Monthly archives: May 2011

5 reasons to love the monarchy

Over the last year or so, there’s been a fair amount of hubbub related to the monarchy. Gossip, scandals, royal weddings—whether it’s good news or bad, there’s an ongoing discussion about whether the country should maintain the monarchy or abolish the establishment altogether.

You might expect a good American like me to be pretty anti-royalty. After all, every July we suspend all memory of our “special relationship” with England and celebrate kicking them the heck out of our country a couple of hundred years ago. Equality was a founding ideal of the United States (if not a founding practice), and nobility was outlawed in the first section of the Constitution.

Not to second guess all that, but fast forward to the present day and the Swedish monarchy seems pretty awesome from where I’m sitting.

Photos courtesy the Swedish Institute

Should I stay or should I go now?? Photo and graphic courtesy the Swedish Institute.

Yes, they’re tremendously rich and famous for no other reason than being born to a certain family; yes, their wealth is generated in part by tax payer crowns that might be better allocated elsewhere. All the same, Sweden’s royal family is an important patron of the arts, fashion, and Swedish culture, and the Queen is famous for her charity work, especially on behalf of children.

What’s more, although you might not like that their wealth and power is pretty arbitrary, it could be worse! At least the royal family isn’t famous because of a sex tape, which constitutes a whole genre of celebrity in the States.

Here are some more reasons to love the monarchy:

1. Royal Weddings

Everyone loves a royal wedding. As long as you’re not a totally bitter, “I-hate-the-monarchy-my-tax-crowns-are-being-wasted” type, a royal wedding is just a great excuse to get all mushy and drink champagne and watch vaguely recognizable people mingle with the royals on television. Last summer, Stockholm had a whole “Summer of Love” festival to celebrate Crown Princess Victoria’s marriage to Daniel Westling, now the Duke of Västergötland. And what a fairytale… a commoner and a princess. It’s enough to make me a little weepy.

There are two big advantages of royal weddings over celebrity weddings. One, because the people are paying, cameras get to capture every minute. Two, they’re classy. Ball gowns, tuxedos, ballroom dances, the most sparkling of crystal glasses, the shiniest of silverware. Seriously. You can still watch the whole royal wedding, clip by clip, on the state-sponsored TV channel’s website (SVT). Follow this link to watch Victoria and Daniel waltzing. I love it.

2. Division of labor

In the United States, the president has to do both the governing/political work and the figurehead/emotional work. It’s a lot to ask of one person, and it has to be distracting. In Sweden, the prime minister can focus on his part of the government, and the royal family can tackle the figurehead work on their own.

For example, there was recently a slew of deadly tornadoes in the Midwest of the United States. Obama went there to deliver speeches and pledge support—a moving show of solidarity with victims of a natural disaster. It’s important for someone to do that, but sometimes I wonder what meetings he’s missing or what he should be attending to instead. If it had been Sweden, the King or Crown Princess Victoria could have gone instead, leaving the government to operate as usual. Same for good news events as well. Efficiency!

3. Continuity in celebrity gossip

In the United States, the focus of celebrity gossip is always changing. I barely get a chance to catch up on the most recent developments in the lives of the (sometimes) rich and famous before that group of people changes. There’s no character development*! In Sweden, half of the tabloid space covers the royal family… all the time. You can really find your allegiances and stick with them for a very long time.

When Victoria and Daniel have children, you know I’ll be reading about that child from practically its first ultrasound, and by the time he or she is 25, I will really think that I know that child and somehow witnessed his/her upbringing. I don’t know if that’s a plus or a minus for anyone involved, but at least it limits the cast of characters I have to keep up with to a fairly finite group.

*(I could get all “I studied English literature in college, and lack of character development is a legitimate complaint for some Very Important Reasons, Cultural Studies, OH MY GOD DID YOU SEE THAT!” but mostly it has to do with my love of celebrity gossip.)

4. Knick-knacks, bric-a-brac, kitsch

Along with royalty (and the aforementioned royal wedding) comes piles and piles of hilarious kitsch. Wedding trays, postcards, placemats, greeting cards, magnets, coffee mugs… the list of items with photos of the royal family or decorative motifs on them goes on and on. I never buy any of these things because there is very little room in our studio apartment for ridiculous collectibles, but I kind of love them in theory. They’re a very tasteful kind of tacky. Go into any gift shop and you’ll see what I mean.

