It literally means ‘buttered table’ – indeed, the Swedish word for sandwich is smörgås. An array of small dishes, both warm and cold, a traditional smörgåsbord starts with fish, moving on to cold meats, and then warm dishes.
Cheeses come at the end. In Sweden, the smörgåsbord is always laid out in advance; in Denmark (where it’s called det kolde bord, or ‘the cold table’), dishes are sent to the table throughout the meal. A traditional lunch can take hours, and aquavit is enjoyed at regular intervals, of course.
Popular dishes for a smörgåsbord include bowls of pickled herring served with rye and crispbread, beetroot and apple salad, meatballs, pâtés, and different types of cured and smoked salmon.
You probably already know that our most popular fish is herring. We eat it pickled, but also smoke and fry it. Scandinavian varieties of pickled herring are less sharp than what you’ll find elsewhere in Europe, as the brine is sweeter.
Any kind of cured or smoked salmon is also loved. Gravadlax (dill-cured salmon) is probably the most famous of these. Smoked mackerel is also served, as are less commonly known fish such as Arctic charr.
Sweden celebrates the crayfish in August, with outdoor parties where we eat bowls of them washed down with aquavit.
Pork is an important meat in southern Scandinavia. Flæskesteg pork roast, eaten with a heavy gravy and caramelised potatoes, is as Danish as roast beef is British – and is also the quintissential Danish Christmas lunch. Further north, game such as reindeer and elk is served – and it’s not difficult to find bear sausage in some places. Northern Norwegians eat a lot of smoked, dried lamb.
Of course, we can’t discuss meat without mentioning meatballs. There must be tens of thousands of different recipes – actually, that’s probably a vast underestimation.
In Sweden, a mixture of pork and beef is usually prepared, whereas Danes prefer pork and veal. In Norway, there’s more regional variation, but beef is popular. In Sweden, meatballs are small – and in Norway, they’re big. If you’re going to learn how to make meatballs, you’ll need to find a good, basic recipe and then put your own spin on it.
Across Scandinavia, meatballs are usually served with potatoes, either boiled or mashed. If you’re looking for a Swedish or Norwegian twist, add a dollop of lingonberry jam. But all leftover meatballs are great in sandwiches.
Scandinavian baking is getting a lot of attention in the UK right now, and you’re probably aware that cinnamon is an important factor in our cakes and buns. Cardamom is just as popular as well.
Kanelbullar – cinnamon buns – are massive in Sweden (and, of course, the dough sometimes has notes of cardamom). A cinnamon bun can be eating morning, noon and night – usually with coffee.
In Denmark, Danish pastries are the thing, you might be surprised to learn. But they’re called wienerbrød there – ‘Vienna bread’. If you’ve never eaten a Danish Danish pastry, then go to a bakery there on a Sunday morning and buy a smørsnegl. It’s a taste like no other.
Other favourites include kladdkaka, a sticky Swedish chocolate cake, and anything packed with fruit and berries.
While we have the same word for bread as you do (brød in Denmark and Norway, bröd in Sweden), our loaves are quite different. We love rich, dark rye in any shape or form. Rye bread, rye buns, and rye grain thrown into many different dishes.
Crispbread is delicious and healthy – and not the same as what you buy in the supermarket here in the UK. Check out the vast variety that we sell in the shop.
Bread can also be a sweet treat – try vörtbröd, limpa or franskbrød.
The scary stuff
Yes, we admit it. Some of those horror stories you’ve heard about Nordic food are quite true. And if you want to give them a go, we can help.
Surströmming is Swedish fermented herring, popular in the far north where crayfish aren’t as plentiful in the summer. It actually tastes amazing, but smells really bad. We advise you to open the tin outside.
Lutfisk is cod preserved in lye, and eaten in Norway at Christmas. To British eyes it looks a bit like tripe. It’s on sale during the festive season.
Hákarl is Icelandic fermented shark, buried for weeks and hung for months. It’s the very definition of ‘an acquired taste’, and not on sale in the UK. Sadly or happily, that’s for you to decide!