Saturday, 17 December 2011

Journey to Sweden Part 1

I've never been to any part of Scandinavia. On a childhood skiing holiday I remember gazing at a group of young adults, probably the most physically attractive people (tall, blonde, tanned, blue eyed) I'd ever seen and finding out that they were Swedish. Next came my crush on Bjorn Borg (remember when Swedish tennis players won all the grand slams? What happened?) I loved his cross eyed concentration, his blonde Viking mullet, his ice cool temperament, his lucky Wimbledon goatee and his two handed backhand whipped from the back of the court. I also think you can divide all men into whether they fancy the blonde one or the brunette one in Abba.
What else do we know about Sweden apart from Ikea and Hennes? Scandinavian food was designated a hot food trend for 2011. In the UK cooks such as Trine Hahneman (Denmark) and Signe Johanssen (Norwegian) and Jamie Oliver have led the way in spreading the Scandi gospel. Noma, a Danish restaurant, has replaced El Bulli as the most influential restaurant for young ambitious chefs. This year Scandinavian chefs won all three top places at the international chef's competition Bocuse d'Or.
Regarding my personal relationship with Sweden, I have a curious story to tell, one which will, as usual, show that I'm not your average food blogger. In fact some readers may even think me "bonkers" (as seen in the Sunday Times).
I've always been fascinated by the occult and decided, upon finding out that my acupuncturist practised past life regression, to ask for a session.
I laid on the couch while she hypnotised me for the first time ever. This took the form of being asked to visualise walking through a garden down into a basement corridor. I pictured, on request, several doorways. I was instructed to open the door to my oldest memory. I saw myself laying in a cot in a dim flat. My mother picked me up. The acupuncturist asked me questions continually 'What do you see now?' 'How do you feel?'. I felt obligated to come up with some kind of response, a story. I felt vaguely embarrassed, like I was making it up. I remained perfectly conscious. I had always imagined that hypnosis would somehow render you unaware of your surroundings.
The acupuncturist asked me to go further back: to an older life. It was a struggle to reply but eventually I 'saw' a tennis court. I was playing. 'Who are you with?' I was asked. 'A man'. I replied. The questions kept coming, dutifully I pieced together a story in which I was a rich society tennis player in the 20s. I was also gay. (I was Navratilova in a flapper dress?)
My death consisted of bright lights, hospital, possibly a car crash. Then I zipped back in time to another life; a nun gardening. The nun didn't have much to say for herself. My answers came even more slowly. I continued to feel like a fraud.
Suddenly I found myself breathing very deeply, more deeply than I have ever breathed in real life. My body seemed to expand, I felt muscular and strong. My conscious self registered that I had changed gender; I was a man. It felt brilliant, like I could leap over buildings. Physically, I felt completely transformed. This time I wasn't making it up, the answers came easily: my name was Kerstin Red Eyes, I was a Viking in England. I had a beautiful blonde wife with Rapunzel style plaits back in Sweden. I came to England as a soldier but once we conquered and settled I became a prosperous farmer.
After this 'life' the session was over. I had 'been under' for over two hours although it felt like half an hour. I couldn't explain what had happened.
Was I Swedish in a former life? Did this explain my liking for salty liquorice, sweet dill pickles, herrings and gravadlax?
This last week I spent five days in Sweden, in Stockholm and Gothenburg, visiting supper clubs and learning about Swedish culture and food. Here is my report: some of it is even true.

Day 1: I arrive at Stockholm airport. Giant posters of Bjorn Borg, Abba and Stieg Larsson welcome me. Taking the express train to central Stockholm, it's only 3pm but sunset is already reddening the sky. I walk past the 'ice bar' to my hotel the Scandic Grand Central hotel where they had prepared a 'bloggers room' for me. An interesting concept, they had provided an ipad, a tripod and a laptop tray for use in bed. Outside my window glowed a giant light display of melting ice. The entire hotel, only open since August this year, was enveloped in velvety black "for the last decade, the fashion has been for pale furnishings and lightness, we wanted to turn this into an urban theatre with dark colours" explained the hotel representative.

Leaving my bags, I have a couple of hours before dinner. I cross over to a branch of 7/11 (popular in Sweden) where they sell a pick n mix selection of salty hard and soft liquorice and bags of 'Turkish Peber', a spicier version (from which you can make a liqueur by pouring half a packet into a bottle of vodka I was advised). 
Buying a bag to keep me going,  I wander down the modern city streets to NK department store. 
In the children's department it appears that the only clothes for sale are tiny santa outfits.
Or products from the Pippi Longstocking range. Pippi is a great children's storybook character, especially for girls, as she is physically strong and rebellious. Lisbeth Salander, the punk girl detective in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is based upon Pippi. 
 Downstairs I explore the supermarket. Swedish cheese has improved in the last decade, there are now many small dairies rather than just industrialised giant factories.
 Dozens of types of fish roe paste.
Ox tongue is sold in supermarkets.

