Pick and mix

It evolved as a necessity at a time when hunger was a real possibility. Today the smorgasbord is still a celebration of plenty. Christopher Hirst savours this tempting Swedish tradition
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Better known as a metaphor than a meal these days, smorgasbord still sums up Swedish cuisine for many people. The literal meaning of the word is "buttered-bread table", although the modern Swedish smorgasbord customarily consists of a host of dishes, both hot and cold, accompanied by sour dough, rye bread and crispbread. Originally, it was a snack that accompanied the aquavit taken before meals. By the 19th century, it had evolved into a large buffet. A family would present this simultaneous feast no more than two or three times a year, with guests often contributing dishes.

Better known as a metaphor than a meal these days, smorgasbord still sums up Swedish cuisine for many people. The literal meaning of the word is "buttered-bread table", although the modern Swedish smorgasbord customarily consists of a host of dishes, both hot and cold, accompanied by sour dough, rye bread and crispbread. Originally, it was a snack that accompanied the aquavit taken before meals. By the 19th century, it had evolved into a large buffet. A family would present this simultaneous feast no more than two or three times a year, with guests often contributing dishes.

The smorgasbord was a celebration of plenty at a time when hunger was a real possibility in Sweden and an indication of a housewife's skill at preserving food. Of course, the ability to dry, salt, pickle and smoke was important in all regions with a seasonal climate in the days before refrigeration. What made Scandinavia different is that trading was impossible during the frozen months. A wide range of preserved foods ensured variety during the long dark winters. While it have been the consequence of necessity, the smorgasbord described by a French visitor to Gothenburg in 1871 was a tempting array including smoked reindeer, gravlax, caviar, Swedish anchovies, herrings both salted and pickled, smoked goose breast, cucumbers, a variety of breads, cheese flavoured with cumin and three kinds of spirits.

Surprisingly, perhaps, this celebratory feast from the chilly northlands suddenly became fashionable in mid-20th century Britain. Maybe it was the arrival of Danish furniture or Scandinavian lager, but the smorgasbord became a 1960s classic. It would be surprising today to be invited to a smorgasbord, but the meal presaged the current fashion for a host of small dishes presented at the same time.

The mezze meal of the Middle East, which spread around much of the eastern Mediterranean, is a parallel tradition. The Spanish tapas, which originally accompanied an aperitif, has transmuted into a full meal like its Swedish counterpart. As the fashion for this kind of multi-dish "grazing" grows, perhaps the smorgasbord will return. "It's a delightful way to eat," writes Elisabeth Luard in her book European Peasant Cookery. "In former times, the arrangement gave cooks an opportunity to taste each other's dishes without the trouble of full-scale entertaining - a system that adapts well to life today."

At least one major element of the smorgasbord has become a dinner party favourite. Gravlax is a classic example of the Swedish passion for preserving. In this case, it is salmon ( lax) preserved by burial ( grav is the same as our word "grave"). Dating at least from the 12th century, the technique involved burying the fish in the ground or, more practically, in a barrel for four to six days. This produced a mild fermentation that rendered the fish edible although still uncooked.

Modern gravlax is prepared using pairs of filleted sides of salmon sprinkled with fresh dill, salt crystals, sugar and white pepper. The reconstituted salmon is pressed under a heavy weight for three days. It is turned twice a day and basted with the juices that exude. After being drained and brushed clean, it is sliced very thin and served with a mild mustard sauce. Or, more easily, you can buy Swedish gravlax frozen from Ikea as a reward for surviving this consumerist labyrinth.

Another great fishy treat of the smorgasbord is herring. Salt-cured herrings are soaked for an hour or more to remove the salt, then marinaded in spiced, sweetened vinegar. It will be ready after two days. Luard says that "at least 20 different herring dishes is not excessive" for a smorgasbord. In various dishes, marinaded herring is combined with cucumber, carrots, potatoes, sour cream or dill and beetroot. Other piscine delights include jellied trout, cod roes with fennel, hard-boiled eggs with caviar or salmon roes, and the smorgasbord speciality known as fagelbo, a salad of sprats, lettuce, onions, capers, beetroot and raw egg yolk. Meat lovers may head towards plates of Swedish charcuterie such as veal in aspic and pressed tongue, although they may possibly prefer meatballs.

Usually served with a creamy sauce, meatballs is a favourite warm meat dish on the smorgasbord. Apparently, the Swedes gained their taste for this Levantine treat in the early 18th century when the Turkish creditors of Charles XII pursued the king back to Sweden. It was almost 20 years before they got their money, by which time the taste for meatballs had taken root in the far north. Frozen meatballs are now the biggest seller in Ikea's food department. At the store's Istanbul outlet, Ikea sells meatballs to the country where they originated.

The customary accompaniment to smorgasbord is lager and aquavit. Also known as schnapps, this spicy spirit is a perfect foil for the oiliness of the preserved fish. The fine aquavit made in Stockholm by OPAnderson is flavoured with cumin, fennel and aniseed. In restaurants, the spirit is usually served to customers in individual, ice-cooled flasks (known as a "klukflask" due to the noise it makes during pouring).

At parties, you are supposed to down your first glass of aquavit in one, which is why the spirit is sometimes served in glasses with stems that lack a base. After the first glass, this strict etiquette is relaxed, so you can drink your second glass in two swallows, your third in three. After that, no one will be counting.

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