Our ongoing quest to find the perfect Christmas food platter took a big step forward this year, probably because we weren’t too ambitious about trying to eat everything on Christmas Day itself. By the same logic, I didn’t cook or buy mammoth portions of food that couldn’t have been reasonably consumed by two people in a very finite period of time.
The two previous years we did buy a whole Swedish Christmas cheese (the fabled julost) from Scandinavian Kitchen and found ourselves lumbered with apparently unvanquishable (to coin a word) lumps of the stuff well after Twelfth Night. At one point, as the photo below denotes, I was reduced to hacking at the redoubtable cheesy roundel with a spoon in the vain hope this would somehow reduce the comestible portion more swiftly than any other method of laying into it/eating it.
Eating food should not be some bloody-minded assault or attrition course. It’s there to be enjoyed. Even so, as someone who commonly falls prey to the ‘eyes bigger than stomach’ equation, I need to be wary on this front. As much as I love the theoretical idea of assembling all the components of the classic Swedish julbord Christmas spread, it’s nice to go for a bit of eclecticism and moderation when putting the culinary patchwork in place. (Coincidence or no coincidence, I’m becoming more sympathetic to those restaurants that serve up small portions of food rather than galumphingly unmanageable ones – as long as small means beautiful).
Don’t be duped by the title of this post into thinking that Anglo-Swedish Christmas food in my instance means meatball-stuffed roast turkey or herrings alongside the parsnips. By ‘English’ I mean in this particular instance less the traditional English Christmas fare and more the idea of low-key but satisfying cuisine that owes a debt to other nations (much like what one would be expected to be served in numerous restaurants in England nowadays). Not that I wish to be dogmatic or pious about traditional English food; I demolished a roast dinner and sank a couple of pints of veritable real ale on Christmas Eve amid an exhausting (and ultimately pointless) drive to the West Country that taxed all our energies and abilities (this is where traditional English food can be very cathartic and therapeutic).
For Christmas Day itself, I went for a hearty veggie minestrone soup. A tip on this one: standard pots of tomato-based pasta sauce are gems if trying to create the perfect stock. I added some veggie stock cubes and water to a hearty cornucopia of winter and non-winter veg (carrots, celery, cabbage courgettes and peppers close to indispensable in my book) and threw some broken pieces of uncooked spaghetti into the rich red stewy morass towards the end. It worked a treat.
We also ate rice and beans a couple of days after Christmas. I once had what felt like a truly authentic Caribbean take on this recipe replete with saltfish when I visited a fellow inveterate foodie near Elephant and Castle a few years ago; I can’t profess to know the secret to cooking something that would be more Bridgetown than Brentwood (where I now live), but my own version combines brown rice and black-eyed beans with a separately cooked pile of mushrooms and a heap of spring greens slathered in lemon juice and olive oil (all of this cooked in the pan with an inevitable coarsely-chopped onion and some minced garlic).
Amid this, we did well to eat Swedish fare in very stealthy and steady fashion. The night before the night before Christmas we grazed on the much-loved Leksand Crispbread (in this case, the Triangle Multigrain stuff, see below) and packets of ginger thins. The Scandi companies responsible for such produce can hardly be called cottage industries but one still feels as if the food in question is blessed by some kind of highly welcome artisanship or craftsmanship (harking back to remarks once made by iconic English gastronome Jonathan Meades that cooking is a craft and not an art). As much as I like Ryvita and McVitie’s, I wouldn’t afford these latter brands (and the related products) the same description.
In addition to our minestrone, we ate beetroot salad and risgrøt (rice porridge) on Christmas Day – just as many good Nordic boys and girls would on julafton. The rice porridge was standard ‘from the packet and cook with milk’ stuff but did the job just fine – creamy, alluringly speckled with just enough vanilla and ideally complemented by some tangy, halfway-between-sweet-and-sour, cherry sauce.
As for the salad, I am sceptical of those traditional recipes which suggest that whipped cream is the way forward as a binding ingredient (to be fair, I’ve only seen this mentioned a few times in a Scandi context, not ad nauseum). I’m not even sure low-fat crème fraiche is entirely necessary. I have a thing for good old-fashioned low-low-fat yoghurt as became a dietetic craze in the UK from at least the late 1970s onwards; it has the flourish and zing of goodness about it that isn’t lost if you mix a pot up with a couple of spoonfuls of mayonnaise and fold into four or five boiled beetroots, two apples and half a pot of capers with the juice of half a lemon. Save the whipped cream for the gateau when hunger and winter blues intersect at some point in the New Year.
No need for the cheese spoons this year either; a triangle of classic Västerbotten (below) was just about right for four or five days. It’s a rich and slightly grainy cheese, embroidered with small holes and reminiscent of a sort of Cheddar/Parmesan hybrid, but enigmatic in the process – maybe there’s some poetic appropriateness in the fact its pale yellow colour reminds me of a winter sun starting the journey towards the horizon. Not something I’d want to eat three or four times a week out of boring cholesterol consciousness if nothing else, but maybe that’s the whole point (see above).
On the subject of enigmatic ‘can’t put my finger on it’ food and drink allure, for a few days each year I become hooked on julmust, the brown fizzy soft drink quaffed in earnest across the Scandi region during the festive season. It’s not as much as hybrid as not quite anything else; not quite Doctor Pepper, not quite Coke, not quite Iron-Bru, not quite Vimto. It jigs away from any compelling parallel with another product and unerringly hits the spot. Maybe you think of Nordic winters as dark and brooding affairs; any drink which seems to dance in the glass or bottle can’t be that bad in alleviating short-days gloom and heightening the jul spirit.
Between us we also imbibed classic Scandi liver paste, glögg (mulled wine) and a dark in colour but relatively light in alcohol content Juleøl (Christmas beer) – although this article suggests that Norwegian-style Juleøl is traditionally dark and strong.
Not content with making beetroot salad on the first day of Christmas, I also tried my hand at it on the last. This one doesn’t contain super-low-fat yoghurt but a pot of Onken instead. It may have lacked some brisk zing as a result, although you can’t really go wrong with Onken. Here’s what it looked like anyway.