
This year the Swedish dairy giants are warning of a butter shortage. That’s because more baking takes place at Christmas than in any other season. Throughout the country bakeries will be selling the yellow-tinted saffron buns called lussebullar for St. Lucy’s Day on December 13th and then come the gingerbread cookies (pepparkakor), Christmas candy, and a sweet, dense bread made with malt called vörtbröd.
If you find yourself traveling to Umeå, you can sample vörtbröd at Rex Rådhuset and Brännlands Wärdshus, in addition to items from local producers like lamb from Häljegård farm and sausages from Hansen’s charcuterie. The bread table to beat this year, however, might be at Gamla Riksarkivet in Stockholm. Here, for the third year in a row, 2001 Chef of the Year Christian Hellberg and Michelin-star chef Niklas Ekstedt will prepare a feast. They, too, will be serving vörtbröd, along with a house levain, housemade crispbread, and tunnbröd with butters, cheeses and condiments.
Each year at this time breweries all over Sweden are busy launching their Christmas beer. To give you a quick taste, Göteborgs Nya Bryggeri’s Christmas ale has a “malty taste with hints of fruit cake, spices, bitter orange and dark bread.” Spendrups produces a dark larger called Mariestads Julebrygd with hints of citrus and chocolate notes. Gotlands Bryggeri’s dark amber Wisby Julbrygd has a “distinct, bold flavour and hoppy bitterness, with a balanced sweetness and a fruity finish, with delicate smoky notes.”
‘Tis also the season for a special malty Christmas soda called julmust. Herrljunga’s is beloved for its refreshing yet mellow flavor with a note of apple and not too much sweetness. Spendrups Nygårda still makes their julmust using their recipe from 1910, but now they also offer variations like one that is aged for six months in bourbon oak barrels, and a Calvados-flavored version that comes in a champagne bottle.
Even coffee comes out in a special edition. Coffee makers like Zoegas and Kahls make popular julkaffe, as does the hipster brand Johan & Nyström, with its spicy, cardamom-flavored brew with notes of orange and cinnamon.
But the most celebrated Christmas drink of all is the mulled wine called glögg. Swedes young and old throw special glögg parties at which they serve the beverage with classic condiments like almonds and raisins alongside plates of Nyåkers or Annas pepparkakor. Blossa has long been the reigning glögg brand in Sweden, but newcomers like Vinfabriken and Saturnus are producing equally lovely versions. Vinfabriken’s Smålandsglögg is mulled with ingredients like cranberries and vanilla, while Saturnas makes a classic glögg with cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, ginger and orange peel.
From skål to bowl
The conclusion to a traditional julbord might not seem that fancy to a foreigner, but it dates back to a time when rice was imported from Asia and therefore reserved for special occasions. Rice porridge, or risgryns gröt, is served simply, with cinnamon and milk. Today many people substitute the rice for other grains, like this oat porridge from Axa or spelt porridge from organic producer Saltå Kvarn. If you can’t come and share a julbord with us this winter, we invite you to carry on the tradition by whipping up a batch of your own. But don’t forget to hide an almond in someone’s bowl – according to folklore, if you find an almond in your bowl, you’ll be married in the new year.