For a lot of people, the prospect of a trip to Ikea is much more terrifying than anything dreamt up by Henning Mankel. The search for a car park space. The seemingly endless trudge through vast grottos full of kitchenware, linen, toys, lighting and every other domestic essential. The towering racks of flat-pack furniture. The queue to pay. The overpowering sense of being trapped in a blue-and-yellow fantasy world. The Swedish superstore has a way of messing with the equilibrium like no other retail outlet.
But calm down for a moment. Be patient, hang on in there, and just beyond the check-out, you'll be granted your reward. This is where Ikea sells its range of Swedish food – cartons of prinsesstårta (a creamy layer cake), freezers full of köttbullar (meatballs), jars of roll mops in dill sauce ... suddenly your trip is looking up.
Swedish food like this, with its vitamin-rich sauces, fish full of omega-three fatty acids, and locally-sourced ingredients, is considered as good for your heart as it is for your carbon footprint. With Swedish restaurants like Madsen in South Kensington and and Garbo in Marylebone proving trendy if not entirely aimed at the consumer on a budget, Ikea's food could give Britons a cost-price opportunity to sample a model culinary landscape. It certainly seems to be a success – Ikea has food halls in all its 18 British locations and its restaurants shift 13 million meals a year.
So who buys this stuff? On the sunny weekend I venture to Ikea's Wembley food hall, there are just two people looking through the stacks. Iris Hall, 58, is captivated by the promise of renkött – reindeer – but walks away empty-handed. Ed Clarke, 36, stuffs a couple of packs of Kakor Havreflarn, or oat crisps, into his shoulder bag. To be fair, I am there at 11am and the store has just opened. But could it be that the British public are not convinced by the merits of a well-stocked smörgåsbord?
Ikea's spokespeople wouldn't be drawn on who their typical food customer might be, but it looks like it serves a mainly expat market. I make a quick call to Bronte Blomhoj, a Dane living in London and founder of the Scandinavian Kitchen – a restaurant, delicatessen and café specialising in northern European food. She was one of the first Scandinavian ex-pats to shop in Ikea for food when it came to the UK in 1987. "Ikea does have a place in promoting Scandinavian and Swedish food in Britain," she says. "OK, it's on the cheaper side, but in terms of getting people familiar with what a Swedish meatball is – and serving those who already know – it's very good."
So does the store's food stand up as well as its bunk beds? Initially, I am unconvinced, but taking advantage of my venture to north-west London, I fill my fridge with garishly designed packets. I send out my invites for a planned evening at which I resolve to play no more than three Abba tracks – and to serve solely food sourced from the famous Swedish furniture chain.
Storage, thankfully, isn't an issue. Cold winters in Sweden have meant people have had to rely on lots of pickling, freezing and smoking, especially of fish, and as such I'm mainly dealing with tins. The flipside is that Ikea's food is somewhat lacking on the fresh-ingredient front. Southern Sweden's sunnier months see asparagus, strawberries, herbs, beetroot, and crayfish grace the nations' tables – none of which numbers among the collection of well-known Swedish brands now in my possession. The day of the dinner party I am still reading up on my proposed menu when the doorbell rings to herald the arrival of my first guest. I sit them down at the table with a glass of cheap chilled white and dash into the kitchen.
For a starter I serve matjes herring, cuboid chunks of pinky fish flesh from a circular blue tin. Ikea sells this sea fish – known to contain lots of fatty acids, useful for batting away heart disease – for just £1.50. Traditionally dished up at lunchtime in Sweden on the country's Midsummer Eve, a public holiday founded to mark the summer solstice, it is accompanied by chopped dill, chives and boiled new potatoes that I bought locally. In the absence of gräddfil, or traditional sour cream, I use conventional, locally-bought sour cream, along with knäckebröd, a kind of cracker. The herring has the overpowering aroma of dill and cloves, and is somewhat spicier than your average pickled herring. To taste, it is tender and slightly sweet – mainly due to the dill – which contrasts nicely with the cream. But the knäckebröd tastes as though it has been left in a longboat's treasure chest for several decades.
Maybe some gravlax (£2.80) will cheer us up. Gravlax, Swedish for "cured salmon", was first popularised by Scandinavian fishermen salting their catch, then burying it in sand for its preservative qualities. I dish it up with chopped dill and mustard sauce. Dill, you may have noticed by now, is a pivotal member of the average Swede's spice rack (the word "dill" stems from the Old Norse word dilla, meaning "to lull", and the herb can be grown indoors and out).
