"There’s nothing like Christmas in Sweden, and there’s no other event or holiday that compares with it. The carnival atmosphere continues for an entire month; preparations begin in early December:They bake and freeze breads and various kinds of sweet baked goods, like the Lucia breads made with saffron and raisins and traditionally eaten on St. Lucia’s Day [December 13]. Two weeks before the holiday they start fermenting the gløgg, [mulled wine], and place aside for pickling the leg of pork to be used for preparing a homemade ham.
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“Three days before Christmas they choose a fir tree; on the morning of the holiday they prepare sweets made of marzipan, chocolate, caramel and nougat and shaped like kids and reindeer. At 3 P.M. all work stops and the whole family sits down together to watch Disney selections for the holiday, a tradition that began in the second half of the 20th century. Between 3 and 4 P.M. there is no one to talk to anywhere in Sweden; everyone is riveted to the television screen. At the end of the broadcast they go on to the Julbord, the traditional Christmas table.”
The speaker is Amir Kronenberg, chef of Tel Aviv’s Gedera 26 restaurant and the son of a Swedish Christian father and an Iraqi Jewish mother. His grandfather, Eric, served in 1974-75 as commander of the UN forces at the Suez Canal.
“His family accompanied him to the Middle East,” says his grandson, “and my father met my mother at a UN party in Jerusalem. They fell madly in love and got married, and the couple moved to my father’s childhood home in the lake region of Gothenburg in southwest Sweden.
“My sister and I were born there, but the cultural gaps were too great. My mother couldn’t take the cold and life far from her family, and after a number of years they divorced. We returned to Jerusalem with Mother and from then on our lives were divided between our father’s home in Sweden and our mother’s home in Israel.”
His memories of the Christmas season are among the sweetest of all for him. “The holiday meal lasted for at least two or three hours, and counting the number of times that each one got up to fill his plate the holiday table is set as a buffet was a common family sport. Every Swedish home takes pride in the large selection of schnapps and distilled liquors, and every plateful is accompanied by a toast in the best northern tradition. At the stage where the presents are opened, at the end of the meal, everyone is quite drunk and the ceremony turns into a wild, childish and amusing celebration.
“After the presents came the turn of the rice pudding, seasoned with cinnamon. In our family there’s a custom of placing a single white almond in the pudding. Whoever gets the almond is allowed to make a wish, and you’re not allowed to stop eating until the almond is found in the plate of the lucky one. The next day, on the afternoon of the holiday, we recover from the joyous feast and the guzzling with a meal of leftovers starring the homemade ham, this time sliced and cooked with potatoes.”
The Swedish Christmas meal is called “Julbord” (literally the “Yule table”). Yule was the name of a religious holiday celebrated by the pagan Germanic tribes and became identified with the Christian Christmas.
Julbord is directly inspired by the equally famous tradition of Swedish cuisine, the “smörgåsbord” – literally “a table of bread in butter” – a buffet meal with all the courses served at once on a buffet table, accompanied by drinking and enjoying each other’s company.
The culture of smörgåsbord, reminiscent of the culture of the Russian zakuski or the Balkan-Middle Eastern meze table, assumed its present form in the 19th century. Open sandwiches, which give the custom its name, are only a small part of the rich selection of hot and cold dishes that appear on the table.
“Swedish cuisine, today one of the most talked-about cuisines on the world culinary scene, only became a sophisticated and modern cuisine beginning in the 1990s,” says Amir.
“Originally it was a simple and functional cuisine, full of sugar, fat, complex carbohydrates such as potatoes and fish from the North Sea characteristic of small rural communities that lived in extreme weather conditions and were forced to preserve a large part of their food for the long and frozen winter months.”
On Christmas, even today and perhaps even more so, the Swedes preserve ancient family traditions, and a large percentage of the dishes on the festive table are created at home. Every region and every family has its own traditions, and the meal we prepared with Amir is based on the customs common in the geographical and cultural area from which his family originated.
Jansson’s Temptation potato and anchovy gratin
For a deep pie pan
2 kg. red potatoes
2 kg. onions
2 small cans of anchovies, drained of oil
250 ml. sweet cream
250 ml. grated Parmesan or Manchego cheese
25 gm. butter
salt and black pepper
Peel the potatoes and cut into very thin slices, preferably with a mandoline slicer. Cut the onion into thin round slices. Heat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius. Melt the butter in a skillet over medium heat and fry the onion until it browns. Lightly grease a baking pan and arrange a layer of potatoes, then a layer of onions and five anchovy filets. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Repeat the process twice, to form three layers. Pour the sweet cream over all to cover.
Cover the baking pan with a sheet of aluminum foil and place in the oven for about 40 minutes.
