Monday, September 14, 2009


A couple of weeks ago I celebrated my third anniversary in Sweden - significant in that I am now eligible for Swedish citizenship. The event itself prompted all of the usual self-evaluations: did I make the right decision coming here? what have I achieved? etc. and so on. This is not to suggest that I have been reconsidering the choice to live here. Quite the contrary. It is just that the date itself seemed significant, and I suppose I have a tendency towards self-indulgent navel-gazing.

Having spent three rather enjoyable years here, I feel fairly comfortable with the rhythms of daily life in Sweden. There is a trap in this kind of familiarity: the assumption that you understand things here, that you get it can be consuming, leading you to miss things. I think one of the greatest gifts of travel is a new eye. When you see a place for the first time you can pick out the details and unique features that are oblivious to the local. Of course the opposite also applies: tourists rarely experience life-in-a-place-as-a-local. The life of an ex-pat wanders between these two extremes, and I had a moment last night that reminded me of this.

I have spent much of my time here working in the hospitality industry, and during those (brief, but pleasant) occasions when I am not professionally involved in the preparation of food I have tried to experience as much Swedish and Scandinavian cuisine as possible. There is a rich food tradition here. The harsh climate means pickles and preserves abound, while the brief but amazing summers give us a bounty of fruits and berries. Sweden's early marauders brought back food techniques and ingredients that have been added to the melting pot with some unusual, but delicious results. I also have the good fortune to know a couple of people who are gifted at recreating this tradition. Jonas, my head chef, with his hunter's eye for wild meat, has exposed me to some culinary wonders (as well as teaching me how to swear in a thick Skåne accent). Nisse, my girlfriend's father, has shown me the depths of husmanskost (which is badly translated as 'simple home cooking' but what my mother would refer to with great relish as 'poor people's food') and introduced me to some of the highlights of Swedish food: julbord (literally Christmas table), Mårtensgås, (a festival in November featuring black soup and goose), among many others. He has also taught me the delights of freshly caught Mackerel and wild mushrooms.

As such, I feel confident in a Swedish kitchen and familiar with Swedish ingredients. I'm not suggesting that I've seen it all, but I have had a pretty good go at the food here: I've eaten surströmming and lived to tell the tale. So last night as I was browsing in the deli section of the local Coop with Hanna I came across rökt hamburgerkött (lit. smoked hamburger meat) and laughed it off as either a food crime or a mistranslation. Until Hanna matter-of-factly said to me "That's just what we call horse meat."