The centre of Stockholm is an architectural mistake: austere, almost Sovietic. A pity as it mars an otherwise beautiful city, doodled with water and the narrow cobbled streets of the old town. But deliberate plainness is part of the Swedish character. They like good materials: rock, wood, wool, slate. The Swedish have a spartan eye for design.
I stayed with my friend, chef Linn Soderstrom, further from the centre, in Bromma. Her building is surrounded by other modern utilitarian apartments. There is no heating; it is recycled power from the household machines in the building, fridges, washing machines. Recycling the rubbish of the apartments is intrinsic to the structure: the food turns into fuel for local buses.
The housing system is complex. Even if you buy privately, you must attend community workforces and are penalised if you don’t. You can only get housing via a waiting list. The elegant old flats of the centre have cheaper rent but even in egalitarian Sweden, you need to know someone to get on those lists. Mostly you’ll be attributed new impersonal buildings far from the centre.
Sweden is still rather communist. In astrology, it is considered an Aquarian country: with noble ideas of equality and fairness. The minimum wage, which depends on which union or field you are in, tends to be higher than ours and restaurant workers are well paid, working a strict 40 hour week. A chef of 6 years experience wouldn’t be paid less than £12 an hour. Swedes famously pay a high percentage of income tax and as a result their lifestyles are better than ours. On the other hand, life is very expensive.
A weird thing I found out about Swedes is they don’t use double duvets. Virtually never. Even a couple who are incredibly in love will have two separate single duvets. So in hotel rooms, you’ll be given two skinny duvets on a double bed. Maybe they don’t like touching each other?
When we think of Sweden we think of sober, disciplined, egalitarian, stylish, genetically blessed people. I’ve always been obsessed with Vikings. But I wonder about the slow process of transforming their culture from ruthless violent marauding pagan Vikings (although Viking females had more rights than other medieval women) into modern day Swedish people. Are Swedes still Viking?
Where to eat?
I didn’t eat everywhere I wanted to try, due to a limited budget. As I said, it ain’t cheap. Here are the places I did try which I really enjoyed.
Fika or coffee time is a Swedish obsession. The pastries at Vete-katten, ‘the cat knows’, a rambling, multi-roomed fika house, are superb. I had a cardamom bun, flaky, soft and spiced. Each ‘room’ has a coffee station with a silver coffee samovar and cups. You can serve yourself as much coffee as you want. Headscarfed waitresses serve your choice of pastry from a counter where you choose. The window is full of big green marzipan cakes ‘Prinsesstarta’ which are also a Swedish tradition. But I can’t stop thinking about that bun.
Sturehof is a traditional Swedish brasserie, open late and 7 days a week, which serves typical food and drink such as herrings, shellfish, house-baked crispbreads (honey and seeded) plus local Stockholm beer (delicious, clean tasting). The turquoise and brass milk glass ceiling reflects the elegant architecture of the restaurant’s late 19th century origins. The late night bar is where Stockholms chefs and kitchen staff hang out after work. Food was excellent and so was the service.
Why do the Swedes eat so much crisp bread or Knåckebrod as they call it? The reason, according to Linn, stems from the weakness and lack of gluten in their local wheat: it didn’t rise when baked. Knåckebrod can last a year, useful during the long winters when nothing grows. Each village has their own style of knåckebrod and people used to bake their own. Some styles have holes in so that they can be threaded through a pole and hung from the rafters over the oven. Whole supermarket aisles are dedicated to different kinds, sizes and shapes of crispbread. We even had it for breakfast. I kind of got into it in the end. Here in the UK, Peter’s yard does fantastic Swedish style knåckebrod.
Pizza, just like here in Britain, is having a bit of a creative revival. Really good, thin, crispy, wood oven-baked pizzas.
This was a fantastic vegan place. I tried a tasty ‘hammerburger’, a black bean and red rice mushroom burger with side veg.
On the ground floor of this art hotel, set in the urban centre of Stockholm, there is a bar (free art books to flick through) chokka with after work hipsters. You can also find a curated vinyl ‘listening lounge’ with high quality hi-fi.
Take a lift to the top where there is a ‘raw’ bar with DJs where a well-dressed crowd sip on wine and cocktails while gazing through tall wrap-around windows, glass dotted with wintery rain drops, at the sun setting over cranes and rooftops. A couple of floors down from the bar is award-winning chef Frida Ronge’s Swedish-Japanese restaurant TAK. We tried to get in but it was booked up, so reserve ahead.
There are several food markets worth visiting but being Sweden, most of them are indoors. The poshest food market is the modern wood lined ‘Saluhall’ which has delis, restaurants, sells fish products and high end food.
I had an open sandwich here. One tiny piece of rye bread with a mound of gravad lax. It was superb. It cost £15. I couldn’t afford a drink. I’m sorry Scandinavia but open sandwiches are just bloody silly. The WHOLE point of sandwiches is that the filling is surrounded by two pieces of bread so you can hold it in one hand and play cards with the other. But it was good.