5. Novelty, nostalgia

Monarchies are not all that common anymore, and it feels pretty special to live in one of the few that remain. “The Kingdom of Sweden”—it’s got a nice ring to it, right? And with Sweden’s reputation for innovation and progressive values, it’s kind of cool that they have held on to this obviously antiquated establishment while modernizing it (world’s first gender neutral throne!) in keeping with the times.

It’s easy to make arguments against the royalty on an ideological level, but as an American, I would just warn my dear host country that if it gets rid of the institution, a new crop of celebrities will rise up to claim their part of the limelight, and Swedes will lose all the good parts of the monarchy. I speak from experience. Abolish not, lest a plague of Kardashians overtake thy country.

Friends don’t let friends snus

Hey! I have this wad of steam-pasteurized tobacco for you, and it’s even conveniently packaged in some sort of pouch! Just stick it between your upper lip and gum on either side of your mouth and let the sweet tobacco goodness seep into your blood. No spitting, no chewing. It might burn a little or make you want to throw up at first, but just ride it out… you’ll love it!

You’re sold already, right? That’s what I thought.

So have you heard about snus yet? If not, you heard it here first: that stuff is NASTY! And once you start, you will never ever ever stop.

In case you haven’t heard of snus yet (rhymes with moose, deuce, noose), it’s a Swedish tobacco product that is banned throughout Europe and is on its way to my home country, the United States, in a bid to expand the market. Whether you come to Sweden as an expat or have the opportunity to witness some snus use on your own turf, you have a lot to look forward to, including but not limited to the following experiences:

→ when you have parties, you’ll find these soggy nasty pouches all over your kitchen and on your front stoop, and you’ll have to pick them up one way or another;

→ when you have picnics you’ll have to nudge the decomposing pouches out of the grass you’re sitting in, and there will be more than you can reasonably deal with, and no one will have brought hand sensitizer;

→ when you get close to a Swede, there’s a definite possibility of kissing someone with a snus pouch in, which I have not done and so cannot comment on, but if kissing a smoker is like licking an ashtray my guess is that kissing a snus-er is quite similar. And that’s not appealing.

Actually, when you think about it, snus being so popular makes it the world a lot like the olden days when everyone smoked cigarettes, minus the secondhand smoke and the possibility of having your building set on fire by a little old lady who falls asleep in an adjacent apartment with her death stick still lit. And minus the annoyance of having your coat smell nasty every single time you go to a bar regardless of whether you smoked or not.

As far as I’m concerned, this snus thing is the one weakness in the average Swedish male. Seriously. Generally speaking, Swedish men are fit, stylish dressers, and feminists. (Hotttt.) But then there’s this pouch of nicotine-laced tobacco nastiness stuck in their lips, and as far as I can tell, it’s 50/50 whether the guy will be snusing or not (statistically speaking, it’s more like 20% of Swedish men who snus, but I’m going to go with my gut over “scientific data” on this one).

General brand Swedish snusGeneral brand Swedish snus, part of the Swedish Match company’s stable of brands. Photo courtesy of Swedish Match.

So what is it? It’s not snuff, it’s not chewing tobacco, and it’s not dip. It is tobacco, but in Sweden it’s regulated as a food product, so it’s not much more than that: tobacco, water, salt. Because of the method by which it is processed, it has far fewer carcinogens than cigarettes or chewing tobacco, is far less likely to result in cancer than smoking, and has little if any effect on bystanders as opposed to secondhand smoke. And then it has a big nicotine hit on top of all that, making it just as addictive as cigarettes if not more.

(I’m just going to take a minute here to rant: of course the SWEDES find a way to make even their bad habits look good in comparison with the rest of the world. Seriously, you guys. What is up with that? How do you do it?)

As for myself, I really do not get the appeal. There was recently an article in Gawker about snus, and one commenter described it as “a tea bag of tobacco that you brew in your mouth;” another wrote that it’s like “a tobacco tampon.” Appetizing. Luckily for me, I’m not in Sweden right now, so I’m totally excusing myself from trying it by pretending that Swedish snus is not readily available to me. (It isn’t in my parents’ house; therefore, it was not readily available to me.) Frankly, I have absolutely no interest in sticking that stuff in my mouth. Instead, I asked one of my friends to shed some light on the experience.

