"It's not much but it's ours"

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


A couple of weeks ago I had one of those lightbulb-on moments. When Swedish supergroup ABBA sang SOS they weren’t talking about a love that had gone but were in fact relating how much they missed the Swedish national dish: S.O.S. aka Smör, Ost och Sill (Butter, Cheese and Herring), a dish that is pretty much available at any restaurant where the cuisine could be reasonably described as Swedish.

During a short weekend break in the Swedish capital Stockholm I had it three (count ‘em) times. With your SOS comes several different types of pickled herring, sometimes in a creamy sauce, sometimes not. There’s potatoes. There’s some indifferent cheese and a big basket of bread and knäckebröd. I liked it a lot, not least since you get to drink chilled schnapps with it which is never a bad thing.

Really, though, Swedish cuisine doesn’t get too much more exciting than that. Yes, I know Stockholm is home to several Michelin starred gaffs but I didn’t really want to eat food that looked like an allotment and with names like My childhood visits to Djurgården. In fact, it’s usually a good idea in restaurants to avoid food that doesn’t explain at least some of the ingredients in the title like, you know, Steak and, er, Chips.

No, what I was after was what’s known as husmanskost, a sort of Swedish home cooking style. I did find some although the fact the holidays were starting meant some of the places I was interested in were closed.

Still, Stockholm was a pleasant enough place to spend a few days in. It’s clean, safe and apart from the downtown pretty easy on the eye. Everything works and people seem very urbane and happy that things are as they should be. It reminded me a bit of Vienna but without the annoying tendency to vote ex-Nazis into power.

From an eating and drinking point of view you’ve got to work a bit harder. Your liquid-downing options consist of handing over huge wads of Krona for a glass of ordinary wine or handing over slightly smaller wads of money for a glass of the aptly-named Pripps Blå.

There are a few exceptions: most of the restaurants I went to had a decent beer list where you could get porters, ales and the like. There was also a great pub called Akkurat in Södermalm which had some nice hand-pulled Swedish ales. Although sitting in a darkened room drinking beer when it’s 30C outside doesn’t seem quite right (what am I saying?!).

The first restaurant I tried and probably the best in terms of quality was Mathias Dahlgren’s Matbaren in the Grand Hotel. He has a fancypants restaurant in the same building but the more casual operation is pretty good. Small plates have reached Stockholm but Matbaren hasn’t seen it as a means of ripping their customers off. You order a plate at a time from a small menu of Swedish-influenced and International dishes and they cook them up to order with no little refinement in the big open-plan kitchen.

A dish of Baltic Herring was that fish covered in Whitefish Roe and a creamy horseradish cream. Apart from being beautifully delicate it had some of the tastiest new potatoes I’ve ever eaten. These sort of things can really lift a dish.

There was more creaminess in a dish of steamed Coalfish – similar to cod in taste and texture. The fish was cooked perfectly and the sauce, or emulsion as they would have it here, was light and made more luxurious by the little woodland mushrooms.

Corn-fried chicken surprisingly came under “From Our Country” section. It had the unfortunate smell of a Fried Chicken shop which you’d find hundreds of in the UK (South London reprezentin’). However, it was decent finger-licking, chicken, all the better for being cooked freshly and served piping hot. I liked the crisp, fresh veg that came with a little Oriental-influenced dip. Altogether odd but interesting.

Incidentally, the freshly baked selection of crispbread was wonderful and I ate far too much of it. But only because the nice young women serving me kept offering more of it.

Puddings were of the type you can find the world over when you don’t have a proper pastry chef working for you. When the bill came I got that pit of the stomach feeling when you miss the last step, but hey, this is Sweden right?

Östermalms Saluhall is an impressive building in the centre of town that is home to a tidy little food market. It isn’t worth more than a quick tour apart from the fact a lot people come for their lunch here and many of the food vendors have tables or bars where you can plonk yourself down for a little nosebag.

My choice, Lisa Elmqvist, seemed to be the most popular one and soon after opening there were a mixture of locals and tourists tucking in. Their Silltarik or Herring plate was pretty generous, came with a big basket of good bread – they lurvvvve their bread round these parts – and was the perfect accompaniment to some more beers and aquavits. Although taking a ferry shortly afterwards wasn’t exactly a Nobel prizewinning idea - unless there was one for extreme stupidity.

Unhappily, in the evening I found my chosen restaurant was closed for the holidays (or maybe they were just being verrrrry quiet until I’d buggered off). Plan B was Bakfickan another bar-based restaurant at the back of the Operakällarens which specialises in husmanskost. You were paying attention earlier, right?

Their other specialities: tired food, tired service and tired atmosphere. Whoever put the SOS together looked as if they weren’t really putting their all into the job at hand. A more desultory plate of food would be hard to find.

That other Swedish staple, meatballs, came in a gloopy sauce with a taste that owed more to the Royal House of Campbell than Bernadotte. But maybe your average Stockholmer likes them like this.