Hotorgshallen is a trip around the world in one interior food hall. I recommend the Finnish shop ‘Finska Butiken’ which makes gorgous pirogi, a kind of crisp crenellated pastry filled with rice or potato. On top you have a garnish of buttery chopped egg. The falafel stall La Gazelle is also excellent, there is always a bit of a queue. You can buy oysters and other Swedish specialities like the smoked salmon ‘cheesecake’ below. Prices are lower here.
This is the trendy district in Stockholm with art galleries, restaurants and quirky shops plus a food hall ‘Soderhallarna’ with an English shop.
This was probably my favourite place in the whole of Stockholm. We went on a Saturday which is sweets day in Sweden. The unprepossessing exterior gives little hint of the wonders within. It’s a post office, cornershop and newsagents where you buy your fags and lottery tickets but also a treasure trove of international salty liquorice curated by Lars Tiden. We got off to a fine start because I brought him some South African white chocolate salty liquorice from the English shop. He responded by proferring dozens of tasty salted morsels. Teasingly he offered a taste of the most hard core salty liquorice in the shop:
‘Taste this’ he whispered gleefully, handing me a white powdery ball.
I choked a little, but manfully continued to chew ‘I’d need to work up to that ideally’ I responded, not wanting to look like a wimp after all my liquorice boasting.
Lars himself has no taste buds (his partner does the tasting), in fact sweets this strong are probably the only thing he can taste. I bought tubs of ammonium chloride which is the salted liquorice powder, of salted liquorice essential oil (who doesn’t want a bath smelling of that?), of tar shampoo from Finland and salty liquorice crisps. He also introduced me to the salty liquorice competition. And there are awards! I tasted the 2017 winning entry Gammelstads by Ulrika Fjellborg who also writes Sci-Fi novels. (Who I want to visit).
Below is her liquorice bar called Super Salty Salmiakki. You cannot buy more than 20 sticks per person.
Urban Deli bar and restaurant also has an ecological wholefoods style food shop.
Other restaurants worth visiting:
Rosendalstradgard, a biodynamic farm to fork restaurant run by British chef Billy White. Also has an artisanal bakery, farmshop and plant shop.
Ekstedt: a ‘fire’ restaurant, where everything is cooked on wood fires, led by Niklas Ekstad, author of ‘Food from the fire’. Linn used to chef here when it had more vegetarian options. With a new head chef, it’s very much centred on meat. You can order a fixed tasting menu with 4 options or 6.
Where to visit:
The old town is very pretty with cobbled shopping streets leading away from The Royal Palace. Inside I saw an exhibition on Swedish royal family weddings with shoes, dresses, veils. It was all part of the entry price which I thought was a good deal. To see British royal dresses for instance, would cost more. I found the medals display interesting. Even in Sweden, people get medals just for being born royal. I enjoyed seeing the interiors of the palace, the chandeliers, corridors, fireplaces and ticking covered chairs in sober Scandi style. A couple of the rooms have been modernised with a huge wood stove for today’s royal family.
I bought red spotty clogs at Kerstin Aldophson. These are hand made wooden clogs which come in a variety of colours for under 30 euros.
Other shops sell mugs and cushions with designs by Elsa Beskow, a famous Swedish children’s illustrator.
In the centre of Stockholm’s main train station you’ll see a mezzanine ‘hole’ surrounded by a bannister. This is called either the spit cup (spottkoppen) or the gay ring(borgringen). It’s where gay men hang out to pull each other.
- I wanted to visit is the new Viking museum Vikingaliv but frustratingly it opened the week after my visit.
- In a similar vein check out ship museum Vasamuseet
- Abba The Museum sounds like a cultural must see.
At Hotorget, there is a fleamarket on Sundays.
This is a stylish homewares shop where I bought giant garlic crusher. You know how most garlic crushers you can only fit in a clove. This one you can fit in a whole bulb. Excellent.
More homewares at Lagerhaus. It’s a bit like a Swedish version of the Danish chain Tiger. FAirly cheap with good design. I bought some plant holders there.
To enjoy more Swedishness, come to my Swedish midsummer supper club with Linn Soderstrom. This time we will also have Swedish chef Marian Ringborg, who is currently working at Skye Gingell’s restaurant Spring.
This is the third year running we have hosted this. If it’s nice it’ll be in the garden. We will probably construct a birch Maypole.
Look: Wear flower crowns or Viking gear if you feel like it.
Food: home cured/smoked salmon, different kinds of herring, Swedish cheeses, berries, crisp breads. Some bbqed food. Strawberry cake. Salty liquorice. Aquavit. Blaabar. All kinds of Scandi yumminess.
Tickets: £50 (I’m flying chefs over from Sweden).
Date: June 21st.
Where: my place in Kilburn, The Underground Restaurant.
Book at this link: http://www.edibleexperiences.com/p/69/The-Underground-Restaurant/1450001/3rd-annual-Swedish-midsummers-night-meal