Tag archives for aquavit

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.


Happy Easter or Glad Påsk from Sweden! Traditions, food, decorations and more

The signs of the season were everywhere: babuschka-like Easter witches, feather-bedazzled branches, a haunting and eerie emptiness on grocery store shelves previously occupied by jars of pickled herring… Easter season had arrived in Sweden, and it would be a long four day weekend before our lives could return to normal.

Truth be told, I was kind of surprised by the scope of the Easter festivities in Sweden, given that none of the Swedes I’ve met in my time here have seemed particularly religious. I always thought of Christmas as the secularized holiday of choice, not Easter, but Sweden has its own traditions that seem equally influenced by Christian tradition, pre-Christian folklore, and generalized Thank everything holy it’s not winter anymore sentiments (aka vårkänsla).

Swedish Easter activities: take a walk or picnic in the woods, paint eggs, hunt for eggs.

Here’s a rough recipe for a Swedish Easter celebration, based on my empirical observations of the weekend:

1 part Easter witch, 2 parts decorated branches;
2 parts fish, 1 part potatoes;
3 parts eggs, 1 part asparagus;
3 parts pickled herring, 2 parts chocolate (preferably in egg form), 1 part cake.

Season to taste with dill, mayonnaise, bread, and cheese. Pair with Easter egg hunting, outdoor picnics, and walking in the forest (weather permitting).

I got intrigued by news reports that Easter is the week in which the most food is bought in Sweden given all the attention paid to the pre-Christmas Julbord feast, so I started to investigate. According to a report by Tasteline.com (a Swedish food and drink website), Easter is not quite the biggest food-shopping week of the year, but it is up there. (The biggest was the week of Christmas.) Egg, pickled herring, and salmon were considered the most important foods to have for an Easter celebration, followed by lamb, a potatoes and anchovy dish called Janssons frestelse, and meatballs. Our Easter lunch had all of the first three dishes and none of the second three, so I guess we had a pretty traditional meal. We also ate something called “gubbröra,” which was anchovies and boiled eggs mixed together with some spices (probably dill) and eaten bruschetta-style on toast, asparagus, boiled potatoes, and a salad.

Parts of our Easter feast: salmon, hard-boiled eggs, and gubbröra!

One common element of a Swedish Easter that didn’t make it to our table was the snaps—shots of schnapps, vodka, aquavit, or other strong liquor. When I was asking my Swedish friends why Easter was celebrated on Saturday instead of Sunday, one of them suggested that a buffer zone was needed between the celebration and the workweek for everyone to have a hangover from drinking so much. This theory is still unconfirmed… for now. According to the same Tasteline report as before, the Thursday before Easter is the third-most visited day for the state-owned liquor store, so draw from that what you will.

Besides the food, there’s something worth mentioning: the Easter decorations.

I would like to know who thought that gluing feathers to branches was a good idea.

I mean, seriously. Did you think you were improving the branch? Because you weren’t. These feather-branch-things just might be the silliest holiday decoration I’ve ever seen, and I’m from the United States. Why? Why? WHY? I do not understand.

When my friend Katie and I were touring around Sweden, we were constantly speculating as to what the original thought could be. What we settled on (Katie’s idea) was this: since people eat so many eggs at Easter, this is a warning from chickens in the know that EVIL INTRUDERS are coming to take away your unborn babies and EAT THEM. Beware the Easter time massacre! Hide your hens, hide your eggs, because they’re taking all the eggs out there. (Alternate explanations welcome.)

This is just a small sample of the feather-bedazzling that was going on throughout the whole country.

As I tried to roll myself home after dinner, I realized that I had just as many questions remaining as I had answers. Why do Swedes celebrate Easter a day early? What’s up with the mutilated branches? Had everyone continued to refill my plate in a desperate attempt to keep me from asking more questions? I may never know.