One thing that proliferates all over the city are hot dog stands. I’m sure they’re fine but I found the lack of queues of people eager to chomp down on one less than a massive vote of confidence so I gave them a miss.

What there weren’t so many of, but which I did try was a stand doing Nystekt Strömming wherein our old friend Mr Herring is fried. The stand I chose was run by the only person in Sweden who doesn’t speak English but then she was Icelandic so that’s ok. Sitting in the sun, eating the little fried fillets with a can of pissy larger (you can only get stronger stuff from the state-run shops) was hugely enjoyable and is the sort of food experience I really rate. It’s all about context you see.

Stockholmer’s are also very good at is coffee and I don’t think I had a single cup that was less than very good. And all with less of the attendant hype and fuss that you get in London. I can especially recommend Café Nero on Roslagsgatan where the coffee is good and strong and the service friendly. They also have a licence if you fancy a bit of grappa action.

My visit was coming to an end and I still hadn’t found anywhere that felt particularly Swedish in the sense of something you wouldn’t find anywhere else in the world. Then I lucked out with a visit Pelikan. Located in the hip Söder region, Pelikan is a fine old Swedish-style pub and dining hall. It feels like it’s been going about its business for years. I’m not sure what the Swedish word for it but it has that cosiness that the Germans call gemutlikeit.

Anyway. They served me a decent SOS and a plate of Pike-Perch with a Beet Salad that was surprisingly refined. The baked Goat’s Cheese went well with the salad but with the fish – not so much. Still, as a gesture of generosity to the customer it was spot on. Usefully, it’s also open on Sunday evenings. A fine place and a fine way to end my break.

Like all my little jaunts just as I feel I’m getting the hang of a place I have to go home. So it was with Stockholm: the more I discovered of it the more I liked it. As I was going back to Billet a part of me wished I was going on to explore more of this country and indeed other parts of Scandinavia and investigate the clear and mysterious spirits they distill there. Maybe another time. I hear it’s particularly nice in the winter.

And in case you were wondering - yes, Swedish women are all incredibly blonde and incredibly attractive.

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Blogger Manne said...

Ah, now I know why you asked about herring ice cream. Context.

For a return visit perhaps you should try Gothenburg. Some say (mainly the people living in Gothenburg) it has the upper hand on Stockholm in terms of scenery and seafood.

And yes, Stockholm is very beautiful in the winter.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010 8:53:00 am  
Anonymous Tom said...

I loved the Lisa Elmquist place in the market too, but when the bill came I felt the oxygen rush out of the space around me.
I don't know how the Scandies can afford to live in Scandinavia ,as the cost of everything is stratospheric. Taxes are also very high I am told, so unless there is something fishy going on, their disposable income must be minute.
And then they get clobbered at shops and restaurants??How does it work?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010 9:15:00 am  
Blogger Hungrybecs said...

Wow, I was looking to book my next culinary adventure... Stockholm here I come! Great post and stunning pictures.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010 11:09:00 am  
Anonymous Kerri said...

We're just back from Stockholm and also ate at Pelikan with the Swedish friends we were staying with. They take all their visiting friends there as it's so typically Swedish.

Seems liked we ordered pretty much the same dishes as you too, Stephen was a big fan of the S.O.S. and we had to make an emergency trip to the Scandinavian Kitchen at the weekend since we'd run out of herring. Addictive stuff.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010 1:10:00 pm  
Anonymous IainW said...

I know you were eschewing the Michelin route, but I had a marvellous meal at a gaff called Leijontornet when I was there last year. It explored the traditional Swedish kitchen and was militantly local. Can't find much about it on the web, but the chef is interviewed here:

Wednesday, July 14, 2010 3:36:00 pm  
Blogger Hermano 1 said...

Actually I did consider going there because the food looked good but they're closed for several months for a refurb.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010 5:13:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Loved reading your Stockholm post, but I am now extremely hungry. I'd also like to go to Stockholm in winter (being a winter person), & go to Pelikan. I went to Oslo years ago & loved it & met my lovely relatives. But the 1/4 of me that is Swedish would like to go there, too.
Also this reminds me of the movie, "Fanny & Alexander"; if you haven't seen it, it's a good one!
P.S. I wish you would put a little description on those great photos, so we'd know which photo goes with your wonderful writing.

Thursday, July 15, 2010 7:31:00 pm  
Anonymous Martin Jones said...

Excellent posting!

However ...

'And in case you were wondering - yes, Swedish women are all incredibly blonde and incredibly attractive.'

What about the Swedish men, for those of us with alternative wonderings? ;D

Friday, July 16, 2010 12:22:00 pm  
Blogger Hermano 1 said...

The men are all quiet, ruggedly handsome types equally adept at tackling an unruly moose or pushing an all terrain pushchair come the weekend.

They are also comfortable having a piss sitting down which is just as well as all urinals have been banned because they discriminate against women.

Saturday, July 17, 2010 12:41:00 am  

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