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Swedish surprises

Article featured in Cibus - February 2014 edition

Stockholm is not just the city of striking blondes and Vikings but a cosmopolitan capital with a remarkable food culture

My first time in Stockholm was part of a tour of the Scandinavian capitals which we planned for our second honeymoon. I arrived anxious that my newlywed would lose his head for one of the fairy-tale blondes around and apprehensive on the subject of food. I vastly associated Stockholm with the boring, flat tasting meatballs and the stinking fermented herring but what I discovered on my inaugural trip surprised my palate.

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Reassured by my sister-in-law, who has now been living in Stockholm for a couple of years, we spent five days touring this city spread on 14 islands and surrounded by water. We started off with a visit to Hötorgshallen, a food hall at Hötorget, just in the core of the city. I was determined to leave no stone unturned and criss-crossed from one stall to the other relishing the icy showcases of fresh fish and seafood and the refrigerated display counters dotted with cured meats like smoked  reindeer heart, moose salami and elk sausages. We joined the queue to lunch at Kajsas Fisk, an authentic place in the food hall just opposite a gorgeous fishmonger. The name of the place indicates a fish-based menu, written on black boards just on top of the bar. This is a no frills, strikingly busy, place. Space is restricted and it is very likely you will lunch tête-à-tête with strangers. Kajsas Fisk is prominent for its fish soup so I ordered my portion of reddish fish stock, complete with chunky flesh of white fish, mussels, prawns and clams, adorned with fennel and saffron, crowned with a blob of aioli. Stockholm is not really kind on anyone with a budget but this soulful fish soup was a most rewarding transaction.

Mentioning pricey Stockholm reminds of the chanterelles. Half a kilo of these funnel like, golden mushrooms, with ruffled edges cost me something like pizza and wine for two. Vendors and their colourful displays of cherries, strawberries, lingonberries, asparagus, and mushrooms just outside Hötorgshallen were as tempting as the snake was to Eve with the forbidden apple.  I wanted to prepare a risotto with these yellow chanterelles and I did – a delicate, fruity and slightly earthy risotto! Chanterelles are truly a culinary delicacy.

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If you love fish, then fulfilling your Omega 3 requirements in Stockholm is an effortless task. A fair part of Swedish food is fish and seafood, prawns, crayfish, herring, cod, tuna and salmon, just to mention a few. Salmon is all over the place in many ways: fresh; cold-smoked; Gravlax, which is cured with dill, sugar and salt, and optionally beetroot. For all that, I was mostly captivated by the slow, warm-smoked salmon. The process is done over alder wood for 5 to 6 hours until the skin becomes golden and just beneath it the meat obtains a moist and delicate pinkish texture. Warm-smoked salmon has become a must in the ‘what to bring to Malta’ list for when my sister-in-law visits or we fly again to Stockholm. Also on this list is the Vasterbotten cheese, a firm, mature cheese which tastes slightly of caramel and the retro Swedish mustard tubes and jars stocked with sweet grainy mustard, less hot and pungent than its French and English siblings.

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I was not keen to savour the smelly fermented herring but I was interested to taste any other version of this fish. We got to the kiosk with the name of Nystekt Strömming (translated to newly fried herring) positioned in this square close to Södermalm. This kiosk sells only fried herring – crunchy herring fillets with thin rounds of cucumber and red onions on knäckebrod, which is crunchy, brown crisp bread, an indispensable item in Swedish gastronomy. Herrings are plentiful from the Baltic Sea and thus are even preserved. I liked this version a bit less – generally pickled with onions, mustard or spices and eaten with boiled new potatoes, boiled eggs, sour cream and obviously, knäckebrod.

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Slowly but firmly I developed a soft spot for a couple, or more, of Swedish delights in particular the kanelbullar – these knotty sourdough buns loaded with intense spices like the lavish cardamom, finished with cinnamon and pearl sugar. There is nothing more comforting than the waft of these spices as you walk past the many bakeries which characterise the streets of this capital. Well, if I had to live in Stockholm, my breakfast will be alternating between bread and kanelbullar.  Everyone in Stockholm seems to be obsessed with sourdough, there is even a sourdough hotel (look it up, you will smile). The bakeries exhibit all kinds of bread and pastries made from sourdough. You should taste their hearty bread with a crispy crust and a soft centre filled with apricot and walnuts and the savoury bread loaf spotted with olives and cheese.

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Even if at times deeply hidden, every city holds its gastronomic treasures; you just need to look intently for them at the right places. Stockholm is not an exception to this rule and proved to be a gem to a culinary minded traveller, like me.

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