Food writer Nevin Martell visits Gothenburg, Sweden to learn more about delicious Swedish holiday traditions and seasonal New Nordic cuisine. Plus, District Fray found a few ways locals can experience Nordic culture right here in D.C.
Christmastime in Gothenburg, Sweden felt like a pastime, like everyone was going all out. Fairy lights were entwined around nearly every tree in the 400-year-old city perched on the country’s southwestern coast located halfway between Oslo and Copenhagen, shop windows were ablaze with holiday displays, the constant soundtrack was carols and chipper holiday pop (no matter where you go in the world, you can’t escape “All I Want for Christmas Is You”).
Liseberg — a century-old, utterly modernized amusement park smack dab at the center of town welcoming three million visitors a year — becomes an over-the-top, festively bonkers extravaganza. There are opportunities to have earnest conversations with Santa’s elves, shop for reindeer jerky in the holiday market and play inexplicable games of chance, where the prizes are oversized candy bars larger than most skateboards, which I saw people proudly, yet regretfully, lugging around for the remainder of their visits.
There was a dusting of snow on the ground to complement temperatures that often plunged below freezing during my visit early last December. Daylight got going a little before 9 and the sun was down by 3:30, but with all the lights and décor beaming away, it was almost better that way.
To fully embrace the spirit of the season, Swedes go out for elaborate julbord, epic Christmas buffets brimming with once-a-year specialties. I experienced the tradition at Tullhuset, a charming seaside restaurant on the island of Hönö in the nearby archipelago. The dining room has a widescreen view of the wind-gusted waters and the squat, Wes Anderson-worthy Vinga lighthouse, while their spread included salmon and herring in myriad ways, quiches, cheeses, cured meats, root vegetable preparations and, of course, a lavish dessert spread, including star-shaped äggost – which literally means “egg cheese” but comes off like slightly sweet fresh ricotta or smooth cottage cheese – and risgrynsgröt, the country’s answer to rice pudding, often hiding an almond that blesses the finder with good luck.
Other restaurants shone a light on broader Swedish culinary traditions. Noot hewed classic, the highlight of my dinner a deer rump steak with Brussels sprouts and pumpkin, all hidden by a thicket of slender, translucent tangles of crispy parsnips.
The tasting menu at Human transformed regional ingredients and Scandi inspiration into modernist delights, each presented on naturally hued tableware handmade by accomplished local potter Mia Martinius of Vastergarden. Intrigued by her work, I made a point to stop by her shop and studio, where I watched her throw bowls on her wheel, the sleeves of her striped shirt pulled up to reveal the tattoo of the Millennium Falcon flying through the space between her wrist and elbow. I left with a set of small white side plates, a bite taken out of each one, the teeth marks painted gold, inspired by the grills of hip hop stars.
My most memorable meal was on the last night of my trip at Vilda, which means “wild” in Swedish, owned by chef-sommelier Camilla Simonsson, who grows, forages, preserves and ferments many of the elements that appear on her menu. Tucked just below street level, I felt I was entering a cozy burrow. My meal began with “forest broth” served from a transparent teapot showing off the umami-rich concoction bolstered with deer hearts and wild mushrooms. The next course took me to the sea: a single scallop served in its shell, glistening with brown butter mixed with locally made soy sauce, the richness and saltiness balanced by pickled unripe strawberries.
The most marvelous moment was kebab-shaped bread on a stick – an homage to a Swedish camping tradition – with char marks crossing its surface, the wand laid across tender little boughs with spruce salt and fermented butter on the side. I ripped off the tender bread bit by bit, dabbing it in the accoutrements. The evening ended with a dainty parsnip tartlet with a layer of green juniper caramel served with buttermilk ice cream sweetened with honey from Simonsson’s hives. It was one of those rare, remarkable meals that gave me such a sense of time and place, a taste of such a personal viewpoint.
As I clambered up the few steps to the street afterward, into the darkness and the sparkle of Christmas lights arranged above me on tree boughs like merry constellations, I drew in a deep breath. The air was shockingly cold, but it sharpened my mind and quickened my step as I began the mile-long walk back to the hotel. I could have caught a passing trolley, but I wanted to revel in the spirit of the season as much as I could.
Follow along with Martell’s travels and food writing on Instagram @nevinmartell.
Visit Scandinavia Right Here
If you can’t make it to Sweden within the next month, we’ve got a few ways to learn more about Nordic culture here in the DMV.
Mikko Nordic Fine Food
Nordic food is a rare gem in the DMV, but you can stop your search because Chef Mikko has brought Nordic cuisine to Dupont Circle. He invites the community into Nordic culture through simple ingredients and traditional cooking techniques to create elegant dishes with a local twist. 1636 R St. NW, DC; chefmikko.com // @mikkonordicfinefood
Taste of Iceland 2023 Festival
From March 8-11, D.C. is getting a taste of Iceland with events inspired by and in celebration of Icelandic culture. With food tastings, film screenings, concerts and more, Washingtonians can experience a world they may not step into otherwise. Free+. Various locations. inspiredbyiceland.com // @inspiredbyiceland
Embassy of Finland Kalevala Celebration, Concert, Dinner, Silent Auction
The Kalevala, the national epic of the Finns, has a leading impact on Finnish art, culture and national identity. It’s filled with folk stories describing mythical ancient history that’s inspired some of today’s literature and arts. Join the Embassy of Finland on March 17 for an unforgettable evening of Finnish culture, inspiring architecture, musical performance and delicious traditional cuisine to celebrate Kalevala. $125. 6:30 p.m. 3301 Massachusetts Ave. NW, DC; fi.usembassy.gov // @usembfinland
House of Music: Oskar Stenmark Quartet — “In my Ancestors’ Footsteps”
Join the House of Sweden on March 30 for an evening of music with Swedish artist Oskar Stenmark. The quartet, led by him and U.S./Ukrainian pianist Alex Pryrodny, explores traditional melodies Stenmark inherited from his Swedish ancestors by fusing them with the sounds of New York City. $10. 6:30 p.m. 2900 K St. NW, DC; houseofsweden.com // @swedeninusa
Swedish Cooking Class
The chefs at Cookology Culinary School are hosting a night of fine cuisine on April 1. And you’ll be making it! From classic Swedish meatballs, a beet salad, chocolate cake and a polar bear cocktail, you’ll be well versed in these traditional Swedish recipes by the end of the night. $125. 6:30 p.m. 4238 Wilson Blvd. Arlington, VA; cookologyonline.com // @cookologyculinaryschool
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