29 September 2012

The Painted Farms of Hälsingland

The man with the sword, to the left to the door, is the Guardian.  A quote above him states that he was there to protect anyone that entered, but also reserved the right to kick you out of it you got too drunk.  In the panel closest to the fireplace, the Fiddler laments his role as maître d'.  He is there to wrangle people, entertain, keep order.  He is harassed by a rowdy bunch whose job it is to make his job difficult, hiding in barns, boozing it up.  On the opposite wall, Sophia promises her unending love in a wedding ceremony and a man with a horse spins a tale about a buzzy political topic of the day, To Eat or Not to Eat horse meat.  This is the festivities room at Ol-Anders farm, one of the decorated Hälsingegården (farmsteads of Hälsingland).  These painted rooms are one part of what make the Hälsingegården unique to Sweden and the world. 
 In the 19th century, a boom occurred in Hälsingland.  It was a perfect storm of events for the region with a farming tradition dating back to the year 200.  Things that the farmers of Hälsingland had done for centuries suddenly became big business.  This is flax country and flax makes linen.  So, when a British man with know-how and his team of women who could spin with both hands simultaneously came into town, Hälsingland became Sweden's linen capital.  (The only linen mill still in Scandinavia exists here, today).  Then, when cotton began to usurp linen, in the mid 1800s, fortune struck again.
Agricultural reform gave farmers large swaths of forest they had little-to-no interest in.  But just about at the same time, industrialization started, railways were built and selling off land and felling rights became a goldmine.  Add to all of this a doubling of the population (thanks to peace and the smallpox vaccine) and the lack of a noble class and the farmers of  Hälsingland soared. "Cash in their pocket," Gun-Marie Swessar explained to us at Ol-Anders, something incredibly new for a population of people traded goods amongst themselves.  This is what they chose to do with it.
"That which... in Hälsingland, immediately arouses an outsider's attention are the magnificent and imposing buildings."  Elementary School Textbook, 1878.  Not much has changed since then.  As we drove to Alfta, where we'd booked a farmstay with the Hisved family, we kept noticing these enormous barns and houses.  Estates, really, grand in stature, but with an overwhelming sense of functionality.  Some people call the Hälsingegården, Hälsingland farmsteads, 'log castles,' and their layouts are pretty fortress-like.  Above, you can see the traditional form.  A fourth building used to be right where we're standing, completing the square.  The winter house is at the top, facing south for optimum sunshine.  The cow stables are to its left and the festivities and summer house is to its right.
This farm, Ol-Anders, was originally down in Alfta's town center.  However, after a 1793 fire destroyed almost all the buildings, the Anderssons and other families, moved their farms up onto hills, out of close proximity to neighbors.  For extra protection, they set them up like mini fortresses.  After the blaze, came the boom and what started as one story - two windowed buildings expanded upward and outward.  
Then came the decorative touches.  In parts of the region that were connected more closely to city, via trade routes or proximity, elaborate doors, detailed woodwork and pastels were the design of choice.  That's what the urban folk were doing, after all.  In places like Alfta and Långhed, porches were the style.  It's impossible not to notice them, some baroque, some rococo, some faux Greek temple.  "It took about 25 - 50 years for the fashions of the mainland [Europe] to get to this part of Sweden," Gun-Marie said, laughing.  Whether with a porch or not, the entrance to the home was considered the true sign of status.  Amazingly, though, even when the authorities actually began to complain that they were building on too large a scale and 'being too extravagant with wood,' the farmers of Hälsingland were never trying to outdo one another.  It was more like they were all deciding upon a local folk art, using most of the same builders and artists.
The painters mainly came from Dalarna, south of Hälsingland.  They would come on foot, with no job opportunities in their own neck of the woods, knowing that there was some wealth to go around up north.  Offering to paint for a few nights room and board, the artists began to adorn the festivities rooms.  Then, one room after another became canvases.  As the buildings grew, there was more wallspace to adorn.  With international styles beginning to come into vogue, farmers asked their painters to create the look and feel of expensive materials that would never be available to them.  Paint was used to create the illusion of oak and mahogany, Italian marble and French silk.  Always practical, the most intricate art was left for the rooms used only now and then.  More durable wall treatments, like stenciling and splatter painting, were used in entrance halls, sleeping rooms.  Because the fanciest murals were done in rooms that got use maybe a few times per generation and were not exposed to smoke or grease, they were able to remain intact.
Before we met with Gun-Marie at Ol-Anders, we didn't quite know how we'd be able to get a look at some of the famous interiors.  "Perhaps I can call my friend," Kersti Hisved told us when we asked about it.  We stayed with her and her husband, Ivor, in the hamlet of Långhed.  "Or, you can just come upstairs and look at ours!"  Ivor remembers touching the wall paintings as a child.  The paint used to come off on his fingers, he recalled.  Amazingly, with windows all around, it shows no signs of fading.  They've turned the festivities room into a kitchen, removing the wall panels temporarily to add insulation and having a restorer add a protective sealant before beginning any construction work.  "He told me to clean the walls with bread," said Kersti, "that's how they do all the old churches.  Lots of bread."  She dabbed at the wood with an imaginary chunk of baguette.
"In the 50s and 60s, everyone wanted everything new."  All across Hälsingland, some design elements became casualties of modernity.  But the festivities rooms, with their lack of insulation, were often the last things to get touched.  "She did not have the money to renovate this whole, big house," Ivor said of his grandmother.
Although the buildings on Kersti and Ivor's farm date back to 1845, they have only been in the Hisved family for four generations.  Some Hälsingegården have been in the same family for 400 years.  A strict code of inheritance governed the land here, where there was no aristocracy to clamor for real estate.  Father to son and if you had a daughter, it was customary to marry her off to a close neighbor.  Ironically, though, right after all these big houses were built in the mid 1800s, 10 - 30% of the people in this area emigrated to America.  They were following Erik Jansson, a preacher whose love of book burning got him run out of town and whom they promptly shot in Bishop Hill, Illinois after discovering that - prophet or not - he was an egomaniacal control freak.  Anyway, lots of houses were left empty.
While driving along in Edsbyn, we spotted Panesgården, a Halsingegården-turned-garden shop.  A warm welcome was given by Rosemarie and Rolf, who'd bought the building under a year ago.  Rosemarie had a flower shop in town, but fell in love with the historic farm, which wasn't being put to any use.  The ceiling had been newly touched up, the old faded painting could still be seen.  As we gawked at it, Rosemarie came up beside us.  "Want to see the upstairs?" she asked almost mischievously.  The impossibly narrow spiral staircase was unroped for us.  "You do this at your risk," she said before telling us to duck.  "I'm not allowed to let customers up here."
Upstairs, we emerged into a huge, bright room with some of the prettiest painting we'd seen.  She would like to turn the space into a cafe, if she can figure out the dangerous staircase situation.  Of the 1,000 Hälsingland farms, around 50 of them can be visited.  Many have been turned into B&Bs.  I think it was most fun to have just stumbled upon some.
What I love most about these farmers' mansions is the clear idea you get of what was truly valued by the people who built them.  Even as the farms grew almost ludicrously large, entire families would still sleep in a single room.  Why heat more than one?  They remained self-sufficient, continuing to spin, weave, slaughter, build, brew, bake... and all those big buildings gave them space to do it.  On most grand estates, the space is filled with stuff.  Here, they were filled with tools.  On most, fashion trumps function, wallpaper and furnishings are switched out for newer styles.  On these walls, art was made to last. 

