Flat-pack dining: Ikea's range of food promises the authentic taste of Sweden

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

But does it survive the journey home? Rob Sharp finds out

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Recruitment Genius: Class 1 HGV Driver

    £23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful group of compan...

    Day In a Page

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum