This post starts with some impressions of a visit to Sweden recorded some years ago that sets the scene for a Swedish culinary emblem.
What was covering the surface of the lakes? Like cataract-filled eyes the purple-blue of the deep water is partly veiled with a translucent white. Flying eastbound towards Stockholm I peered down from the air picking out the few isolated suede-coloured fields that were now snow-free but still bare. Back in the deciduous west, beeches briefly had lifted their wintry branches grudgingly tinted with purple. Now in the vast interior it was the conifer forests that straggled over a rocky landscape that had been levelled by a tide that had long since drained over the curve of the horizon. This was Planet Sweden, dotted by innumerable iced lakes and draped with forests deep enough to contain a continent of mystery.
Slicing through the ancient landscape the roadmakers had drilled and blasted the solid granite. The more amenable forest had been cut into, yet beyond the continuous six-foot fences that shadowed the road into Stockholm could roam the bear, wolf, lynx and elk. As is true for the majority of Swedes, the only elk I saw that trip stood in the zoo of Stockholm’s Scansen park – a dignified presence despite being hoisted atop thin ‘rugby post’-high legs. Like the hibernating bear and the red oxide painted farmhouse, they are clearly venerated symbols in a sparsely populated nation whose wide spaces are free for people to wander in with nothing but their imagination. Tree-spirits, trolls, species of tomte (gnome-elves) and jätte (giants) fill the everyday mythology.
Once in Stockholm the airport coach passes over raised freeways to give one of the best views of the city across the tideless archipelago to Gamla Stan (Old Town) on one of the fourteen islands the city covers. Later, like many Stockhomers, I was to duck the bright cold air to drink bowls of hot chocolate in cellars that lie below its cobbled streets and alleys – burrowing woodland creatures looking for warmth and company. ‘Bloody Hell!’ people mutter as they scurried between one reliably warm building to another ‘it’s cold’.
Walk far enough in this prosperous and unramshackle quarter and you’ll more often than not meet a beautiful quality of light bathing a historic vista. On top of a long piazza that slopes down to the water is the Storkyrkan, the ‘Great Church’ of Stockholm. Its baroque shell contains unexpected images of gothic imagination. Most strikingly is a life-size medieval sculpture of St. George and the Dragon to one side of the altar, looking slightly discarded – as if an enormous doorstop had been donated by some fashion-conscious giant who now considered it ‘too fussy’. The church authorities – who could refuse a gift from a giant? – had placed it to one side and had let the bright colours get a bit dull. Despite the dust the dynamic group is as mesmerising as the scene of a road accident and my sympathies are with the dragon, expiring amid arcs of bared fangs and claws as it desperately grasps the saint’s breaking lance. Leaning back on its green reptilian body of wrinkled leather and horny tissue it looks too uncomprehending to express an evil preference for virgin flesh. Like the odd marauding Swedish wolf, it was hungry and in a strange part of town; more roadkill than rogue.
I was equally struck by the Storkyrkan painting of medieval Stockholm called Vädersolstavlan (literarily ‘weather sun picture’). Surrounded by such woods that would appear to be the natural habitat for hungry dragons, the little stockaded city has something very unusual happening in the sky above it. Circles and multiple suns hang above Stockholm like a giant astrolabe of God. It is a record of an atmospheric phenomenon of ‘mock suns’ that was observed in 1535. Clearly the capital of a country where anything is to be expected; where as late as the 18th century they were speculating on which of their many Swedish mountain tops did Noah and his Ark come to rest.
Wisely the guidebook to Vasamuséet (the Vasa Museum) on Djurgården does not attempt to give an image of the salvaged ship it houses. Like the Swedish king it is named after, this 1628 royal warship has a presence one probably has to experience in person. Capsized on its maiden voyage in an incident similar to sinking the English ship Mary Rose, the Vasa otherwise would dwarf that vessel in any other comparisons. Now as ripened as a black seed-pod after centuries below the Stockholm archipelago, its monstrous hull could hold as many sea-faring ghosts as the Flying Dutchman could muster, filling a girth that is as round as one of nearby Scansen park’s well-fed ponies. Its many poop decks are theatrically raised and raked against a high stern where the functional lines disappear under ornamentation that encrusts them like coral. At its ceremonial launch the mixture of grotesques, cherubs, wheat sheaves, warriors, cupolas and kings were all vividly painted in the brightest colours available. This is a fact one does not really have to be told; sensing the colours that once covered the extravagantly carved wood is like hearing the distant echo of a great parade.
On the last night I stood on the balcony of the Royal Opera House, the mechanical woodpeckers of the pedestrian crossings below clanking awkwardly in the deserted square. I watched the river flow in spate through the city to Baltic Sea beyond. It is a spot beloved of ducks who took rides on the car-sized sheets of ice that cruised by them. I wandered in to take my seat in what might be one of the most unaffected opera audiences in the world. A wizard opened the first act singing to the stars in an act of divination – ‘Eternal emblems of mysterious meaning …’ – and my racing mind thought of the striking things I had seen and what they might mean. But it was too late, the orchestra had struck up one Handel’s infectious tunes and the audience were laughing around me as spiky-hair pucks (moonlighting from The Royal Swedish Ballet School) roller-skated on stage as the wizard’s flying genies. The young dancers lapped up the limelight; gyrating their hips like a boy band. ‘What do I know?’ I laughed, I relaxed and laughed along with the infectious company of people who were determined to have a damn good time.
While in the Djurgården quarter of Stockholm the grand facade (built 1812) of the Hasselbacken restaurant had been pointed out to me, the origin of Hasselbackspotatis – a way to give an innocent potato ‘the death of a thousand cuts’. A very fiddly restaurant affair, thought I, can the potato be improved that much by so much trouble? This was some years ago. Time moves on. Last weekend I was thinking of something novel to do with a spud in a potato-loving household. I placed an egg-sized new (waxy) potato in the bowl of a wooden spoon and executed a sequence of parallel cuts nearly down to the base, but not quite. The spoon was a useful guide. This was not a great chore for a modest number of potatoes, and I can say now that the result was well worth the trouble. But all those parallel lines seemed strangely appropriate for a Swedish dish. Runes are the elements of the ancient Nordic alphabet made up straight lines so that a sentence can appear to be embellishments on a sequence of parallel strokes. And then it came to me in a moment of revelation, ‘Eternal emblems of mysterious meaning’ – the spell had worked. The Bronze Age rock art at Tanum, Western Sweden, (see below) are remarkable in representing the aspects of ancient daily life and religious devotion. Are those images of a stylised Vikings long boats or an equally stylised Hasselback potatoes? I’ll let you make your mind up on this possibly contentious issue…
Certainly if you want to eat a Swedish emblem these potatoes are delicious. The aim is to get a crisp, brown top. So the oven is set to 200°C/gas mark 6/400ºF and the cockscomb tops are put upside-down into the preheated butter/oil mixture (you know what you like, or will allow yourself). At about 20 minutes in, right the potatoes up. Traditionally salt was sprinkled on top at this point but a pinch of commercial fine breadcrumbs works well for me. Another 20 minutes should see them crusty on top soft in the middle and as buttery as you wish.