A Dinner in The Woods: Fäviken Magasinet

Near the end of our dinner at Fäviken Magasinet, two chefs sawed through a cow's femur.  This bit of theater happened in the middle of the dining room.  There was no preamble and no explanation until the marrow had been picked out and plated with diced calf's heart and wildflowers.  We were told to salt it ourselves and spread it on crackers.  It was a delicious few bites of food, but the magic of the restaurant isn't constrained within the normal bounds of taste and smell. 
There, in an 18th century barn, we were treated to a dark, beautiful, nearly wordless dissertation on Autumn - from the dense vegetables to the fading light to the woodfire and our bed under the eaves.  Fäviken is a total experience.  One arrives, explores, eats, sleeps, wakes up, has breakfast and leaves... baffled, excited and with a new concept of what a restaurant can be.  Namely, environmental.  As a final petit-four we were given a plate of tiny raspberries, lingonberries and blueberries.  The fruit was small-globed and cold from the night air.  It had just been picked.
In the Swedish northlands, eight hours drive north of Stockholm, Fäviken isn't actually as remote as you might be told.  There's a town about ten minutes drive from the restaurant, with other restaurants and shops - but it still feels far away from everything.  Once you arrive, you're there until the next morning. We slept, with the other guests, in the same old barn as the dining room, tucked into little rooms.  It's somewhat luxurious, though everyone has mud and mown grass on their boots, and a tractor grunted in the misty morning air.  The setting is an old hunting estate, built on an even older farm.
All of us guests were excited about the food, but even more so about sharing an adventure.  Part of the point of the place is that it's completely overwhelming; the bedrooms, the shared sauna, the long drive north, the wet meadows outside, breakfast in the morning - it's a total experience, and immersion is unavoidable.  Nobody quite knows which door to go through, how to dress or what's going to happen.  It's mysterious, but easy - the meal takes on the tone of a dinner party.  There were only ten of us. There's one seating, every course is served to everyone at the same time.  I've never been in a restaurant where the whole room says goodnight to one another, or where everyone says hello again at their breakfast tables. 
The dinner actually began in a kind of drawing room, with a hearth and wooden armchairs.  Guests sit next to each other and kindle conversation.  The barn is built of old, heavy timber.  The decor is a mixture of forest-Swede icons: a thick fur coat by the stairs, a large-tooth saw by the liquor, bundles of herbs hung to dry on the walls.  We we given glasses of wine and - almost without being aware that dinner was beginning - a sudden trickle of amuse-bouches.  The chefs brought us the food and cooked some of it right before us.  They emerged with plates and pride, gave us explanations, asked us questions.
Fäviken would be fun even if the food wasn't great.  But it is great.  It's so good that we wondered if it was the best we'd ever eaten.  The problem with comparing it to other restaurants is that other meals seem so staid in comparison.  Our dinner was a procession of thoughtful surprises. Above, a ball of what was called "pig's head."  It was so tender that it could have passed for melting butter. The fried outer crust burst between the teeth, the flavor was intensely porky.  Just before this, we'd had toasted lichens, dusted with dried trout.
Putting down two little dishes of barely congealed cheese, a chef told us proudly that it was "just five minutes old."  This immediacy is a common trait of the kitchen's.  A leaf of kale, barely steamed was "dying on the plate."  A boiled turnip had been dug up "just now, during dinner." Magnus Nilsson, the restaurant's star, told us that his scallops - cooked in the shell over juniper embers and eaten with your fingers - are often mistaken for being overcooked.  "They're not overcooked," he said.  "It's just that they are still contracting, because they're so fresh.  If you wait a few seconds, they soften up."
Before the meal, we'd taken a long walk around the fields and into the trees.  We'd seen the kitchen garden, under an old stone wall.  The sheep had trotted over to meet us. The same aromas that end up on the plate - spruce, reindeer moss - begin in the dripping woods.  That turnip had been served under a bed of "last autumn's leaves," which had been collected in the springtime when the snow retreated.  The kitchen boils them with the roots, and then piles them on the plate together.  We were urged to search for our vegetables - like digging in forest loam - then slather them with butter.  It was a warm, earthy dish that went beyond taste.  Something of the chilly wilderness had come in with the leaves and the turnip, harvested just then in the dark outside.  We were being given a taste of the seasons - both last year's and right now.
Magnus Nilsson grew up not far from Fäviken Magasinet ("magasinet" means something like "store") in the heart of sub-arctic Jämtland.  He's unassuming, gracious and young.  When we first arrived, he was trying to fix the stereo system.  After dinner, he sat with his guests as we drank tea and duck-egg liquor.  The guests began the night in awe - in Scandinavia, Nilsson's become a culinary demi-god.  Fäviken is currently ranked 34th in the world by a (somewhat improbable, but much mentioned) authority.  By the end of the evening, he seemed like a friend or a neighbor.
Though he's exceedingly humble, Nilsson does have a dramatic streak.  He chopped cauliflower with an ax and put glowing embers on the table.  He likes to play with twigs, sticking them into food to make little antlers and using them like toothpicks.
There are more courses than we could really count - the food begins in small morsels, like tiny wild treats found in the woods, then builds to larger plates before subsiding again into sweets and sleepiness.  There were beautifully briny tastes of seafood - along with the gigantic, convulsing scallops, there was monkfish singed right in the kitchen's birch coals and served with spruce jelly. Skate with shallots, "fingered" so that it looked like soft pieces of white asparagus.  A langoustine tail, so delicate that it fell apart on the plate, served with caramelized cream (a wonderful thing, gently burnt and milky flavored at once).  This tiny morsel of pea-flour crust, pea-flower and pea-cream enveloped a juicy, steamed mussel.  It tasted equally of the coast and the garden.  Mussels also turned up at one point as a kind of remoulade with flax-seed crackers.
The meal had more fish than meat, but there were some bloody exceptions. Trout roe was cupped inside a dried crisp of pig's blood. The bone marrow and heart dish was the loudest exclamation, but the most endearing was one of the first: a few strips of cured pork belly, "from last year's fattest sow."
Nilsson has a knack for the jokily gruesome.  Pigeon arrived like this; singed talons, breast and split head.  "You can use the twig to pick out the brain," we were told.  "Really, if you want to chew on it, you can eat the whole head. Except for the beak."  The smear of buttered lingonberries provided an extra jolt of bloodiness.  It was one of the last courses, and arrived to laughter.  By that point, the room had been thoroughly won over.
The desserts were concise and fun.  The most memorable was a sugar-cured duck's egg yolk with a kind of crumble.  The crusted, shiny orb got broken into the dry grain, releasing the yellow liquid inside.  "Mix it together to make a little dough," the sommelier said, "then have it with some of this meadowsweet ice cream."
The nicest thing about Fäviken is that, even with all the complicated preparations and surprising flavors, it's really a very simple place.  When I woke up - hours before the nine-o'clock breakfast - I took another walk.  My boots got wet from the dew, the mountains around were hidden by fog. The birches were bright yellow in the cold morning light.  It felt and smelled like fall.  Most of what we ate the night before - aside from the salty seafood - had come from right there.  Trout is fished in the pond. The meat is butchered in another barn, the vegetables are grown in the garden. The berries, spruce and birch come from the woods.  Taking that morning walk, I felt like I was still experiencing the meal.
Our favorite food at Fäviken?  To tell the truth, it might have been the butter.  It was so rich that the color was almost orange.  The taste was of summer grass.  It's made from mountain cow milk, old Swedish breeds.  Our host agreed that it was delicious.  "You're lucky to have it, actually," Nilsson said.  "The brothers who make it don't get along.  These are the last days of the butter."

28 September 2012

Skansen, The Swedish Original

Just fifteen minutes by boat from Stockholm's old town traffic, on a green island in the archipelago, one can wander through the 18th and 19th centuries.  When we asked one young volunteer how they had decided on the "year" of the house we were in (meaning the time portrayed, not the date built) he nodded to a wooden-faced, centuries-old clock.  "Because of that," he said.  "It's the newest thing in here.  We don't want a clock expert to come in and tell us that it hadn't been built yet."  He was dressed in garters and a tri-cornered hat, and had just put a few more logs on the open fire.  Because of the warmth and the dusty light filtering through wavy glass, we were ready to believe that this was some version of the 1700's, some parallel existence of rural Sweden.
Skansen is the oldest and largest outdoor museum in Sweden.  A cluster of buildings, objects and traditions rescued from the brink of extinction, the collection is a pan-temporal glimpse of the country's past.
We've been to many "skansens" in different places - the name has become a noun, and we use it pretty broadly to mean open-air house-museum.  Notably, there was a terrific one in the Czech Republic and a half-abandoned example in the hills above Tbilisi.  Our favorite, probably, was the first of the trip - we actually spent the night at the rambling, rainy skansen in Ciechanowiec, Poland.
Several years ago, on a trip with my mother and aunt, I'd taken the ferry from winter-darkened Gamla Stan to the island of Djurgården.  From my memory, I was able to call up a kind of endless landscape on a hill outside Stockholm proper, where the buildings were all of old wood and we watched wolverines and a grey owl.
I found Skansen about how I remembered it, if less dreamy.  The trees were more fully leafed when Rebecca and I got off the boat, and there were more visitors.  Like so many public green spaces, the hill that the museum is built on has a specific grayness in the offseason.  The sky was overcast, but the gray was more emotional response than true color - shuttered buildings, leaves being raked, the smell of woodsmoke trickling from the chimneys, a melancholy that comes before bare branches. The ferry docked at the entrance to Gröna Lund amusement park, where autumn-quieted rides loom over the boat and the walk uphill to the museum.  We shared Skansen with a few other young couples and American tourists, but schoolchildren made up the largest demographic - and the most energetic.
Above, potato starch set on a windowsill to dry.
As the afternoon got close to evening, the air was cold.  We were drawn to the various hearths and kitchen stoves, where costumed men and women told us about their imaginary lives.  One man in large-buckled shoes showed us a collection of rocks and told us about copper and iron mining.  A pregnant woman lit an oil lamp and talked about the portrait she was painting of a farmer and his wife - she was usually the wife, but the dress in the picture didn't fit her at the moment.  A schoolteacher worked at knitting something (a mitten?) and laughed when we asked about the wallpaper.  The performances were casual, and broke between eras and characters.  In general, the people seemed happy to talk to someone - most visitors ducked in and out without saying hello.
Peasant architecture, handcrafts and artwork weren't appreciated much before they began to die out. Because they weren't considered high art, the beautiful objects of every day life - painted walls, carved tools, woven clothing - weren't preserved outside of the home.  The idea of needlepoint being worthy of a museum is a rather new concept.  As modernity began changing lives, it also changed the value people gave to their old things, and much was discarded.
At ethnographic museums, those objects aren't the entire point.  They're important, but their effect is more so - like a theater set's is to a play.  We are supposed to enter living dioramas, where fires crackle, chickens cluck around the doorways and the smell of yeast hangs in the air.  It's a kind of theater in perpetuity.
Of course, the buildings themselves are as fascinating as anything inside them.  Collected from all over Sweden, they range from churches and chapels to government-built soldier's homes and windmills.  There are several complete farmsteads, a faux mine, a Sami camp, a schoolhouse, post office, countless barns and the tallest steeple in Sweden.  All of the buildings were carefully taken apart, moved and reassembled.  Walking around the seventy five acre collection is surreal, especially when one catches a glimpse of modern Stockholm in the distance.  The juxtaposition of old, new, rural and urban is a little comical.
The idea behind Skansen was actually Norwegian - King Oscar II had created a similar museum a decade before the Swedish one opened.  Industrialization was rapidly shifting the way people lived their lives, and things that had once been taken for granted were suddenly disappearing.  Artur Hazelius, a professor and folklorist, founded the museum after traveling in the Swedish countryside and noticing how much the peasant communities were changing.  Today, it's one of the most popular attractions in Stockholm, even among the Swedish.  We talked to one woman from the capital about it - "Everybody goes at least once a year," she said, only half joking.
Skansen's collection extends even to live animals.  Moose lumber around on spindly legs, brown bears sleep in furry piles, wolves hide in the trees.  The scandinavian wildlife collection is interesting but - as with all zoos - a little lifeless.  The owls are maybe the best feature.  One, the great grey owl, is housed in a walk-in aviary.  It's possible to get quite close to the huge thing, which is unnervingly still most of the time.
Less depressing are the domesticated livestock, who are much more content than the fat seals and pacing lynx.  Goats and cows dutifully graze and look placid.  Horses swish their tails and stare into the distance.  Peacocks preen and give grating cries.  Here, bloody fish wait to be thrown to a pair of otters.
Of course, Skansen isn't really magical.  Walk around and you'll run into tractors and golf-carts, women shoveling sawdust with earphones on, cotton candy and (even) the tinny music of amusement rides.  There are buckets of lollipops and bad coffee.  But the boat ride really does something for the visit.  Leaving the city pier and arriving at the island, then getting back on the boat as the sun gets low, the museum gets set apart from everyday life - cut off by gray water and some minutes of voiceless wind. By the time the division has been made - hotel room and tourist bars cut away from windmills and hair kerchiefs - Skansen is impossible not to find fun and interesting. These sort of things are inevitably hokey, but they're important too.

