Wille and Gunnel live amid fields of summer wildflowers–bluebells, hawkweed, daisies, wild geranium, lupines, surrounded by a dark forest of birch and spruce, which could well be home to trolls. The road to their home winds through former pasture and hay land before ending at their neat compound of red-painted farm buildings on a bluff above the rusty-red River Ore. A steep, forested ravine drops down to the river, and on the other side we can see the farm where Wille grew up working with horses in the fields and forest. Their farmhouse is flanked by a sauna house, bake house (now a guest cabin), and the old barn (now Wille’s woodworking shop). A short walk through the woods leads to the traditional “lust house”, a hidden get-away for long summer days and nights–a small, hexagonal gazebo overlooking the river.
Wille tends a large patch of potatoes, and Gunnel’s garden is laid out in tidy rows of carrots, onions, beets, fennel, lettuce, cabbage, parsnips, chard, radishes, dill, and parsley. Squash, beans and broccoli grow under row covers, and a tiny glass house shelters the tomatoes. It’s been a cold and rainy season, so the garden is late this year, but we get to sample tender young lettuce leaves, sweet crunchy radishes, and sprigs of parsley and dill. A deep, cold pit dug under the kitchen holds the end of last year’s potatoes and carrots; baskets of onions are stored in the shop.
Sitting down to a meal with Wille and Gunnel is more than sharing food. It is sharing tradition and a deep feeling of contentment with what the land provides. The table is set with wooden spoons and bowls shaped by Wille’s hands and laden with dishes prepared with vegetables from the garden, wild berries gathered in the forest, and local farm products. Simple and straightforward, the food is full of the flavor of the Swedish countryside and the kindness and generosity of our hosts. It is the flavor of goodness.
The first morning of our visit we joined Wille and Gunnel for Swedish breakfast– the perfect balance of good eating and good sense. Thin wholegrain crispbreads, porridge and muesli, and an array of wonderful things to eat with them are the basics. Crispbread (knackebrod, or “cracker bread” because you have to break off a piece from the hard, thin disk of bread) is traditional in the north, where a half-year’s worth of bread was baked in wood-fired ovens and stored hanging from the rafters. These breads are most often made from rye and wheat, but variations made with barley and oat flour are common as well.
Toppings for bread start with butter and continue on to soft and hard cheeses, ham, hard salami, smoked fish, hard-boiled egg, and fish roe. Further adornments include lettuce leaves, fresh herbs, and slices of radish, tomato, and bell pepper. Wille’s special version is a piece of flatbread topped with butter, cheese, lettuce, and raw garlic.
Swedes also have a mind-boggling selection of yogurt products, ranging from stringy “langfil” (a kefir-like cultured milk) to rich, thick Bulgarian and Russian style yogurts. Most of the ones served for breakfast are thin and pourable, all the better to mix with muesli or crushed flatbread. First fill a bowl with yogurt, stir in muesli or broken knackebrod to soften, and add fresh fruit and wild blueberry or lingonberry preserves. This is heaven.
Swedish breakfast is hardy enough to get you through the morning, or at least until “fica“, or mid-morning snack. This is when many Swedes have their second round of strong black coffee. This is also when the good sense is gone and the pastries, cakes, and cookies appear.
Wille makes a stick-to-your-ribs porridge of wheat, oats, and potato every morning. The porridge I cook at home is made from steel-cut oats (oat groats cut into small chunks). They cook into a chewy, creamy porridge with fuller flavor than rolled oats.
The process is simple: For 4 servings, mix 1 cup steel-cut oats with 4 1/2 cups water and a 1/4 tsp salt. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low, and simmer partially covered for 20 to 25 minutes. Add a few tablespoons to 1/2 cup more water if you like a thinner porridge. Soaking the oats in the cooking water overnight will reduce the cooking time by about 1/3.
Sweden is full of small grain crops–rye, oats, wheat, barley, and spelt–of exceptional quality and flavor. These grains make great bread, as well as delicious muesli, a breakfast cereal made from a mixture of flaked grains, seeds, nuts, and sometimes dried fruit. Unlike granola, muesli is not toasted; the ingredients are mixed together and left raw (rolled or flaked grains are steamed before they are flattened, so are semi-cooked). Stir muesli into yogurt or other cultured milk and leave to soften a few minutes before eating. Add fresh fruit or preserves as desired.
