Tag archives for Midsummer

An Atypical Midsummer at Skansen in Stockholm

In my last post, I wrote a brief outline of how Midsummer usually goes down. The traditional Midsummer party is often a thoroughly-planned and well-orchestrated event, with each activity and food occupying a certain allotted space in the schedule.

Drinks! Games! Herring! Singles sneaking away to surreptitiously dive into the bushes!

This year, Midsummer was different. It was totally unscripted, for one. And it ended up with us serendipitously making new friends, rather than tucked away in a rural enclave of our nearest and dearest. Ask any Swede – that’s very strange.

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Drinking, carousing, and making merry: The Insider’s Guide to Midsummer in Sweden

It’s the day before the day before the day before Midsummer and all through the house, not a creature is stirring, not even a little frog that wants to hop around a very large fertility symbol.

This year, Midsummer has totally snuck up on me. What?! Midsummer?! Since when?!?!

If nothing else, the sun has been a gentle reminder that the summer solstice is on its way. I wake up every morning now to birds chirping and sunlight streaming in through the slats of of our bedroom curtains, feeling totally alert and ready to take on the day.

Then I look at the clock and realize that it’s 4:15 am. And then I curse my ineffective blinds.

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Very Superstitious!

I was one of those kids who believed in Santa Claus for too long. I read a lot of fantasy and Sci-Fi growing up, too, so I had certain (socially awkward) beliefs about the presence of magic in our everyday lives. Then there was the part where I would pray to certain saints for help depending on what they were in charge of in the Catholic Church. St. Anthony, the patron saint of lost things, was a particular favorite of a forgetful, 14-year-old me.

As time went on, however, the importance of those superstitions faded. I still harbor some residual faith in magical beings and say an “Our Father” every time I take off or land in a plane, but that’s about it.

It was only when I moved to Austria that superstitions became a source of interest again—and this time, because the superstitions seemed so strange. Then, of course, I had to check the Austrian superstitions against the Swedish ones, and there were more than a few similarities.

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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.