26 September 2012

The Loftiest Berry

"We're cooking cloudberry jam today!" the woman behind the counter at Syltkrukan, ("Jam Pot,") announced.  We'd just been served our light lunch and coffee, a slice of rye bread each - mine topped with hard boiled egg and herring, Merlin's with liver pate and pickles. A man had just come out to fetch more empty containers to bring into the back room, of which we could make out the gleam of steel machinery and busy people.   She could tell we were curious.  Before we could take another bite, we were whisked back into the work room to behold the spinning of gold.   Cloudberry jam is a delicacy in Sweden and we've been looking out for it since arriving. Stumbling upon the jam family business was a little like finding a cloudberry, I'd imagine. We were muddy-booted and off the beaten track, it was tucked away in the Uppland forest.  It was magical.
A heavy box that said "FRAGILE" once arrived at the doorstep of our New York apartment. Inside, were a half a dozen jars of jam all the way from Sweden.  Merlin had taken a trip to the country recently and fell in love with the never-before-tasted cloudberry and lingonberry preserves.  The delivery, which he'd ordered, had three of each.  Most of the precious cargo was repackaged and sent off to family for Valentine's Day, but one jar of cloudberry was tucked away in our cupboard.  Merlin knew that once it was opened, it would vanish (and that each jar had cost nearly $20).   Swedes take cloudberries just as seriously, as was affirmed by our visit to Jam Pot.
"We call it Norrland's Gold," Per Wetterholm told us in the jam making room at Syltkruken.  An average of 50,000 tons of wild berries grow in Sweden's forests every year and about 96 - 98% of them go unpicked.  But not cloudberries.   If they are there for the picking, they are found for the jamming.   Hjortron, as they are called in Swedish, are rare for a number of reasons.   They are difficult for even the most skilled forager - of which there are many in Sweden - to find.  Tucked into swamps, marshes and bogs amongst fern plants, they have only one berry per stalk if that many.  It can take up to seven years for a fruit to be produced.  Some years, there are no cloudberries at all.  Cultivation would make matters a lot easier, but even a group of Norwegian, Swedish and Finnish scientists whose job it is to figure some sort of commercial production out have pretty much written cloudberries off as un-farmable on any large scale.
The berries - which look like pale yellow raspberries - are found, picked and then flash frozen before being sold and made into jam.  They are considered too tart to eat raw.   Per told us that in Sweden, almost 99% of cloudberries picked are made into jam and that jam is almost always eaten warm over ice cream, waffles or pancakes. There is tradition and reverence in the consumption of hjortronsylt.  And the making of it.  They say that the higher the fruit content the better the cloudberry jam. Syltkruken's was delicious, with 60% (that fancy imported stuff we got years ago only had 45%). What does it taste like?   I'd say tart, but bright.  It reminded me of fresh apricot, Merlin of honey, someone else of sour apple.  Maybe there are as many impressions of cloudberries as there are of clouds.

