Monthly archives: June 2011

Oh, snap(s)… it’s Midsummer.

There’s no use trying to be delicate about this. A crucial part of the Midsummer festivities is the drinking. I’m trying very hard to sound very adult-like and responsible in this blog, but even the totally responsible adults I know seem to be prone to, ahem, a little excess during Midsummer.

Snaps! Aquavit! Brännvin! Bål! Where to start?

Delicious glasses of bål chilling out with the Midsummer Head Wreaths. Photo: Kate Wiseman.

Here’s the basics.

Bål (pronounced like “bowl”) is an alcohol-based fruit punch, usually made with soda for a light and bubbly taste.

Aquavit is the traditional pairing to pickled herring and is made from a vodka base (either potato or grain). Like parmesan and champagne, aquavit is an EU-protected label that must be made with either dill or caraway or both, a baseline flavor that can then be paired with other herbs and spices to make distinctive varieties.

Brännvin is any kind of flavored, distilled alcohol, including but not limited to aquavit. The name “brännvin” refers to the “burning” or distillation of an alcohol, and different kinds of brännvin have been made throughout Scandinavia for centuries.

Snaps is not a type of alcohol; it’s the way a shot of alcohol is drunk. Snaps can be any liquor or combination of liquors and other ingredients, but snaps must be taken in combination with food. At Midsummer, snaps of aquavit or other types of brännvin are usually taken after “snapsvisor” (traditional Swedish drinking songs) are sung.

Kate and Anna’s home brew… sort of

People tend to be on their most Swedish behavior around me as though they owe it to me to show me what a real Swede would do. This system works out really well for me, and whenever I get an idea in my head of something we should do because it’s Swedish, chances are really good that people will play along. Not only that, but since all the old traditions are new to me, I am having a lot of fun taking part in all the things people usually stop doing when they’re children. The “be a good cultural ambassador to the foreigner” complex is awesome. I quite like it.

Which brings us to the snaps situation.

I love Johanna Kindvall’s Kok Blog, and ever since I consulted with her on my Holy Herring! blog post, I’ve been curious to try her recipe for aquavit—she said herring is at its best when paired with the strong and spicy liquor, and I knew that herring was definitely on the menu for Friday. Fortunately, Anna said she was up for the challenge, so we went for it.

Measuring, grinding, steeping, smelling... and voila! Our very own homemade snaps. Photos: Kate Wiseman.

Final result: delicious. I can’t even tell you how many people were like, “Well, I’m not much of a snaps person, but I’ll try it anyway since you made it,” then took half a shot, then reacted with a great deal of surprise: “Wow! That’s not bad!” Two minutes later, another drinking song has started and they’re making a grab for your bottle instead of the store-bought bottle sitting on the table…

You can find the recipes for both the black currant and aquavit varieties on the Kok Blog. The black currant might be a little hard to make if you don’t grow the bushes yourself, but perhaps some readers can suggest where to find them.  I highly recommend both varieties. I liked the aquavit better, but the black currant is lighter and perhaps a little easier to drink if you’re not into spice. Just be sure not to let the black currant leaves steep for too long, otherwise it will start to taste a little grassy.

Back to the bål

For those of you who are not into shots, the bål (fruit punch) that we had at our party was amazing. And therefore dangerous. It was somewhere in the middle of my fourth glass that I thought to myself, “Hmm… I hope this isn’t too strong because I am drinking it really quickly.”

There are almost endless variations of bål and while most are fruity, they can also be made with bitter ingredients, like angostura. You can see an abbreviated selection of the flavor combinations suggested by Systembolaget, the national alcohol monopoly.

A small selection of the wide range of bål variations. Photos: Systembolaget.se.

For those of you who might want a taste of Sweden at your next summer party, here’s the punch that I can vouch for as totally tasty, with thanks to my friend Matilda for sharing the recipe!

Matilda’s Midsummer Bål

Will make two punch bowls full

4 bottles of white wine (or one box)

2 bottles of Sprite

¼ bottle of elderberry cordial/concentrate (find recipe here; can also be bought at Ikea stores worldwide)

¼ bottle of rhubarb and strawberry concentrate

A generous splash of Bacardi lemon

Frozen chopped mango pieces

Fresh lime, sliced thinly into triangles

Frozen strawberries

A few fresh strawberries

A few last thoughts

For those of you who are wondering how I felt the next morning, well… I wasn’t exactly jumping out of bed, itching to run a marathon, but overall I was fine. Water! Water is good for you. Thank goodness I drank a lot of it at the end of the night.