In Adam’s words…

The taste.

The taste is “a bit like smoke-flavored wet piss,” although in his opinion, it smells a lot better than that.

The rush.

Adam said that in a nutshell, the best thing about snus is the feeling. “The joy of taking a snus after not having been able to is far greater than that of a well-needed cigarette.”

The snus(kig) future.

“I would never in my life quit, mostly because I can’t! You can compare it to a serious narcotic addiction without the hallucinations. I kind of wish I had never started, but now that I’m hooked, I don’t want to be without it. One of the times I tried to quit, my girlfriend actually ORDERED me to start again because I was becoming such a horrible person to live with.”

Word to the wise: just say no. Sure it’s less harmful than a cigarette, yes you get the same nicotine hit you so desperately crave. But for all you non-Swedes, stay away while you still can! Imagine the horrors of being hooked to something that tastes like smoke-flavored pee.

Those with English as their mother tongue have another reason to avoid the stuff altogether, especially if any of their computers, iPhones, iPads, etc. are programmed to write in English. If you try to write snus, spellcheck will auto-correct it ” to “anus”, and there will come a night when you’re writing a text message to your friend, and things will become unexpectedly awkward.

“How much does anus cost now?”

“Hey, I’m picking up some Swedish anus on my way to your house. Do you want some?”

“I’ll share my anus if you run out.”

The potential pitfalls are endless. So just remember: friends don’t let friends snus!

 

Expat life, cooking, and why I had to bake a cake

In Sweden, I’ve loved having opportunities to share the tastes of the United States with my non-American friends, especially at Thanksgiving and at semi-regular Mexican food nights. Turkey! Pumpkin pie! Chipotle peppers in adobo sauce! Cheesecake! As an expat, food has become not only a reason to bring friends together, but a vehicle for sharing more about myself as well: where I come from and who I am.

Now I’m quickly closing in on a year of living in Sweden, and my time here has been unlike any other abroad experience I’ve had. I’ve been more integrated into Swedish life in Lund than I ever was into Austrian life in Vienna or Italian life in Perugia, and I can tell when I talk to friends that live in the United States or other parts of the world that I’m picking up some very Swedish opinions.

I’m at home now, visiting my family in Maryland, and I find myself wanting to share Swedish food and Swedish tastes with my foodie family as a way of making my life abroad a little more real to them, to find a way to make my intangible experience a little more concrete.  So, of course… (drumroll please)… I made a cake. I had to try to replicate that first experience of cardamom cake myself, and I even learned a few things along the way.

MUMS! means YUM! in Swedish. Photo: Kate Wiseman.

First, quick trivia: Did you know that the much-talked about Swedish cinnamon buns, another baked good which gets its own special holiday, is actually made with a lot of cardamom. Some bakers even skip the cinnamon altogether in favor of an unadulterated cardamom experience, which is kind of funny when you consider that they are called cinnamon buns, after all.

Cardamom works its way into the most unexpected places in Sweden, from cakes and cookies to glögg, the warm spiced wine served in Sweden during the winter. (Glögg is pronounced “glug”, like the sound you make while drinking a lot of glögg.) That’s probably why, as this very-authoritative seeming book says, ”In Sweden… the per capita consumption [of cardamom] is about 60 times greater than that in the US,” far outshining cinnamon.

All that said, here’s my invitation to you to share a part of Sweden with me. And you don’t even have to be daring with the herring (tee hee!). If you want to know what I think traditional, archetypal Swedish baked goods taste like, go ahead and try this coffee cake. It’s less sweet than you would expect, and it works well both as breakfast and a midday snack. (Or a late night snack… or a pre-lunch snack… or a “well I’m not really hungry, but the cake’s still there” snack… you know what I’m talking about, right?)

Do yourself a favor, though: buy whole cardamom pods and grind your own cardamom for this recipe.

Freshly ground cardamom bears almost no resemblance to the pre-ground stuff you get in a jar. If I hadn’t felt obliged to go the distance for this blog post, I would have never known. But let me tell you: I’m a convert now. If you actually happen to have this awesome trio of time, energy, and foresight, plus a mortar and pestle, spice mill, mini food processor, or coffee grinder, or a hammer, or maybe even a nutcracker (I don’t know… I guess you just have to be determined about it), just do it. Go out and buy the pods and grind it yourself.

