Monday, 27 August 2012

Swedish nibbles

I've wanted to visit Scandinavia for as long as I can remember. This may have something to do with my deep childhood love of Kirsten, the Swedish American Girl doll, or, perhaps, my more recently developed affection for the Kristen Lavransdatter novels. I've always envisioned myself wearing Nordic sweaters and cross-country skiing and watching the aurora borealis during one of the north country's seemingly endless dark winter nights. One thing I never could quite picture, though, was eating Scandinavian food.

I mean, seriously, what are these people thinking, sticking a pot of pickled fish out on a breakfast buffet table? Even just looking at this makes me wince.

Or this, whatever it is--pate, perhaps? If I can't identify it, there's no way I'm going to eat it. Also, if this is pate, there is still no way it's going anywhere near my plate.

Here's another good one: tubes of caviar. Caviar is disgusting under any circumstances (birds' eggs = yes; any other species' eggs = no), but particularly so first thing in the morning. See the face of the young boy on the tube? That's there because these are usually given to children so they can spread the caviar on their toast like butter. I'd like to have seen my parents try that on me when I was a kid.

Of course, it's unfair to judge the whole country of Sweden based on the breakfast buffet offerings at a single hotel--a hotel which did, by the way, serve quite respectable (a.k.a., "normal") dinners. So let's take a look at the dining options in one of Lund's posher restaurants, shall we?

Here you see mackerel with potato wedges, crisp breadcrumbs, and a poached egg. Sounds delicious, doesn't it? That's what I thought when I ordered it. Then I discovered that the mackerel was pickled. Pickled. In the 21st century, in the middle of the summer, in a town that can't be more than a 30-minute drive from the coast.

I just cannot comprehend this. It's not like I don't appreciate pickled things in general--pickles, for instance, are delicious--but I just don't understand why on earth you would want to prepare flesh in this way, unless you are a medieval peasant facing a hard winter in the middle of a land-locked country and had to choose between pickled animals or no animals at all.

You might think I'm being melodramatic, but that is a main course-sized filet of mackerel right there, completely saturated with acid. I truly hope you cannot imagine what it feels like to put something like that in your stomach, because it is horribly unpleasant. For the rest of the evening and most of the next day, I felt nauseous if I even recalled this dish; I also felt as though I might potentially vomit at any moment.

Thank God we had this huge stack of bread on hand, because it did help soak up some of the acid before the mackerel burned a hole through the side of my stomach. Actually, this bread was fantastic anyway; it had some sort of licorice-y secret ingredient (I'm guessing fennel, though it could have been anise) and was really delicious. I'm hoping this is some sort of traditional Swedish thing so that I can easily find a recipe for it.

My main course was as amazingly wonderful as my appetizer was terrifying; the yin to its yang. For what may actually be the first time in my life, I ordered pork. In this case, I was tempted to try "the other white meat" because it had been crusted in tea, and my love of tea overcame my revulsion to non-bacon pig meat. The medallions were accompanied by slices of warm apple, a couple of potatoes, some pak choi, and a really tasty gravy. This was definitely one of the classiest and most satisfying things I've ever eaten, ranking right up there with the food from Rick Stein's and Nathan Outlaw's.

Sasha's meal was also a success. He ordered poached (not pickled!) cod with potatoes and peas and various other accompaniments in a nice broth. He also ordered a dessert:

I know this isn't the most attractive photo, but that's my fault more than the restaurant's. This is a raspberry mousse topped with chocolate pudding, fresh raspberries, and sweet croutons. Unfortunately, Sasha doesn't like mixing chocolate and fruit, so he had to do some careful excavation in order to keep the two flavors separate. However, he still gave the dish a thumbs-up.

Two of our dining companions ordered creme brulees, which were "bruleed" right at our table, providingd quite a lot of excitement and entertainment.

This is probably a good point to mention that Sweden is really, really, ridiculously expensive. As in, you're pretty much guaranteed to spend at least $100 for a 2-person dinner even at a relatively average establishment. The above culinary adventure was on course to cost us approximately $200 (wine included), but then one of our companions insisted on paying. I felt guilty (well, only a little guilty, since he is Swedish and gets paid in kroners), but mostly I felt relieved; I was not looking forward to putting that on my credit card.

Because of the incredibly steep prices, Sasha and I took advantage of our hotel's free dinner buffet whenever we could, and I purchased myself some "cheap" (in a relative sense) and easy lunch items in a grocery store. These included 2 ramen cups and a package of cup-of-soups, cheese, wheat crackers, and fresh fruit. Using the kettle in our hotel room, the coffee mug included as part of our conference registration, and plastic cutlery I spotted at the grocery store, I prepared lunch for myself each day; thanks to the menu (and my renewed relationship with poverty), it was rather like reliving my college days.

After the pickled herring outing at Mat & Destillat, I was--understandably, I think--nervous about our 2 remaining nights out on the town. However, our luck improved. On the first night, this was partly thanks to the fact that we went to a place that had already been tested by some friends. There, I ordered what was basically a fancy version of fish and chips:

Specifically, it was panko-breaded fish with potatoes, veggies, and--the coup de grace--herby butter infused with mussel broth. Normally I don't like melted butter, but after dipping my finger in to have a quick taste, I couldn't help but go back for more. I couldn't really taste the mussel flavor much, but what I did notice was the tarragon, which matched the garnish on my fish. I didn't leave anything on my plate but a few sprigs of dill; the dish was, in a word, terrific.

On our final evening, we attended the conference banquet at Luftkastellet, which overlooks the strait between Sweden and Denmark. Truth be told, the most appetizing thing we had that evening was the lovely view, but our meal wasn't bad--especially not by conference banquet standards. I was particularly fond of a side dish that consisted of large barley dressed in pesto sauce; the grains were basically being treated as little pasta.

This is one of the appetizers, which brings us full circle to the topic of weird things that Swedish people do with their food. Notice that the salmon is completely raw. I have nothing against raw salmon--I eat it in smoked and sushi format all the time--but it's not something everyone loves, and those are some pretty hefty pieces. Note also the piles of crispy bread crumbs; you may recall that these were a part of my mackerel disaster, as well. They don't really have much flavor, so I suppose they're on the plate in order to look pretty and add some crunch. Finally, you'll notice the redcurrants. These are as close as I got to lingonberries, which, in jam form, are a staple of Scandinavian cuisine. I'm a little surprised I didn't see any lingonberries, actually, but that didn't really bother me too much; I think it's a bit weird to have berries with meat, regardless of whether you're talking about pairing lingonberries with meatballs or redcurrants with salmon.

That, of course, is just me, and it's pretty clear that my tastes do not align with the tastes of the Scandinavians. Of course, I didn't get to try such classics as mustamakkara (black pudding), leverpalt (liver dumplings), surstromming (fermented herring--one step up from pickled!), or grisfotter (pigs' feet). Maybe those would change my mind.

Note: Nobody Swedish should take my comments too seriously. After all, I come from the land of Cheez Whiz and Jimmy Dean's sausage pancakes on a stick. Besides, both Wikipedia and my hero, Jamie Oliver, say that the Swedes do some lovely things with potatoes and meat. I'll obviously have to go back one day in order to taste these delicacies.

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