Happy Midsummer!

I started writing this last night in the quiet of my apartment, feeling a little like a child the night before Christmas. All the preparations for Midsummer were in order, there were certain tasks that need to be completed in the morning (among those: making another flower head wreath), and now, this morning, all that stands between me and the Midsummer festivities is time.

Although the weather is less than perfect at the moment, I’m excited to see what the day will bring. Undoubtedly herring and snaps, fresh potatoes and a strawberry cake. (See fellow Sweden.se blogger Anne’s Midsummer strawberry cake for an example.) But what else? Should I have bought a traditional folk dress? Now I’m just making myself nervous.

I thought about live blogging Midsummer from beginning to end for a moment, right before I realized that combining aquavit consumption with internet access was not a good idea. I’ll be taking lots of photos instead so I can report back to you all later.

Will we dance around a maypole? Will traditional songs be sung? Will we channel the spirit of the Vikings and summon the ghost of Leif Ericsson? (I really hope so.) On a related note, do you think that Ikea makes ready-to-assemble maypoles? Because that would be awesome.

Here is a small sampling of photos from the week’s Midsummer preparations—making snaps, weaving our own flower head wreaths, and tapping centuries-old Midsummer magic. There will be much more later on all the action.

Photos: Kate Wiseman.

In the meantime, happy, happy Midsummer to all of you! I hope you enjoy the day no matter where you are.

 

5 Steps to Making Your Own Midsummer’s Head Wreath

If you saw my post over the weekend about how THE MIDSUMMER’S COUNTDOWN IS ON, you know that I’m pretty excited. One of the things I’ve been most excited about are the head wreaths.

My Swedish friends would probably laugh at me if I called them exotic, but to be honest, there is something so old-fashioned and nostalgic about creating flower head wreaths that they do seem foreign, enchanting, and even, well, even exotic to me.

That said, it’s all good and well to want a flower head wreath of your very own, but I had no idea how to make one.

“Oh, if only I were a Disney princess,” I thought to myself, wistfully, while standing at my window and gazing out over my kingdom courtyard. “Then all I would have to do is stand here and absent-mindedly sing as I gaze, and a host of forest animals would come bearing flowers, and then probably some remarkably humanoid mice would assemble them for me, and a team of birds would assembly to carry it to me and place it on my head, whistling industrially all the while. If only! If only.”

And then I sighed and gazed out at the courtyard again, longing for an answer to my plight.

Fortunately, I was jarred out of my reverie by my friend Anna calling, reminding me that we had already discussed the head wreath situation and had decided to meet today to do a pre-Midsummer’s trial run. Phew. Thanks to Anna, magical woodland creatures are not a necessary part of the head wreath process. Anyone can make them in five simple steps.

5 Steps to Making Your Own Midsummer’s Head Wreath

1. Collect flowers… lots of them

You need a serious amount of flowers—way more than I thought would be necessary. For the two of us, we probably used one full grocery bag of assorted wildflowers, grasses, and clippings from bushes. I thought that maybe we needed only flowers with long stems or with big petals, but even small, short flowers can be woven into your wreath. Just go for what you think will look good.

One small caveat: if you can, look for flowers that look like they won’t wilt right away, although it’s not always easy to tell what will hold up and what won’t. The jasmine bushes are in full bloom right now and the flowers look and smell amazing, but Anna told me that the flowers start to lose their petals almost immediately. Perhaps the best thing you can do is collect a wide range of flowers the first time around so you get a feel for what works and what doesn’t as you do it.

2. Start with a small bouquet and a long thread

Choose one large flower to act as sort of an anchor, then group 4-5 flowers around it. Tightly wind a thread around them a couple of times. Take a few more flowers, repeat. You’re on your way!

Alternately, you can start with a frame made out of wire or a tree branch. This might make it easier because you can measure your head size ahead of time, but it’s also an added step that you don’t really need. We made ours without frames, but if you really want to make sure that you end up with a wearable wreath, it might be a good idea.

Flowers, thread, scissors, and voila! You've got a flower head wreath. Photos: Kate Wiseman and Anna Bylander.

