...because you thought Sweden was Switzerland!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The saltiest fattiest food you can eat

Second installment of our Amazing Car Trip story

Glasriket photos uploaded at my Multiply as of July 16, 2008

Still in the forests of Småland, in the village of Orrefors, is the Swedish National School of Glass (Riksglasskolan). Their website describes glassmaking as the hottest education program in the country – with the pun intended, as ovens here reach more than a 1,200 degrees Celcius! As a traditional activity within the Kingdom of Glass, tourists can go here or in other glassblowing halls on some evenings to partake of the Hyttsill, a traditional dinner with old-style meals from Småland.

The tradition goes back to when Småland was poor. In the evenings, the glassblowers would return to their place of work and cook their meals in the cooling ovens. They would invite their friends and family; there would be music to drink and dance to; everybody had a swig despite their meager earnings to drench their tiredness. The place of work became a place to feast.

Of course, there wasn't much to expect in a poor man's feast, but people must have eaten what was available. As a Swedish cookbook author of that time, Cajsa Warg, is said to have wisely spoken, "Man tager vad man haver," you take what you can get. Today, the Hyttsill (hytt = cabin; sill = herring) tries to recreate the old glassworkers' menu:

Hyttsill (herring)
Isterband ("lard sausage")
Stekt fläsk (fried pork, usually bacon)
Bakad potatis (baked potatoes)
Lingonsylt (lingonberry jam)
Smör & bröd (butter and bread)
Ostkaka (Swedish cheesecake)
Kaffe (coffee)

Right from the start, the emcee warned us not to eat too much of the herring as it was "very salty." Soon we would know how much of an understatement that was. The herring is preserved in salt – fair enough, since that's a common way of preserving fish – but without diluting them in water, they are cooked over wet newspaper in the cooling glass ovens that are at 800 C degrees. The hosts panicked as the fire alarms in the building went off while they were cooking it. Guests turned their head in confusion, "What is it that we're going to eat, really?" Another kind of herring, possibly more modern as it has cream and onions, was however also on the menu.

Upon taking your first bite of the plain herring, you think to yourself: Salt. With fish taste. After a few more bites, these thoughts are soon replaced by the urgency of the need to drink. Down goes the beer in big gulps, but it begins to taste awfully bitter after the salty meal. No wonder people prefer schnapps to Hyttsill: It might have been a way to desensitize your palate. The emcees, now singing lively drinking songs with their guitars, encourage you to drink even more.

I tried to appreciate the herring's likeness to Filipino salty dried fish, only this time the fish isn't crispy and there are no tomatoes to drown the saltiness. Tried as I might to space my baked potato between bites of salty fish, it really didn't seem to work especially since the other dishes, like the bacon and the sausage, were also a bit salty. Isterband, the "lard sausage", is another interesting Småland meal that I would like to write about more some other time. The main ingredients are pork, barley groats and potato, and it has a slightly acid taste. Weird as the ingredients may sound, the truth was it was one of the better parts of the buffet along with the bacon (I really like Isterband anyway). And there's the water, of course. I drank like a sponge and finished three whole bottles of mineral water during the dinner, not to mention some beer. We commented that the old glass workers might have needed all that salt since they sweated so much during the day.

Between dinner and dessert, there was a glass demonstration by one of the glass students and a chance to try your hand (or rather, your lips) at glassblowing. My glass bubble turned out as a symmetric success, according to my judgment anyway ;-)

Finally, for dessert there was the Swedish cheesecake (ostkaka), another regional specialty, with coffee and more vigorous singing from the presenters. Not to be confused with American cheesecake, the Swedish ostkaka has a soft crumbly texture and is infused with bitter almonds. It was the other highlight of the dinner, and tastes good even without the jam and cream one traditionally puts on it. It was eaten between bouts of singing Swedish folksongs that we were encouraged to sing along to. I didn't know most of them, but we learned some of them from Swedish class and I joined the drunken singing then.

Even if I don't think I'd ever eat a Hyttsill again, I would go straight to the meats and dessert if I ever go back to one. And be warned that the dinner completely knocks you out. I slept almost uninterruptedly during the night, and we were feeling full even until breakfast time. So, for poor workers that ate what they could get, it isn't a bad meal after all!


Anonymous Esther Garvi said...

Ah, Ostkaka!!!! I LOVE anything with bitter almonds! But then I love herring too (I miss that saltiness, lol!). Could that be because I'm a Swede...? :-D

12:08 PM

Blogger yogon said...


Can you send these yummy treats in a Balikbayan Box?

Shout out to you JoyG!

12:58 AM

Blogger Ahoy! said...

Esther: Perhaps because you are from Småland? :-) You're from Jönköping, aren't you?

Camillo: Not interested in the herring and the lard sausage? ;-)

9:46 AM


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