Sprinkled with lemon, the fish tastes fresh and very salty, though as is often the case with cheaper salmon, a bit whiffy. Guests munch on pyttipanna (£3.95 per kg), a hodge-podge of sausage meat, diced potatoes and onions fried up in a pan – the kind of thing a Swede might rustle up to make use of their leftovers – with beetroot and a fried egg on top (provoking much recoiling of disgust in this British context; fried eggs, apparently are a no-no after breakfast), as well as ketchup and Worcestershire sauce. Pyttipanna could be good as a hangover aid, but would benefit from being made from scratch.
Then come the famed Ikea meatballs, £3.95 per kg, pre-cooked and a 20-minute heat-up time away from consumption. Rarely seen in Britain more than 3ft from a pine-wood flatpack, they feel as though, if you dropped them, they would bounce, and have a natural home in a dinner lady's ladle. But as fill-me-up fodder, they are fine, and are complemented with thinly-sliced cucumber, brown gravy out of a tin (a creamier gravy is also a popular choice) and boiled potatoes (I cannot get hold of lingonberry jam). For dessert, the diners shovel some prinsesstårta (£2.70) into their mouths, bite-sized versions of the traditional Swedish cake, consisting of alternating layers of cake, cream, jam, held together with a bright yellow marzipan shell and served with whipped cream. It is sickly, but light, and somewhat disconcertingly, the evening's biggest success.
Trina Hahnemann, author of The Scandinavian Cookbook, published in Britain in 2008, thinks that Swedish food has become trendy over here as part of an increasing preference for northern European food. "Across the whole of northern Europe many of the ingredients are the same," she says. "So in many ways Swedish cuisine offers British chefs the opportunity to experiment with the same ingredients, like mackerel and beetroot, in a new way. Plus you don't have to fly it halfway across the world." Hahnemann says that unlike Ikea's food, which offers a cheap take on Swedish traditional cuisine, more modern Swedish cuisine is much more likely to feature French or Italian influences.
As if that's not enough of a reason to embrace it, recent research has claimed that the Nordic diet is even healthier than the oft-praised Mediterranean alternative, which can sometimes feature lots of carb-heavy pasta. As well as omega three, Swedish food's fishy diet is rich in antioxidants and protein; you'll find plenty of grains, oats, and dark brown bread, plus root vegetables that are high in vitamins and minerals and low in carbs. Cold-weather vegetables – cabbage, kale and Brussels sprouts, all of which grow, and are common foods, in Sweden – contain some of the highest antioxidants of any vegetable and are a good source of vitamin K (for bone health).
It's somehow slightly disappointing to admit it, but like the rest of its products, Ikea's food has maintained its standards. I'm going back to northwest London in two weeks to visit a friend. At least now I know it's possible – if I can't coax him out to a nearby restaurant – that we can hit the North Circular and buy ourselves a tasty and healthy tenner's worth of Nordic nosh.
A little bit of everything: What's really in a smörgåsbord
The celebrated Swedish smörgåsbord derives its name from the words smörgås (open-faced sandwich) and bord (table). It is still a popular choice at Christmas in Sweden, and may contain bread, butter, cheese, herring, salmon, and eel dishes. Diners often begin with bread dipped in ham broth, before eating small meatballs, cheese and sausages. Gravlax and hard-boiled eggs may also feature.
Swedish köttbullar, or meatballs, are arguably the nation's most famous traditional dish. The word "köttbullar" was first mentioned in print in a Swedish cookbook in the 18th century to describe a meal popular with the nation's social elite, though meatballs' consumption spread through the whole of Swedish society with the availability of cheaper beef and pork accompanying the invention of the meat grinder. Smaller in size than those of Italy or Germany, they are traditionally served with a creamy gravy and lingonberry preserves.
Gravlax – essentially dill-cured salmon – was originally made by Scandinavian fishermen, who would salt their catch and lightly ferment it by burying it in sand. "Grav" is derived from the Old Norse word for "grave". Today, gravlax salmon is marinaded in salt, sugar and dil for several days. Gravlax is traditionally served with crisp bread or as part of a smörgåsbord, or used to make a sauce.
Modern Swedish cooking attempts to update traditional cuisine with a simple modern twist, says Trina Hahnemann, author of The Scandinavian Cookbook. This might see chilli added to a traditional fish soup. Seasonality and geography are also pivotal: summer in the south features fresh asparagus, strawberries, mackerel, and dill. Winter sees lamb, root vegetables and bacon emerge. The North has less of a summer so is more dependent on pickled fish in heavy sauces to see it through the year.