Photo by Nadia Feddo
Last weekend was Santa Lucia (13th December), which is the official day for a glögg party in Sweden and the sign that Christmas season has started. Glögg, in case you haven't had the pleasure, is a Nordic form of mulled wine, similar to Austrian glühwein: red wine heated in a pan with whisky, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom and orange peel. It is served up in tiny cups with little doll-sized spoons for scooping up a few blanched almonds and raisins, which you put into the glögg and then spoon out and munch on afterwards. The only essential accompaniment is some pepparkakor (ginger snap biscuits) although at the glögg party we went to, there was a whole buffet of cakes, sweets, saffron Saint Lucy buns, and biscuits, all beautifully presented amidst bowls of tumbling satsumas and glowing candles.
Meanwhile, the many kids were getting merry from all the bottles of julmust ('Christmas must')—a dark brown non-alcoholic Swedish fizzy must made with hops extract, malt extract and spices. It tastes like weak black beer sufficiently doctored with Coca-Cola to fool the kids. We were informed that even in Sweden it is only available at Christmas time, and that during that period, Coca-Cola sales drop by over 50 percent as everybody switches to julmust (not that this bothers Coca-Cola, who have brought out their own version of julmust). All of these can be bought in IKEA (www.ikea.es).
The kids who were there had pillaged the table so thoroughly by the time I got my camera out that I didn't get a decent photo but I was quicker off the mark when it came to the sürstromming. Sürstromming is sour Baltic herring, and although it is not usually something that is eaten at a glögg party, there was a can waiting to be opened that had been given as a a gift to some Catalan friends who were too nervous to open it themselves. And with good reason. Sürstromming smells like hell's armpit and the can has to be opened outside and underwater as the gas produced in the fermentation process makes the can swell to a rounded shape and the pressurisation can result in a nasty accident when the lid is pierced.
Obviously, we were all curious to see what it would smell like and as I was the one chosen to open the can in its bucket of warm water, I got the first bubbling blast of gas right in the face: I can report from the frontline that sürstromming smells like a fart from a dying dysentery patient who has been on an exclusive diet of rotten fish. Gagging, I had to retreat but luckily, sürstromming expert, Pegen (who had flown all the way from his home in Mallorca just to attend the glögg), took over. He finished opening the can, cleaned the fish in the water and removed the eggs. Then he buttered large slices of lefsa, a Swedish potato pancake, laid on slices of boiled potato and raw onion and pieces of sürstromming and rolled it all up into a kind of Nordic burrito. Then anyone who hadn't run away ate it with a healthy swig of vodka. As all the Swedes commented, it tastes much better than it smells (although that really isn't saying much) but the flavour is extremely strong, spicy and salty—the epitome of the acquired taste, I would say. But before you set out to acquire it, a cautionary tale from Pegen: as a young boy he had eaten some sürstromming at home and then gotten into a car with some older ladies who soon started complaining about the unbearable stench of farts in the car. As the smell gradually got worse they become quite angry, demanding that whoever was responsible just own up and get out. And what was the smell? “My breath,” said Pegen. You have been warned.