I love these Finnish glass bowls 'Maribowl' but they are expensive.
At 7.30 I am invited to have dinner in the hotel brasserie. 
A basket of sourdough and crispbread with whipped butter. Butter is very expensive in Sweden. The demand is higher as everyone is on a high fat, low carb diet.
I am given a Christmas beer and aquavit served in a 'grandma' bottle (look at the shape). This aquavit tastes strongly of caraway.
Gravadlax, pickled artichoke and roe. Pickling vegetables is common in Scandinavian cuisine. I adore a pickle!

I really enjoy the unusual main course: vegetarian dumplings served with lingonberry sauce and pickled chanterelles. It was sweet and sour boasting original flavours. Not often you get that with a vegetarian dish.
Taking the lift up to my room, I notice many guests are in full evening dress. Across town the Nobel prizes were being awarded. A Stockholm restaurant offers the possibility of choosing any Nobel prize menu since 1901.
Self-medicating loner that I am, I chew the rest of my salty liquorice until my teeth feel loose while watching back to back subtitled English language films: Four Weddings and a Funeral, Godfather II, The Queen (which always makes me cry). No wonder the Swedes speak great English.
Day 2:
I wake late with a sore tongue and a blocked nose and just manage to get down for breakfast before they close at 11am! The time difference and travel fatigue (plus doing a supper club on Friday night till late) has got to me. Breakfast is typically Scandinavian: an extensive buffet of cheeses, ham, pickles, muesli, yoghurt, fruit, different kinds of bread and crispbread, eggs, mushrooms, bacon. Of course I'd brought along a small pot of Marmite. I also make myself a sandwich for later from cottage cheese and sweet pickles. Outside technically is daytime but the sky is overcast and grey. We are nearing December 21st and Stockholm has about five hours of daylight per day. I walk to the old town area, pretty with cobbled streets. Every cafe, shop and most residences have candles in their windows, often the seven branched wooden candelabra, the Advent candlestick.



 Postboxes that look like doll's houses.


 Narrow streets.
 This hairdresser specialises in Santa Claus styling. They bleach your beard and moustache to look like the great man himself. A popular look in Sweden.
 Buying Glogg, a mulled wine. Everyone has their own recipe.
I arrange to meet one of Sweden's premier food and wine journalists Per Styregard at the Christmas Market in the old part of town. He is the editor of White Guide to Swedish restaurants and organises interesting food conferences Skafferiet. The last discussed the importance of social media on food. There are excellent Swedish food blogs, these both have books out too:
http://hemmafru.taffel.se/
http://miaohrn.wordpress.com/
 Inside a warm café.
We have 'fika', coffee with saffron buns in the shape of Lucia cats. I must make these.
Many cafés provide rugs outside.
Swedish royals. Per tells me there is a scandal concerning the current king who is a bit of a playboy. I ask him about the Julian Assange case and the Euro crisis. He doesn't believe there is much corruption in Sweden and that Julian Assange should return to defend himself against the charges of rape. Swedes appear equally dubious about closer integration with the EU. Like Britain, they haven't joined the euro.
 Stockholm waterfront.
Ice skating in the square.
6pm: I go to visit Linn Soderstrom who runs a supper club in Stockholm. I ask the hotel desk if her address is far. 
"Yes it's very far" he says.
 "How far?"
 "Fifteen minutes"
 "Fifty minutes?" I repeat, assuming I've misheard.
 "No, fifteen minutes". 
"That's not far."
"We think it is".
I ponder the size of a city where 15 minutes by cab is considered far. You can't get anywhere in London in less than 45 minutes.
Despite the nearness, the cab costs 200 kroner, £20. I give the exact address, including the fact that it's on the 10th floor. On arrival, the cab driver turns around and says kindly 'I can't drive you up to the 10th floor. This is Stockholm, not a Harry Potter movie.'

Next post: Journey to Sweden Part 2 (tomorrow).

I was flown to Sweden via SAS airlines. 
I stayed at the Scandic Grand Central hotel in Stockholm 
Weekend packages from £150 pp here.

6 comments:

  1. Doc's orders were to get my Swedophilia under control and pieces like this don't help, Kerstin. I'm lingering on every word and image. Pickles, techno and headbands... Swedes do it better. Can't wait for next instalment!
    W

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  2. I loved reading this! I am half Swedish and you have transported me to Stockholm with your wonderful photos and stories. Can't wait to read the next chapter!

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  3. Thoroughly enjoyed reading this Kerstin. Nice to see you had a taxi driver with a sense of humour. Looking forward to reading part 2.

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  4. Nice! I love reading about people's travel experiences, especially the food part ;) looks liek you had an awesome time in Sweden!

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  5. I wonder if the high price of the taxi is why it was considered 'far'? Brilliant quote from the taxi driver. I want to go to Sweeedeeenn!

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  6. A sharp Knife: You must go, you'd love it.

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