Then, remove the aluminum foil and sprinkle the cheese over the dish. Return to the oven and bake an additional 15 minutes, until the surface is brown.
4 clean filets of schmaltz herring
1 cooked and peeled beet
1 peeled purple onion
4 cucumbers pickled in vinegar
1/2 bunch of chives, thinly chopped
1 tbsp. vinegar
2 tbsp. mayonnaise
1 tbsp. sour cream
2 hard-boiled eggs
salt and black pepper
Cut the fish into thin slices and place in a bowl. Chop the beet, onion, pickled cucumbers and eggs into cubes of about 1/2 centimeter and add to the bowl. Add the rest of the ingredients, mix well and serve.
Gravlaks in mustard and chive sauce
1 kg. fresh salmon filet, without the skin
2 kg. coarse salt
1 kg. sugar
grated peel of 2 lemons
1 bunch chives, chopped
For the sauce:
2 tbsp. smooth Dijon mustard
1 tbsp. honey
1/3 cup vinegar
1/2 bunch chopped chives
salt and black pepper
Mix the sugar, salt, chives and lemon peel in a bowl. Sprinkle one-third of the pickling mixture onto a flat baking pan. Place the fish on top and cover it with the remaining mixture, so the fish is completely covered. Wrap the fish well in cling wrap and refrigerate for 12 hours.
To prepare the sauce: Mix all ingredients thoroughly in the bowl. Remove the pickled fish from the refrigerator, rinse well with water and dry with paper towels.
Cut the fish into thin slices and serve topped with the sauce.
On the Julbord
Bread Preparing home-baked bread is part of the holiday tradition, usually breads with a dense texture and a sweet taste. One of the most popular is beer bread seasoned with cloves, cardamom and English pepper.
Cucumber and chive salad
Salad of pickled beets
Herring salad (see recipe). There is no Scandinavian kitchen or holiday table without herring, the most important fish of the North Sea and the North Atlantic, which had a decisive influence on the course of European history.
Liver terrine This popular terrine, whose commercial versions can be found in every grocery store and supermarket, is an integral part of the Swedish breakfast. At Christmas it is customarily prepared at home. Every family has its own traditional recipe, and the flavors are coarser and stronger than in store-bought products. Swedish terrine is prepared from pork liver, but Amir made the local version from chicken livers.
Gravlaks with mustard and chive sauce (see recipe). The term “gravlaks” refers originally to an ancient technique for preserving fish. Gravlaks is buried fish, and “surlaks” is sour fish, the result of burying the fish in the ground for a long time. Both terms appeared in the Scandinavian languages beginning in the Middle Ages, as family names of people who turned the work into their profession. Fresh fish originally, the term also referred to types of fish other than salmon were buried in pits dug in the ground and covered with bricks and stones, or were kept in wooden casks. The result is a fermentation process that leads to a softening of the fish and gives it a sour taste. A short burial, about four to six days, makes the fish edible even without cooking, and is the basis for modern gravlaks (not including burial in the ground). Long burial, lasting several months, preserves the fish for arid winter days when snow and ice make fishing impossible.
Glogg Hot wine seasoned with honey, cinnamon and various other spices was a common beverage in the Middle Ages, when, without modern means of preservation and refrigeration, people were forced to cover the inferior taste of wine. The Swedish version is made of black beer, not wine, fermented with yeast for two weeks and seasoned with ginger, cardamom, cloves and cinnamon. The final product alcohol content ranges from 2 to 4 percent is served with almonds and raisins, and today many prefer the commercial versions to the homemade variety.
Eggs stuffed with aioli and red caviar
Schmaltz herring in marinade at least three or four types of salted fish will appear on a traditional holiday table, some of them not familiar to inhabitants of the Middle East. They are prepared by various pickling and salting techniques.
Cooked red cabbage to accompany the hot dishes.
Jansson’s Temptation a gratin of potatoes and anchovies (see recipe). A rich casserole that is one of the most famous dishes of Julbord in particular and of Swedish cusine in general.
Meatballs with berry jam, small sausages and pork ribs in honey After the selection of fish, salads and cold meats comes the turn of the hot dishes. In olden days, after the traditional pig slaughtering in spring, each family would prepare sausages and other traditional charcuterie products. Today, most of them come from modern stores. In southwestern Sweden, the holiday table is full of dishes made from fish from the nearby sea and from farm animals. In the center of the country the farm animals will be replaced by the meat of reindeer, wild boar and other game.
Homemade ham the glory of the table and the pride of the family. The leg of pork is marinated for two weeks, cooked for many hours and glazed with a coating of mustard and spices.
Caramel and chocolate candies
Risgrynsgrot Rice pudding, sometimes together with oats that, along with the rice, gave it its name, seasoned with cinnamon.