Offhand, how many different ways can you think of to prepare herring or salmon? The two fish are staples of the smörgåsbord and, at last count, there were well over 120 varieties being used in restaurants and kitchens across Sweden.
The Swedish smörgåsbord (literally “buttered table”) is a massive all-you-can-eat buffet where you can sample almost anything under the midnight sun, from heaving plates of fish and seafood – pickled, curried, fried or cured – to a dizzying assortment of eggs, breads, cheeses, salads, pâtés, terrines and cold cuts, and even delicacies such as smoked reindeer and caviar.
You’re best off arriving early and on an empty stomach. Just don’t pile everything high onto your plate at once – remember that the tradition is as much celebratory social ritual as it is one of consumption. That means cleansing your palate first with a shot of ice-cold aquavit (caraway-flavoured schnapps), then drinking beer throughout – which as it happens goes especially well with herring, no matter the preparation.
Plan to attack your food in three separate stages – cold fish, cold meats and warm dishes – as it’s generally not kosher to mix fish and meat dishes on the same plate. Layer some slices of herring onto a bit of rye bread, and side it with a boiled potato, before moving on to smoked or roasted salmon, jellied eel or roe. Follow this with any number of cold meats such as liver pâté, cured ham and oven-baked chicken. Then try a hot item or two – Swedish meatballs, wild mushroom soup, perhaps Janssons frestelse (“Jansson’s temptation”), a rich casserole of crispy matchstick potatoes, anchovies and onion baked in a sweet cream. Wind down with a plate of cheese, crackers and crisp Wasa bread and, if you can still move, fruit salad, pastries or berry-filled pies for dessert, capped by a cup of piping hot coffee. Then feel free to pass out.