The smell alone is worth it. Freshly-ground cardamom shocks you if you put your nose too close to the source. It will make your eyes tear up. I couldn’t quite place the smell—somewhere between, perhaps, pepper and menthol, with a taste that lingers long after you’ve finished eating. It is something I wouldn’t have recognized if I hadn’t prepared it myself.

So now, the recipe. Sent to me by my friend Anna, originally from Drakamöllan’s Cookbook, adapted to US/British measurements by yours truly. Drakamöllan is a B&B and restaurant as well as a nature preserve—I’ve never been there, but this is not the only recipe I’ve made from their cookbook, and I can attest to the deliciousness of the food.

Drakamöllan’s Cardamom cake

100 grams butter (7 tablespoons)

2.5 dl sugar (heaping 1 cup)

1 egg

1 tablespoon freshly ground cardamom (or two pre-ground… if you must)

5 dl all purpose flour (2 3/4 cups)

2 teaspoons baking powder

2.5 dl milk (1/2 pint or 8.5 ounces)

Pearl sugar as a garnish (I’m not a big pearl sugar fan, and I would just leave it off. It’s weird.)

Preheat the oven to 175 Celsius/250 Fahrenheit. Butter a round cake pan (about 2 liters capacity). Mix butter, sugar, and egg and beat until light and fluffy. Grind cardamom (or use pre-ground), mix into dough. Combine flour and baking powder in a bowl. Add flour mixture and milk in alternating batches until dough is smooth and thoroughly mixed.

Pour the dough into the cake pan and sprinkle pearl sugar over it (or skip the pearl sugar altogether, which is my recommendation). Bake in the middle of the oven for 45 minutes to an hour. Let the cake rest in the cake pan for at least ten minutes, then remove from pan and serve sugar side up.

Photos: Kate Wiseman.

Here’s how to grind the cardamom: split open the green pods (I used a paring knife), and shake or pick out the black seeds inside. Remove any that look too old, brown, or dusty as well as any part of the pods that might fall into your bowl. Then grind. Apparently, if you don’t have any of the tools I mentioned above, it’s also possible to put the seeds in a plastic bag and hit them with a rolling pin or a hammer, but this seems both ineffective and kind of dangerous for your countertops. But hey, maybe you’re renting! (Just kidding.)

In case you’re interested in exploring further, Johanna Kindvall from Kok Blog has again shared some of her recipes featuring cardamom. You may have to wait until it gets cold again to fully appreciate the glögg, but the pear tart might be perfect for this time of year. I also included some of the American recipes I found, which have made their way to the US thanks to the vibrant Scandinavian community in the Midwest. They may or may not be very authentic, but they look delicious. Happy baking!

Johanna’s glögg

Johanna’s “Old Ladies’ Sponge Cake”

NPR’s “Swedish Cardamom Bread, Wisconsin Style

Mark Bittman’s Cardamom Scented Pear Crisp

Cardamom and the flavor of life: it’s the little things that stay with you

I will never forget the first time I ate cardamom cake. It was the summer of 2008, and by then, it was my third visit to Sweden. My first two trips had been quite short vacations, though—this was the beginning of my first extended stay.

Simon and I had just gotten back from a road trip to Amsterdam and Bruges the night before after a grueling 12 hour drive back through the areas we had explored at a more leisurely pace the first time around. His parents called in the morning; did we have enough energy to join them at their house in the countryside? “Not really” was my first thought, followed closely by “Please don’t make me get in a car again!” but this was the beginning of my stay and I wanted to be amenable. An hour later, they picked us up: Simon’s parents, his great aunt, their nervous dog, and the two us all folded ourselves in the compact car like the proverbial sardines in a tin.

Vittskövle Castle, Vittskövle Slott, Wikimedia CommonsWe stayed at Simon’s modest country abode. But this is not it. Vittskövle Castle, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA)

By the time we got to their summer house in Vittskövle, the landscape had been transformed. On one side of the house, farms and bales of hay; on the other, a thick forest and a castle. I didn’t speak any Swedish at this point, and I had trouble following the conversation that took place as the picnic basket was unpacked, more family members introduced themselves, and lunch was set in motion. The residual tiredness from the previous day’s drive plus the food and the foreign language lulled me into a sleepy daze. And then dessert was served.