My favorite muesli is made with 4 cups mixed grain flakes (rye, oats, wheat, and barley), 1 cup oat or wheat bran, 1 cup sunflower seeds, 1 cup chopped almonds, and 1/2 cup flaxseed. Sprouted grain flakes are extra good, if you can find them.
Homemade granola is easy to make and better than anything you can buy. Use your hands or a food processor to mix the ingredients for muesli with 2 Tbs nut or other flavorful oil and 2 Tbs honey or maple syrup thinned with 1 or 2 Tbs hot water. Spread the mixture on a baking pan and toast in the oven at 200 degrees F until lightly browned and crunchy, about 1 hour. Add dried fruit after the granola is finished baking.
Vary the recipe to suit yourself: Increase the percentage of rolled oats or add puffed grains to the mix for a lighter granola. Add quinoa or amaranth flakes for more protein. Substitute walnuts, cashews, or pecans for the almonds. Use fruit juice concentrate or orange marmalade for the sweetening. Add a tsp vanilla or almond extract.
I fell in love with all the wonderful Swedish crispbreads, which come in endless varieties. I followed this recipe from a Swedish sourdough cookbook.
First, make a rye starter: If you already have a sourdough starter, you can convert it to rye by feeding it with rye flour for a day. Otherwise, mix together 1 cup lukewarm water, 1/2 tsp dry yeast, and 1 1/2 cups rye flour. Stir in a circular motion about 100 times. Cover, and let the starter ferment at room temperature for 6 to 8 hours, until very active and bubbly.
Day one: Make the dough by mixing together 1/3 cup plus 1 Tbs rye starter with 3/4 cup room temperature water, 1 Tbs honey, 1 1/4 cup unbleached bread flour, and 1 1/2 cups rye flour. Knead a few minutes, dusting with additional bread flour as needed, and shape the dough into a ball. Cover and allow the dough to rest 15 to 20 minutes. Add 2 1/2 tsp salt and knead to combine. Put the dough in a bowl and cover with a plastic bag. Refrigerate 24 hours.
Day two: Take the dough out of the refrigerator and warm to room temperature. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Oil, or line with parchment paper, 4 large baking sheets. Divide the dough into 4 pieces. Shape each piece into a ball and let rest 4 to 5 minutes on a floured surface.
Roll each ball into an oval or circle. You can roll the dough about 1/4-inch thick for a chewy bread, or 1/16-inch thick for a crisp, cracker-like bread. I rolled mine out to fit the 14-inch iron griddles that I use to bake pizza. My dough worked easily, but if the dough is sticky, add flour as necessary. Sprinkle the top with seeds (sesame, sunflower, flax…) if you like, and roll them into the surface. Place the flatbreads onto the baking sheets, cover with a damp towel, and let rise 20 to 30 minutes. Prick the surface of the breads with a fork every 1 to 2 inches.
Bake thin breads 5 to 6 minutes; allow thicker breads 10 to 15 minutes. I preheated my iron griddles and baked the breads on them. If you have a baking stone, use it. If not, any baking sheet will work fine. These flatbreads are delicious fresh from the oven, cut into wedges, and slathered with sweet butter.
Scones are a treat for breakfast or fica. Tiny wild blueberries make them extra special. When I make scones, I try to channel our intern Haley Fox, who taught me the importance of speed and a light touch in mixing the dough. She could breeze into the kitchen, whip up a batch of scones in less than 5 minutes, and leave behind a swirl of flour and good smells from the oven.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
In as large mixing bowl, combine 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, 1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour or cornmeal, 1/4 cup sugar, 2 1/2 tsp baking powder, 1/2 tsp baking soda, 2 tsp lemon or orange zest, and 1/8 tsp salt. Stir to blend well. Cut 6 Tbs cold butter into small pieces and use your fingers, two knives, or a food processor to mix them quickly and evenly into the flour to make a coarse meal. Gently mix in the blueberries.
In a separate bowl, whisk together 1 large egg, 2 Tbs fresh lemon or orange juice, and 3/4- cup yogurt or buttermilk. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients, pour the liquid mixture into the well, and briefly mix the two together with your hands or a large spatula or spoon until just combined. Form a ball and turn it out onto a floured surface. Press the ball into a flat circle about 1 1/4-inch thick. Cut the circle of dough into 8 to 12 wedges and transfer the wedges to a baking sheet, leaving 1 inch between pieces. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until golden brown.
Scones are best eaten immediately!