24 September 2012

Gypsy Kitchens: Birthday Smörgåstårta

What to make a birthday girl without a sweet tooth?   Luckily, we're in Sweden, the home of smörgåstårta.   "Sandwich cake," as it translates, is not only a traditional celebratory cake, it is also completely unique, semi-bizarre and so much fun to make and eat.   Above, three small cakes make up our batch of smörgåstårtor. Why did we make three?  Well, one is seafood, one is vegetarian and one is meat.  Yes, those pretty little cakes are as savory as can be.   Behold smörgåstårta.
Within an hour of arriving in Sweden, following a Tourist Information sign outside the train station in Göteberg to a shopping mall with a fish market right near its entrance, we'd seen smörgåstårta.   A small white square covered in dill was covered in smoked salmon, tiny shrimp and hard-boiled eggs.  We couldn't figure it out - what's the square made out of?  About a week later, as one of our birthdays dawned, we searched "Swedish birthday cakes" and got our answer. Smörgåstårta is a layer 'cake' made of sandwiches, a pile-up of white or rye bread and spreadable fillings, frosted with mayonnaise, crème fraîche, yogurt, cream cheese or some combination of those.
With smörgåstårta, restraint is thrown out the window.  The cakes, at best, are symphonies of flavor.  At worst, they are sort of grotesque.   When we researched smörgåstårta, there were some focused, elegant creations made of two or three ingredients at most: creamed spinach and salmon salad, pâté and egg salad.  Those were not made by Swedes.  Traditionally, sandwich cakes follow the smörgåsbord (Swedish buffet) all-in model: smoked salmon, shrimp, caviar, pâté, cold cuts, egg, cheese, mayonnaise, vegetables, some or all of the above.  This is not a dish for the indecisive chef, nor the overzealous one - which is why we wound up making three.
The main decision/problem one faces when making smörgåstårta is choosing a bread. Conventionally, the answer is very simple.   Sliced white bread, crusted, is employed most often.   It is firm enough to provide a barrier between layers, sponge-y enough to help it all stick together and - conveniently - already split. However, we wanted ours to be round.   Large hamburger buns work perfectly.   Slice a little bit off the top half of your bun in order to create a flat surface.   This will be your middle layer.   Use the bottom half of your bun for the ground and top layers of your cake - that way you're ensured a level base and a smooth decorating surface.
Choosing your fillings is half the fun.   It's a lot like designing the craziest club sandwich imaginable... with one catch.  There won't be a toothpick holding these layers together and you'll want to be able to slice your finished product like a cake, so make sure not to choose anything that won't stay put.  For example, anyone that's ever bit into a bagel and lox knows that a slice of smoked salmon can get pulled clean out with a single bite.   So, as not to cause catastrophic dismantling, we chopped up our salmon with kitchen shears.  This way, cutting a slice of seafood smörgåstårta would be clean and tidy and the fish would be evenly distributed.
We employed a tried and true salmon binding agent, cream cheese or "Philadelphia," as its called in Europe.   To make it a little easier to work with, we mixed in Greek yogurt until the spread was a mayo-like consistency.  Some chopped dill and shredded romaine lettuce completed the first layer of our seafood smörgåstårta.  The second layer was filled with chopped räk (shrimp) and kräftor (crayfish) mixed with a spicy dijon mustard and diced chives.  Mini shrimp and crayfish, both about the size of a thumbnail, are widely available in grocery stores around Sweden.  Since they are packed in brine, it's best to drain and rinse off the excess salt.  Thin slices of cucumber were thrown in for color and crunch.
Our vegetarian smörgåstårta consisted of a layer of hummus topped with shredded carrot and a layer of diced hard boiled egg and minced red onion mixed with tzaitziki (another common Swedish grocery store item).  Again, cucumber and strips of romaine lettuce were added to the fillings, as well as a good dose of freshly ground black pepper.  This smörgåstårta is, very literally, a carrot cake with cream cheese frosting.   We decorated accordingly, with sliced almond around the outside and a carrot on top.
While the veggie smörgåstårta looked the most dessert-like, the meat smörgåstårta was the sweetest.  The bottom layer was liver pâté and lingonberry jam, a Swedish staple that often shows up alongside meatballs, black pudding, liver dishes and meat stew.  The top layer was a healthy coating of our yogurt-cream cheese spread and a pile of paper-thin, bright pink roast beef.  Inspired by all the rose hues, we mixed some chopped beet into our frosting to turn it a bright fuschia.  The cake was jewel-toned and flavor packed thanks to the beets, berries and meat. 
Before frosting, it's best to let your smörgåstårta refrigerate overnight or at least for a few hours. This allows the flavors to mesh and the layers to set.  Frosting a firmer, cold-bunned cake will be much easier. Also, having an easily spreadable frosting is key.  We added thick, plain yogurt to cream cheese until we attained the fluffy frosting texture we wanted.   Make more than you think you'll need.   It's just like frosting a layer cake, you know there will be some unevenness or protrusion that needs a little extra coating to smooth over.   And then you get to decorate!
Making smörgåstårta is sandwich-making, no-bake baking, and a little arts-and-crafts rolled into one.  It's also a cultural experience, a piece of Swedish culinary tradition and a wonderful way to celebrate a birthday. We highly recommend it.