I took a bite of the cake that I was offered and surprise shook me out of my stupor. It tasted good, but unlike anything I had had before. It was almost peppery and not nearly as sweet as I had expected—not spicy per se, but spiced in a way that was totally unexpected. It was cardamom cake.

When you arrive in Sweden, whether as a tourist, an expat, an immigrant, or in some other role, it’s easy to pick out and talk about “the big things,” the differences that create a striking contrast between your country of origin and your destination. For me, my first two visits were defined by the wonder I felt at seeing the wide open skies in central Stockholm, observing the stunning integration of old and new architecture in Sweden’s capital city, experiencing both the effectiveness of public transportation and the mind-numbing cold of winter. But in this third visit, I experienced something new—something that would come to be one of the defining tastes of my expat life in Sweden.

This memory of cardamom cake in Vittskövle came to mind this past weekend when my mother made a Swedish cardamom cake of her own—a recipe that had been handed down to her from her own mother. It was good, but it was missing that sharp, peppery edge that I remembered. I’m often impatient with the mildness of traditional Swedish cuisine, but the prevalence of cardamom in baked goods bucks that trend, occasionally resulting in a pastry that is less sweet than spicy.

I asked some Swedish foodies and friends for their thoughts on cardamom, and I heard nearly the same response from several: it makes me think of mormor. Your mormor is your mother’s mother, or your maternal grandmother. The link between cardamom and these feelings of home, of familiarity, of family is undeniable, especially when it’s featured in Sweden’s most typical baked goods: cardamom bread, cinnamon buns, and a wide variety of cookies and cakes.

Cardamom: in the pod and out
Cardamom: in the pod and out. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA)

But how did such an atypically spicy flavor work its way into the Nordic cuisine? The short version: I’m not really sure. If there’s a food historian/anthropologist that wants to help me out on this, I am now extremely curious. The long version: I’ve found a lot of leads, but nothing definitive.

The explanation that I like the best is the one set forth in National Geographic’s Edible: an illustrated guide to the world’s food plants, and the Serious Eats food blog backs them up. They claim that Vikings encountered it in Turkey in what was then Constantinople and brought it back with them. The Encyclopedia of Kitchen History writes that the growth of the European spice market followed on the heels of the plague in the mid-1300s, as a combination of increased wealth from the silk routes, increased intercultural contact throughout the Mediterranean, “boredom with a bread and gruel-based diet,” “aspirations of the rising middle class,” and simple curiosity enticed the upwardly mobile middle class and the newly rich to imagine a world beyond plain old meat and potatoes. Last but not least, A Baker’s Odyssey claims that the use of cardamom has been found in Scandinavian cookbooks dating back to the 1300s, an addition to the cuisine that the authors suggest was first introduced by Crusaders but was sustained by the Hanseatic League.

No matter how cardamom got to Sweden (and Denmark, Norway, and Finland) in the first place, it’s here to stay, and its presence is ever-evolving. In the middle of writing this blog post, I got a BREAKING NEWS ALERT that there’s a new flavor of drinkable yogurt called “A Touch of Africa,” featuring pomegranate, hibiscus, and (of course) CARDAMOM. I don’t think the Vikings would have thought of that, but maybe they would have approved.

 

CHECK BACK TOMORROW FOR PART TWO… IN WHICH I BAKE A CAKE!

The Highs and the Lows of the Sweet Life, Part 2: THE SALT LICORICE MENACE

It arouses the passions, inflames the mouth, causes some to jump for joy and others to scream in pain. Traveling under a false name and lurking in the midst of innocent sweets, it ranges in strength from this is just unpleasant mild to I think I’m going to hurl strong.

SALT LICORICE!!

Except… gasp… it’s not really salt licorice. It has a salty taste, but there is, in fact, no salt in it. As Bronte, co-founder of London-based Scandinavian Kitchen Deli and Groceries, explained to me via email, the taste comes from Ammonium Chloride, and it is this taste that non-licorice people find difficult to understand. That’s why salt licorice often goes under the name “salmiakki,” which is the Finnish word for Ammonium Chloride.

