One of our national dishes is pickled herring, which is a must in every smörgåsbord, and nobody would imagine celebrating Christmas, Easter or Midsummer without herring.
   The basis of all herring pickling is sugar, salt and vinegar, while the spices and other ingredients vary. There are hundreds of recipes and many kinds of pickled herring can be bought in jars.
   Herring is served as a starter together with potatoes, bread and sometimes cheese. On restaurant menus, this course was usually abbreviated SOS - smör, ost och sill (butter, cheese and herring). 

Shortly after Christmas and all the way until Easter, semlor, a wheat flour bun filled with whipped cream and almond paste, are baked. But earlier, these semla buns were only eaten on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, at the beginning of Lent. On this day alone, five million semla buns are consumed!
   On the Day of Our Lady, 25 March, waffles are traditionally baked.
   The Easter holiday constitutes a boom in egg consumption and the festive table features all kinds of egg dishes. 

Midsummer is one of our favourite holidays. Everyone who can makes the trip to the country to dance around the maypole, festooned with leaves and flowers. The menu is a given: fresh boiled potatoes, sour cream, chives, matjes herring and the first strawberries of the year for dessert. 

Fruntimmersveckan, the "Week of Women", comprising the name days of Sara, Margareta, Johanna, Magdalena, Emma and Kristina, comes in July, when summer is at its most beautiful.  All ladies with these names (there's almost always someone in the circle of acquaintances) are regaled with a coffee-and-cake party, preferably outdoors.

The beginning of August is the time for the crayfish première, an event of national import, beloved of the Swedes. To a foreign visitor, this may appear a peculiar ritual. We prefer to sit outdoors or on a veranda in the dark of the August night. We hang up paper lanterns, don paper hats and sing drinking songs. In the middle of the table is the platter with mounds of small red crayfish decorated with heads of dill. These are accompanied by bread, aged cheese flavoured with cumin, beer and schnapps.
  Fresh-water crayfish were long an upper-class delicacy. It was not until the 19th century that common people began to eat crayfish and then the custom spread rapidly. In many locations the lakes became depleted and in the beginning of the 19th century a crayfish plague struck that almost eradicated the domestic animals. Now the resistant American signal crayfish has been implanted, and Sweden is also the world's biggest importer of crayfish.
   The crayfish are boiled with plenty of salt and heads of dill. They are then allowed to cool in the liquor. There are set rules for how they are to be eaten. First, a hole is made in the carapace, just behind the head, and you noisily slurp up the liquor. Then you remove all the small legs and slurp again. Next, you pick out the meat from the claws and then finally enjoy the peeled tail. It is said that a glass of schnapps is to be partaken with each claw, but that is a rule that should be regarded with some caution, especially as many Swedes down one or two dozen crayfish.
The surströmming première occurs at the end of August. It is primarily the people of northern Sweden that appreciate this odoriferous, but tasty, fish. Herring is fished during early summer, salted and placed in wooden barrels that are put in the sun in order to initiate fermenting. Then the fish is kept in cool storage until it has matured and is tinned. It's not as strange as it sounds. Fermentation is a very old preservation method, which is also used for beer, wine, yoghurt and olives. 
   Since the smell is so repulsive, surströmming parties are generally held outdoors. The herring is cleaned and put on buttered tunnbröd, thin north Swedish unleavened bread, together with chopped onion and sliced freshly boiled potatoes. And what do you drink? Beer and schnapps, of course.

In September, it's time for the shellfish première on the west coast and eel feasts in the province of Skåne in southern Sweden.
   Shellfish from the coasts of Norway and Sweden is the best in the world. This is due to the salinity and coldness of the Atlantic, which makes the meat firmer and more aromatic. During the months of May, June, July and August, fishing for lobster, oysters or crab is prohibited. When the longed-for delicacies are available for purchase again in September, there are many who take the opportunity to enjoy them. But the première is not celebrated on any special date or with any particular ceremony.

Ålamörkret, the Dark of the Eel, is what the period was called when fishers took the opportunity to fish for eel when they had fattened up for their long journey toward the Sargasso Sea. Eel feasts are often held at inns. Some ten different eel dishes are offered in a particular order. To go with these, wormwood-flavoured schnapps is imbibed to aid the digestion of all the fatty fish. With much gaiety and noise, an eel king and queen are crowned. The winner of the contest is the one who lands the most live eels from a barrel with blindfolded eyes.

Already in medieval France, Saint Martin, bishop of Tours, was commemorated with goose dinners, and the custom passed to Sweden via Germany. Queen Kristina is said to have served goose on St. Martin's Eve, and goose feasts were once common throughout the country. Goose breeding is relatively uncommon today, except in Skåne, which is why it is almost exclusively there that the tradition of St. Martin's Goose is kept alive.
   A goose dinner always begins with black soup made from pig's and goose blood,
flavoured with cinnamon, cloves, ginger, allspice, treacle, red wine, Port wine, sherry, brandy and sometimes the spiced red wine glögg or Swedish punch.
This heady and flavourful soup is served with the liver, heart, stomach and neck of the goose.
The bird is stuffed with apples and prunes before it is baked and served beautifully carved together with sliced apples, red cabbage and berry jelly.
For dessert, Scanian apple cake with vanilla cream is served   


December, the darkest month of the year, is brightened by the Lucia celebration. The name derives from Saint Lucia of Syracuse, who is commemorated on 13 December. Lucia is dressed in a long, white dress. Her halo is symbolised by a wreath of lingonberry leaves and lit candles worn on her head. 

Lucia Day begins with the wife or daughters of the house loading the coffee tray with saffron buns and gingersnaps and serving the rest of the family in their beds. In schools, churches and workplaces, Lucia processions are held, where Lucia is followed by white-clad maidens and stjärngossar ("star boys") wearing conical paper hats. As the procession proceeds through the darkened room, "Sankta Lucia", a Swedish translation of a Neapolitan song, is sung. Then coffee, saffron buns, gingersnaps and, sometimes, glögg are served.

Christmas is an important holiday in Sweden. During the four weeks preceding Christmas, called Advent, food is intensively prepared. The whole family usually work together baking gingersnaps and making knäck (toffee with chopped almonds), caramels and marzipan sweets.  Many people stuff their own Christmas sausage, make candles, pickle herring and bake bread and cookies. The freezer is filled with pâtés and meatballs.
   Christmas Eve is the first festive day. The Christmas table is well-prepared. For lunch a smörgåsbord is served, where family traditions usually determine the dishes. But there are always different herrings, herring salad, cold cuts, meatballs, red cabbage, spare ribs and smoked salted ham with ham broth to dip bread in. In the afternoon, Father Christmas comes with the Christmas presents and then, if tradition is adhered to, it's time for lutfisk and rice pudding. Lutfisk is dried ling which is softened in lye. It is boiled and eaten with a white sauce or a mustard sauce, green peas, melted butter and boiled potatoes.
Christmas Day and Boxing Day are major family holidays. Different regions of the country have different customs. In the skerries, Christmas pike is eaten, while in other parts roast of hare, duck and goose or smoked roast of lamb may be the dish associated with Christmas. 

©oenoforos. Christine Samuelson.