Castle Hunting: Slott Kalmar

The Bubonic plague struck Stockholm in 1571, so Johan III, King of Sweden, took his wife and son to Kalmar castle.  They lived there for the better part of two years, cut off from the capital, looking out over a pretty harbor and the calm waters of the Kalmar straight.  The fortress defenses had recently been modernized and strengthened, but the sturdy structure was more utilitarian than palatial.  Time moved slowly.  The King and Queen occupied themselves with construction.  The result is one of the prettiest and oddest castles we've been to, where pavilions and formal gardens once served as backdrops to sieges and cannon fire.
We spent two nights in Kalmar, huddled in pubs as the wind off the Baltic whipped through town. The leaves had just begun to change.  Our room was almost in the shadow of the castle's copper roofs, the moat was just outside our door.  We explored the castle from top to bottom, poking into places we weren't supposed to and walking around the marshy perimeter.
It's rare to see true Renaissance castles.  There are plenty of fortresses built (or renovated) during the Renaissance, and lots of forts that were prettified and turned into palaces during the period. But there are few defensible, Renaissance style castles, and I've never come across one like Kalmar.  What Johan III and Queen Catharine created was a military instillation with all the grace and accents of a fashionable residence.  The interiors are light and luxurious, there are fine carvings and painted woods.  The castle isn't outfitted with a true keep.  Instead, the inner courtyard is fully integrated with its surroundings and the main block was designed as a whole, which meant it couldn't be held beyond the front doors.  It also means that walking around the high-ceilinged rooms is pleasant and easy.  It feels "fit for a king" more than "strong enough for a warlord."
But this is no simple seaside villa.  During the 16th century, Kalmar served as a focal point for the maritime borderlands between Denmark and Sweden.  The Danes controlled the peninsula further south, the Swedes were centered north of the harbor, around Stockholm.  While there had been several agreements (the principle one, the Treaty of Kalmar, was actually signed at the castle in 1397) that had kept Scandinavia intermittently peaceful for a century, the dawn of the 15th century saw renewed hostility and restive borders carved across the region.  Being a crucial trading port - especially with mainland powers Germany and Poland - and being so close to antagonistic Denmark, the fortress needed to be strong.  Being situated on the sea, Kalmar also needed to be ready for the newest floating technology - namely, huge warships loaded with cannons.
An adventure: without realizing that we weren't allowed, we climbed up to the very top of the castle's highest roof.  A door had been left open by a caterer - a banquet was being prepared, things were in some disarray - and we found an intriguing wooden staircase.  Up several flights, through an attic coated with dust and bird droppings, at the top of a rickety scaffolding ladder, there was a door in the ceiling.  It opened.  We stepped up into the wind.  In a lofty cupola (you can see it in other pictures) there was a rudimentary railing and old bell, amazing views, a dangerous drop and a great perspective over the castle courtyard.  After climbing back down, it became clear that the doorway to the attic was usually locked.
The castle's rooms are mostly used as exhibition spaces these days.  History (old robes, plundered furniture, building models) was superseded by a vast collection of Bjorn Borg photographs (why?) and a room of paper cutouts.  Painted, paneled and restored ceilings are the architectural highpoint.  Electric fires radiate weak flickers over every hearth.
Kalmar's harbor was nicknamed "Kättilen," or "Cauldron," because of its depth, which allowed deep-drawing, large boats into its docks.  It's a pretty spot, with tiny islets in the bay and messes of high reeds along the banks.  The grey September water lapped rather peacefully against the rocks - Öland island shelters the site from the worst waves off the Baltic sea.  Significant dwellings have existed there since the stone age, and in the middle ages it was one of the primary ports of Eastern Scandinavia.  The first keep was erected on the castle island around 1200, probably to serve as a garrison and customs house.  A larger complex existed by 1300, with significant walls and separate towers.
Cannons swiftly changed everything about military architecture (I've talked about this in Castello di Trani, Kyrenia Castle, Palamidi Fortress and soaring Kotor ).  In terms of shore defenses, it changed things even more.  Before the advent of gunpowder, all that was needed to defend a port was a garrison of men - ships could only feebly attack land from the water and the real fighting was done once the attackers had come ashore.  After cannon were invented, ships and castles became direct adversaries.
A promenade meanders along the waterside in the present day.  Ducks and a few malevolent swans nest in the salty grass, high sycamores shade a cemetery and museum.  It's all very Scandinavian-peaceful, which is at severe odds with the past. While harbor castles are theoretically better off during a siege - it's hard for an enemy to seal off both the water and the land around a fortress - they are also subject to the full brawn of an opponent's cannon.  Sweden was especially concerned about this fact at the point when the Nordic Union dissolved - a lot of money and expertise went into strengthening and updating the country's medieval castles so that they could withstand gunpowder weapons.
The high old battlements were too delicate for the new cudgeling, so the outer walls of Kalmar, which rise directly from the water, are thick, low and earthen.  They didn't need to be very high, because attacking gun batteries would be firing on a horizontal plane.  Along the top, cannon ramps were installed for moving large guns, and firing stations were established.  Massive bastions were built at the corners, and a gatehouse was positioned at the back, fronting a wide moat.  In essence, the old castle was given a protective booting of sod and stone, and so was freed up to be made more luxurious.
Over the summer of 1611, a long siege and prolonged cannon war - dubbed the "Kalmar War," which is a generously expansive term - saw the castle fall to the Danes.  They captured it from the landward side, after the Swedes and run out of ammunition.  Fighting continued further north, but eventually petered out.  Forces on both sides were relying heavily on mercenaries, but didn't have the funds to pay them - many men were lost to desertion and disinterest.  After England and others put a stop to the flagging conflict, Sweden paid a hefty ransom to regain the castle.
As the new border between the countries was moved southward in a complicated treaty, Kalmar lost a lot of its strategic significance.  It continued for a while as a secondary royal residence, but eventually fell into disrepair.  Before it was spruced up in the 19th century - as a curio - it was reportedly in very bad shape.
An oft overlooked fact is that fortresses and castles were usually built by dreamers or egomaniacs - people who wanted their stone edifices to look impressive and feel imposing.  What we found endearing about Kalmar, in the end, wasn't its location, its grandeur or its sieges.  Castles were built to be fought over, and they were built by people with an eye for drama.  No, what was distinctive here, on the Swedish coast, was that a sixteenth century royal family decided to build a fortress that was both functional and beautiful.
Make no mistake, even in the 1500's, there were plenty of monarchs and low gentry who romanticized the middle ages, even as recent as they were.  They were rapidly taking disused piles and turning them into whimsical, fashionable country homes.  Most "renaissance castles" were built or renovated for show.  At Kalmar, under threat of imminent attack, the King built a true limestone stronghold, then made it livable.  By the cold, dark waters of the Baltic, Sweden has a special treat - a place where function and fancy have been given equal billing.
(And, if you can sneak in, the attics are one of the great castle experiences of Europe!)