3. Build down and out

Continue adding flowers, grasses, leaves, and whatever else you find to your wreath, wrapping the thread tightly around each batch of additions to secure it in place. You can make a really thick, fluffy head wreath or a thinner, more delicate one. I went for the thick and fluffy effect, but it was really hard to bend it into a circle by the end. Anna made a thinner one and had a much easier time making it into a wearable wreath. Next time, I’ll probably go for the thinner wreath so that it’s easier to shape and lighter to wear.

Midsummer wreath in process. Photos: Kate Wiseman and Anna Bylander.

4. Loop back towards the beginning and tie the ends together

As you’re working, start bending your garland of flowers in a ring shape. When you get to the point at which you want to finish your wreath, use your thread to attach that long anchor flower that you started with to the base of your flowers. The long flower should mostly cover the stems at the bottom, and if it doesn’t, don’t worry too much—that can be the part that goes at the back of your head!

5. Smile! (and spritz)

You’re done! Place your flowers on top of your head and smile! (No whistling birds necessary.) Lightly spray your wreath with water throughout the day to make it last longer and brighter. Depending on how big and into what shape you make your flower wreaths, you can also use them on the table as decoration, as a temporary wreath from your door, or as a hanging decoration from your tent. As they say in Swedish, “Det är bara fantasin som sätter gränser!” In English: the only limit is your imagination.

The final product: two satisfied girls and a beautiful flower head wreath. (Mine became more of a garland... newbie mistake!) Photos: Kate Wiseman and Nils Bylander.

Now onto the aquavit…

There will be more Midsummer-themed posts coming this week! If you missed the introduction and background to Midsummer celebrations, check out my last post, THE COUNTDOWN IS ON. (Like I said, I’m a little excited about this…) And if there’s anything you’re curious about or would like to see covered, be sure to leave me a comment letting me know!

THE COUNTDOWN IS ON

Ladies and gentlemen, we are now officially within one week of Midsummer. Hallelujah!

This will be my fourth summer in Sweden, but I have only been to one Midsummer celebration before. Actually, it was all the endless talk about Midsummer that served as a reason to visit Sweden for the first time. I was studying in Italy at the University for Foreigners in Perugia, and I kept hearing about this amazing day from all my Swedish friends. When my friend Josefin, a native Stockholmer, invited me to join her and her friends out in the archipelago for the celebration, I was all about it. Surprised to learn that there was an archipelago, but enthusiastic all the same.

Dear Josefin, Princess of Midsummer, yes I will come visit you on an island and eat large amounts of delicious herring and dance around Maypoles with you. Anytime. Photo: Kate Wiseman.

So on the day before Midsummer in 2008, I jumped on a Ryan Air flight from Italy to Stockholm, arriving in the city around midnght, just in time to catch the sun making an obligatory nod towards the horizon before starting to climb back up in the sky. Welcome to the land of the midnight sun.

The conditions were perfect for a terrible, terrible let down. I had traveled from one end of the continent to another to take part in super-hyped day with a bunch of people I didn’t know (except for my friend, of course) for a holiday whose festivities are largely dependent on the weather being good. And yet, despite all that, the day was perfect.

Garlands of flowers for your hair and maypoles to dance around: what more could you ask for? Photo: Kate Wiseman.

The weather was flawless: warm and sunny on an island where the sky stretches for miles. I discovered for the first time just how well the general Swedish population speaks English. A Maypole was erected, and while I didn’t know what was being sung, I hopped around said Maypole in a circle with the rest of my new acquaintances while they sang and laughed. (Later I was told that I was a little frog, hopping around.)

Drinking songs were also sung, and great quantities of bitter-tasting aquavit were drunk. I had my first taste of herring, and for a few moments I very seriously considered taking a swim before a tentative toe stuck in the water sent me racing for the comfort of blankets. And while it got a little dim late at night, the sun never really set.

This is the sweet life. Midsummer food and the most perfect Swedish cottage of all time. Photo: Kate Wiseman.

Now, three years later, I get to do it again. O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!

Here’s the skinny on Midsummer (or Midsommar, if you want to be authentic about it). It is yet another of the many holidays with its roots in pagan traditions, but this one does not have a Christian tradition that was superimposed over it. It’s a good old-fashioned sun-worshipping/fertility/thank God it’s summer festival, originally celebrated on the summer solstice (June 21) but now celebrated on the Friday closest to the solstice.

