The Swedish Christmas Table
by Johanna Kindvall
In a sip: Brooklyn-based Swedish-born food blogger and illustrator Johanna Kindvall gives us an exclusive insight into the Swedish Christmas table, plus an extract from her book Smorgasbord, packed with delicious Scandinavian food ideas and three recipes for you to make at home.
In Sweden, all of December is devoted to Christmas. You go from one party to another, eating saffron buns, ginger cookies and drinking warming glögg (Swedish mulled wine). Wherever you wander there are magical flickering candle lights and a welcoming scent of cardamom, cloves, ginger, raisins, and oranges. For us, December is all about getting into the holiday spirit which signals the beginning of the cold dark winter - surely the best time to get cosy!
Swedish Christmas feasts
It's also time to prepare for the big Christmas table, known as julbord, which is set up and enjoyed in almost every Swedish home on Christmas Eve. Like a classic smörgåsbord, a julbord is beautifully arranged, often on the counter in the kitchen, with dishes including pickled herring, gravlax and meatballs. The dishes can vary from family to family and many regions have their own specialities; you will most likely get reindeer dishes in the north while in the south you might find smoked eel.
The dishes on the table are always arranged and eaten in a specific order. First there will be pickled herring which is often served with boiled eggs, potatoes, and aged hard cheese; second there will be varieties of seafood like gravlax, smoked fish, and fish paté; the third round offers the centerpiece of the table, the mustard glazed ham as well as sausages, liver paté, mustard, a variety of pickles, and salads; the fourth round is dedicated to warm dishes such meatballs, fatty pork ribs, Jansson's Temptation (potato casserole with cured sprats), spiced cabbage, and tiny linked sausages called prinskorv (prince sausage). The table also includes cheese, butter, and several types of traditional breads like the spicy malt and raisin flavoured bread vörtbröd (see recipe) and the rye crisp bread, knäckebröd.
On the dessert table you will find ris à la Malta (creamy rice porridge spiced with vanilla and orange) with wild berry compote, almond tartlets filled with raspberry jam and heavy whipped cream, followed by a selection of homemade sweets like fudge, marzipan, and chocolates.
This might sound like a whole lot of dishes, but if you really take your time on every round you will definitely have room for an extra smörgås (open sandwich) with ham and mustard before going to bed!
Christmas cooking in Sweden is very much a family affair. I have great memories of my childhood helping my mother by rolling meatballs, cutting out ginger cookies, boiling toffee, and licking my fingers after dipping nougat into melted chocolate. Some dishes like curing your own ham can take several weeks, but it's not that complicated as most of the 'cooking' process is done while you are doing other things. With a bit of planning you can easily get a delicious table done and still have time to enjoy quality time with your friends and family.
Usually Swedes drink beer and Aquavit (a traditional spice and herb-infused spirit) with the meal, especially with herring, but for most of the other dishes on the table it's totally fine to drink wine. However it can be difficult to match one wine with such a variety of dishes, ranging in flavour from sweet, sour, and salty to the milder flavours of dill via the spicy tones of mustard, horseradish, ginger, cloves, and allspice. A spicy red might work well with some of the meat dishes (Christmas sausage for example) but a rosé or a white wine that can balance the complexity of the different flavours at the table. I suggest a fruity wine that has both minerality and acidity, for example a dry riesling, which might just work with the pickled herring too. For the cheeses and the dessert table try a Madeira or a Port.
I've put together a few recipes from my latest book Smörgåsbord that can be served together or included in a classic Smörgåsbord for the holiday. And to get you into the real Swedish Christmas mood I have also included my recipe for glögg, the Swedish mulled wine just for The Wine Society. Enjoy.
Reprinted with permission from Smörgåsbord, copyright 2017 Johanna Kindvall. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.