Tuesday, August 18, 2009

summer vacation '09: Sweden

Hambone and Spice are just back from a ten-day trip to Sweden. With Alpha and Beta in tow, we flew to Stockholm to visit Hambone’s brother Will and his little family. For years, Will has been begging us to come to Sweden for Medeltidsveckan, Visby's Middle Ages week. Even though we’d decided to stay close to home this summer and explore our nation’s splendors, we caved to Will’s wishes. Besides, Alpha and Beta love our annual excursion to the Renaissance Festival. They could easily imagine how incredible it would be to fully immerse themselves in medieval Sweden.

Once we had decided upon our destination, it wasn't long before the vacation turned, happily, into a larger family affair. Hambone's brother Ben and his wife and their little family, as well as Grandma Dorothy and her husband, David, plus a family friend and his traveling companion descended upon Stockholm with us. We were 16 people! Remarkably, Will found a house in Visby that slept 18, which became our home base for the week we were there.

This the 13th century house, built over the street, where we stayed in Visby. Display windows on the street level made us think the house once served both residential and commercial interests. The best way to describe this home is a warren of rooms over multiple levels. Hambone and I had a couple rooms in the attic. We woke when the sun rose, at 4 a.m., to a scene not unlike this (though many mornings a cruise ship or ferry would sit in the middle of the frame):

We went to Sweden for family, for long daylight hours, to be on the water. We did not go for the food, which isn't to say that the food wasn't good. Gastronomy wasn't the priority. When we travel in a large group, where nearly half of the members constitute the Under 10 Set, the adults have found it easiest to take turns making meals in our rental house. That way, we can feed the children before they achieve meltdown. The food we eat is healthier so we feel better throughout our trip. And, by shopping in the local markets and grocery stores, we can still sample regional foodstuffs. Since John's brother lives in Sweden and has a Swedish wife, we had insider guidance to "must eat" traditional Swedish fare. As a result, endless varieties of sill (herring), dry sausages (boar, elk, and reindeer), and Gotland cheese (many of which were similar to gouda or havarti, and very, very good) were well represented on the dinner table.

Even if we aren't cooking for ourselves when we travel, I love to "sight-see" in grocery stores. I'm fascinated by how fresh food is displayed, especially in food halls (time didn't permit visiting Stockholm's famous food halls and indoor markets, pooh). But I also marvel at food packaging, especially for treats...sweets and chips. One of the things I noticed at the large grocery store in Visby was that little of the produce had been grown in Sweden. Most produce came from the Mediterranean—Spain, Cyprus, Italy. There was a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, including melons and nectarines. The produce section had a remarkably familiar. I'm certainly not complaining about having many options when it came to fixing a meal, but at this time of year—the peak of the growing season—I am accustomed to shopping at the farmers market or having local produce (corn, tomatoes, green beans, zucchini) at our grocery stores, and I would have loved to have tapped into the fruits and vegetables grown in Sweden.

Sheep is the major livestock on Gotland, and lamb is a must-eat when you're in Visby, especially when roasted over live coals at a medieval banquet. Truly, the best lamb I've eaten. If you flirted with the guy serving lamb, you got the choice bits—slices of leg, topped by an amazing sauce—otherwise, you got delicious bits that engulfed by connective parts. We also partook of roasted lamb, served with a rich dark gravy and a lovely potato casserole, at a restaurant on Visby's main square (stora torget).

All over Sweden, crayfish parties are a traditional August celebration, marking the end of summer. One evening, Will and Helena treated us to a mess of mudbugs, and, since one couldn't possibly eat enough crayfish to fill oneself, other food was served—an exceptional tomato and mango salad, crusty bread, and a few chunks of cheese, one of which was studded with cumin seeds. The crayfish are sold frozen in large boxes or bags, which you cook at home in a vessel of boiling water that has been infused with spices. Right next to the freezer in the grocery store, paper products, essential to a crayfish party, are displayed: lanterns, plates, napkins, and cups, each with a crayfish motif, but also songbooks. Drinking songs kick off icy aquavit shots and are an important part of the meal! Since crayfish parties traditionally take place outside, we headed out to the garden and pushed cafe tables together to form a long banquet table.

Breakfast of champions. This was the complimentary breakfast at the Columbus Hotell, where we stayed for a few nights in Stockholm. Witness a spread of cold cuts, including skinka (ham) and farmer's cheese slices, but also liver pate, anchovy paste, sweet pickles, cucumbers, and tomatoes, which are meant to be assembled on bread (wasa, knackerbrod, hearty wheat rolls, rusk crackers), for open-face sandwiches. The spread also included yogurt (more sour than sweet), granola, other dry cereals, sweet rolls, and fruit, as well as hard- and soft-boiled eggs. My preference, first thing in the morning, is for something sweet, but when in northern Europe.... I loved the open-face sandwiches for breakfast and have adopted this practice now that I'm home.

Scene from the market: These candied apples with a crisp, sweet shell were one of many treats the Alpha and Beta tried at the medieval market. The boy on the left was swirling apples on a stick through hot syrup. Some of the apples were then rolled in crushed almonds or rolled oats. When the boy on the right wasn't collecting money, he swatted wasps. By comparison to the Minnesota RenFest, the medieval market had fewer food stalls, which were more selective and higher in quality. Other foodstuffs at the market included toffied almonds (exceptional), burgers (chicken, beef, lamb), roasted lamb, smoked turkey legs, mead, and fudge (licorice was unique, vanilla was solid, but those made with smoky, peaty scotches were amazing!).

And now for dessert—Swedes love their ice cream. Thank goodness. You can find ice cream treats in many shops and stands in Visby, most of which are similar to Good Humor or Kemps. Then, there's Visby Glass. Near the East Port ferry station, Visby Glass has 100 flavors in the cooler at any one time. Overwhelming, yes. Some of these flavors are from Swedish ice cream giant, Sia, but others are made on site. You've got fruit, an array of chocolate flavors, nut, licorice (a category unto itself), and spices, as well as many combinations of the above. Given my devotion to ice cream, naturally we took many long walks to Visby Glass. I had an opportunity to try saffron (only so I could confirm that I don't like saffron as a primary ingredient in anything), mint chocolate chip (with the largest imaginable chocolate chunks), violet (beautiful color, perfumey taste), and salted licorice (pictured above, intensely tar-black). The latter was a taste sensation that I'm still thinking about...salty, cold, creamy...and licorice-y.