20 September 2012

A Seaworthy Museum In Gøteborg

The sound of the Maritiman museum in Gøteborg is half the experience.  Steel whines against steel, engines hum, wharfs creak, footsteps ring out in the gloom.  Everything is a little unsteady.  This is a floating mess of ladders and pipes, where the sound and the movement of the waves provides atmosphere.  After an hour or two, you feel like a sailor.  The museum has a way of completely enveloping the visitor - the fluorescent gleam on worn metal, the smoothness of ladder rungs, the smell of new paint and old mildew.
Crawling through the green belly of the submarine Nordkaparen, past hundreds of dials and knobs, is like maneuvering through a hard-shelled dreamscape.
The seventeen boats that make up Maritiman - thirteen floating, four resting on the wharf - are so closely moored that the various decks and smokestacks create a jumbled whole.  Gøteborg is close at hand; on deck, the city sounds of traffic and people are as clear as the noise of the water.  Seagulls wheel, bicyclists whizz by on the waterfront, the ticket office sells ice cream cones to chilly pedestrians.  It feels much like any normal, familiar urban dockside.
The museum boats are anything but normal, though.  Guns prickle atop the destroyer HMS Småland, fire hoses wreath the Flodsprutan II, primitive radar antennae juts up from the minelayer Kalmarsund.  There's a harbor crane, two cute little tugs, a few lifeboats, a massive cargo ship and a rare, 19th century Monitor named the Sölve. There's even a floating lighthouse, the No. 29 Fladen (the red tower can be seen in the left of the picture).  The No. 29 was, rather pitiably, replaced by an "anchored buoy" in 1969.
The exterior decks are fun and interesting - the maze of connective ramps and stairways is engaging by itself - but the museum is most thrilling down below.  This is where the reverberations - who knows from what vibration? - take over, and the way becomes confusing.  How far does the hallway go?  Is this a dead end?  Where did that staircase come from?  Have I passed this before?
Levels and directions are pointless after a while.  Partly, the strangeness is because of the movement of the ship and the swaying of the lights.  Partly, it's because of the low ceilings, the perpetual crouch, the tight spaces.  It's rare, aboard the warships, to be able to stand up straight and get a good look around.  But the disorientation is partly willful - I didn't care about getting lost.
The Småland was, according to an information plaque, the first destroyer in the world to be outfitted with sea-based missiles.  The plaque also mentions such diverse armaments as torpedos, 12cm cannons, anti aircraft guns, anti submarine rocket launchers, depth charges, 58 mines, chaff-launchers and flare rockets.
Yes, up in the fresh air, the ship is impressively armed.  But that aspect of it hardly resonates below. It was difficult to recognize what anything was - even a kitchen looked warped, too small and foreign.  I could hear a few other visitors, somewhere in the corridors around me, but I didn't see anyone until I found myself back in sunlight.
Hugging the side of the Småland, looking like a prowling shark, the submarine Nordkaparen is one of Maritiman's jewels.  Built in 1961 as a state of the art coastal-defense weapon, the ship was used for about twenty years, before being decommissioned and docked.  The tarp over the front and the plentiful rust don't inspire a lot of confidence in the Nordkaparen's seaworthiness, but it seemed safe enough in the harbor.
After clambering down a long ladder, one can imagine immediately that they are deep under the surface.  Sounds are transmitted with watery vagueness.  There are no windows.  Wires and tubes criss-cross around you.  It's as much Jules Verne as Tom Clancy.
It's difficult to believe that twenty seven men lived aboard the Nordkaparen.  There doesn't seem to be room for three people in the tight confines.  There are valves and gauges on every surface - all vividly low-tech. It's not what one imagines a submarine to be like, it's much scarier.  Imagine maneuvering this blind cylinder in the black deep, without the aid of computers or modern controls, with no visibility, feeling the way with radar.
Torpedos shouldn't feel surprising in this realm, but somehow they caught me off guard.  There were several of them, bright orange, protruding from their barrels.  Most of the bunks were arrayed around the weapons, presumably because that's where there was some space.
What really brings the museum to life are the textures and sounds.  Everything is right there to be touched, bumped against or snagged on.  Many decks are reached by cramped ladder, and so the interiors become full of handholds and things to lean into.  Deep down, in the engine room of the Småland, pipes and ducts twist through the space like treeroots in a cave.  The ships groan and clang against eachother.  Walking through, getting lost, one passes empty kitchens and bunk rooms and chambers full of dials. For the claustrophobic, the tight spaces and hard edges might be frightening.  For the inflexible, some of the submarine ports might be hard to navigate - even relatively limber folks have to essentially crawl through the holes.  After some time alone in these depths, the boats take on a surreal spookiness.  These ships aren't exactly meant for humans, they're just big machines - it's like spending time inside an engine.
A brighter, more lighthearted feeling permeates other boats - like the plucky Flodsprutan II, which has lived in Gøteborg harbor since 1931.  The little fire boat patrolled the waterfront until the '70's, and is still in working order.  Rows of gleaming nozzles and coiled hoses are hung against the walls, the kitchen looks recently used (seen above - the dishes are part of the display).  Nearby, two more modern navy boats - a minelayer and a patrol craft - are sleek and fast and comfortable.  The cheerful red of the lighthouse boat, No. 29 Fladen, hides a bright interior full of blue china and genteel uniforms.
Gøteborg hasn't opened itself up to the water.  The port is more functional than fancy.  Buildings along the seafront aren't as pretty as those further in, and the city isn't defined by the view from a ferry.  So, at the end of a visit to Maritiman, standing at the very top of the Minelayer Kalmarsund, with cranes and cruise ships in the distance, one can feel that they are docked in any port in any city.  That's part of the charm. Spending a few hours at the museum, you can really pretend that your life is at sea - or, at least, it excites the imagination enough to make all the strangeness feel natural.