Traditional celebrations involve a very distinctive Maypole (think fertility again), lots of food, and even more aquavit–a very strong, flavored liquor. I’m sure our resident food blogger will be talking more about the menu and drink choices, but I’ll be covering other Midsummer traditions in more detail throughout the week… stay tuned for more!

When eating flowers out of the garden is not just for unruly kids.

I don’t know how else to put this, but I’m sitting at my kitchen table drinking some kind of crazy flower-concentrate that I made myself from flowers I picked off a bush. A bush that was outdoors. Like, I found the bush in nature, not the grocery store.

I’m pretty sure that I was taught not to eat things I picked outside when I was younger.

It was probably my mom who told me that. Or my kindergarten teacher. Or my babysitter, or the next door neighbors’ mom, or some other adult-ish authority figure.

I’m pretty sure that I was told I would get sick and die.

But here I am, though, ingesting large quantities of this delicious, fresh-tasting elderflower concentrate/cordial/syrup (translations vary… in Swedish it’s “saft”), and I don’t think I’m dying. At least not yet.

See this flower? I ATE this flower. Check it out, close up and IN THE WILD. Photo: Kate Wiseman.

I think I’ve said before that I didn’t know what to expect when I moved to Sweden almost a year ago, but I’m sure that I didn’t expect to get all touchy-feely with the great outdoors. I mean, I read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Män som hatar kvinnor, for those Swedes who are following along). I was imagining some sort of futuristic, possibly dystopian society—probably monochromatic, but definitely cold, sterile, and unwelcoming.

Mmm, not so much.

This doesn’t go for everyone, obviously, but as a foreign observer, the average Swede seems so much more in touch with nature and so much more knowledgeable about plants and flowers than practically anyone I know in the United States.

Take that with a grain of salt, obviously. I wasn’t exactly the “let’s go hike the Appalachian Trail for the next five months of my life” type in the first place, and I grew up in the suburbs. But Lund could not be called “rural” by any standard, and people here who are my age actually know how to go out in the woods and find stuff that you eat.

Baby Adam is getting a head start on that whole "loving nature" thing. Photo: Kate Wiseman.

I didn’t even know that people still did that in this day and age. I thought it was just like reality tv-travel adventurer maniacs who did that. Apparently not.

And so, of course, I want to learn! Last fall, I got to go mushroom picking with some of my friends—definitely one of the highlights of my year. Holy cow, I ate the mushrooms we picked, and I didn’t die. Now that summer’s here, fläder (elderflower) was my next target.

Off we went to a public park, a motley crew: my sister, visiting from the United States, my boyfriend’s sister, her son, and my boyfriend’s mom, all armed with scissors and plastic bags with which to collect the flowers. Then it was back to the house, to clean and clip the flowers before mixing them with lemon slices, sugar, citric acid, and boiling water.

It's as easy as 1, 2, 3. Really. Photo: Kate Wiseman.

The mixture has to sit for 5-6 days in a cool, dark place, and then it’s time to drink up! Since it’s a concentrate, a little goes a long way… usually a 6:1 ratio of water to saft, depending on how strong you want it to taste.

Want to make your own? I KNEW IT. Here is Malena’s finest flädersaft recipe (if you’ve gotten this far in the post, you’re totally getting the Swedish treatment).

Ingredients:

40-50 sprigs of elderberry flowers

3 lemons

1.5-2 kg sugar (1.5 kg if you’re planning on freezing it)

60 gram citric acid, often sold in the US as “sour salt”

1.5 liter boiling water

Instructions:

Wash the lemons and slice them as thinly as possible. Rinse the flowers and cut them off of their stems.  Put them in a large jar or pot in alternating layers.

Boil water and mix the sugar in. Take the water off of the heat and add the citric acid. Then slowly pour it over the flower-lemon layers.

Store the mixture in a cool, dark place for 4-6 days, stirring it up a couple of times a day. Strain mixture through a cloth into a clean jar and keep in the refrigerator or freeze.

That’s it! This makes a lot, and like I said, you mix it with something else to drink it… it can be sparkling or still water, champagne, a delicious gin cocktail… the sky’s the limit! Go Swedish nature, yeah!