As for the taste… On one hand, she described salt licorice as “an acquired taste,” which might just be the understatement of the year. When asked for more, Bronte elaborated:

How do I describe the taste? Salty. Strong. I love it. If you do not like it, eating a piece of djungelvral [a super-strong variety] probably makes you feel like someone shoved a hedgehog into your mouth.  It is foul.

And there you have it.

One of salt licorice’s most notable qualities is its ability to inspire exceptionally vivid descriptions of its taste and the licorice-eating experience. American expat Liz Slaughter-Ek likened it to “caramelized motor oil,” and fellow Sweden.se blogger Lola Akinmade described it as a “big no-no for me… I usually morph into a toddler when I pop one into my mouth” (and she’s eaten surströmming… not for the faint of heart!).

And yet… and yet… the level of support for the salt licorice among the Swedes is hard to ignore. I asked for people’s opinions on salt licorice, and there was an outpouring of responses: everything from “I love salt licorice!” to lists of favorite varieties. Turkish pepper! Salty cats! Fazer chocolate with salty licorice filling! –although this last one is from Bronte again, and she is a self-described “licorice nut.”

Varieties of Licorice/Liquorice

A very small sample of the range of licorice products available in Sweden and throughout Scandinavia. All varieties pictured here are available for international purchase from www.scandikitchen.com.

Speaking of which, to the English-speaking world—licorice or liquorice? As if this candy weren’t already a danger enough in itself, I can’t decide which spelling is better! Bad enough that you mess with my candy, licorice. Now you’re messing with my spelling??? IT’S ON.

Here’s the thing: obviously everyone likes certain varieties of candy more than others. But salt licorice is a menace, popping up out of nowhere when you least expect it in a shock-and-awe attack on your whole mouth. It’s nothing less than a crippling assault on your defenses when you’re least expecting it, and a capable tool in the hands of tricksters. Bronte brazenly admitted, “We [Scandinavians] find it intensely amusing to make non-licorice lovers taste it and watch them squirm.  It’s almost a national sport.”

Pure evil, I tell you.

Even on its own, salt licorice can be a danger to innocent candy-lovers. Take this shocking story, which my friend Steve related to me:

I’m not sure how to describe the terribleness of salt licorice. It’s like choking down sadness. Some student at Malmö University was handing out candy yesterday and I took a few pieces without looking, one of which was the straight up salted licorice. I took a bite of it as I was leaving, thinking that I hadn’t had it in a while and perhaps some sort of subliminal acclimation process had occurred over the past few months. It had not. The remaining two-thirds ended up in the grass.

BUT! I had another piece remaining, a hard candy that tasted like a watermelon Jolly Rancher, although shaped like a throat lozenge. It was delicious, until the exterior started to disintegrate, at which time, this horrible ooze of salty flavoring poured into my mouth. Shock—but how, sweet sweet delicious candy, could you betray me so?—turned to denial—onto the ground you go!—turned to rage —upon which the remaining fragments were thusly smote into nothing. I hope to never be tricked by candy again.

Salt licorice: it’s the ultimate wolf in sheep’s clothing, inviting its victims in with the promise of candy and turning on them with a viciousness rarely seen outside of video games or cliques of teenage girls. Scandi-antics! Scandi-trickery! Scandiknavery!

 

For all the daredevils, lunatics, and (oh yeah) licorice enthusiasts out there…

If, after all this, you’re interested in a taste, you can order salt licorice from Scandinavian Kitchen. They are the experts, after all. (If you’re international, that is… if you’re in Sweden, you know where to find it.) Their online shop is full of exciting food and drink items from all over Scandinavia, and they have a whole section devoted to Sweets and Snacks. The capable team over there can make a variety pack of licorice for both novices and advanced-level enthusiasts, or you could skip the licorice altogether and just order a bag of the pick and mix. Licorice be damned, you can still come out with a win in your Swedish candy adventures.

If you want to read about the flip side of Swedish candy, by which I mean THE DELICIOUS SIDE… check out yesterday’s post: Part I: The Swedish Candy Craze!

And last but not least, here are a few of my candy recommendations:

My favorite candies from Karamell Kungen, "the Candy King"! All candy images (c) Karamell Kungen, www.karamellkungen.se

I really had too much fun making this graphic of all my favorite candies not to include it here.

OM NOM NOM NOM!!