I didn’t know much about the Swedish smörgåsbord tradition and even less about the Christmas variant, the julbord. What I’ve been told is this – everyone in Sweden sits down to at least one julbord every year, once with family on Christmas Eve and possibly another with work. It’s quite the institution and one that I hoped to experience while I was in Gothenburg.
As if they were reading my mind, the Gothenburg Tourist Board very kindly arranged a julbord dinner for both me and Jeanne on our second night but the restaurant they’d booked wasn’t actually in Gothenburg but on an island in the Gothenburg archipelago – on Styrsö. It sounded like a bit of an adventure involving a tram ride from the centre of Gothenburg to the end of the line and then a ferry (all transport covered by the Gothenburg Card). It did turn out to be a bit nerve racking to get there with everything being quite dark and the ferry running late but the restaurant at the Pensionat Styrsö Skäret was lit up like a Christmas tree, making it easy to find on the island.
We received a warm welcome inside and after being shown to our seat, we were offered hot glögg (both alcoholic and non-alcoholic versions were available) and pepparkakor. Raisins and slivered almonds had already been set out on the table to place in your hot glögg – the plumped up raisins and crunchy almonds making the drink, well, more than a drink. That warmed us up nicely and got us ready for the eating.
To drink with our julbord meal, we were offered Christmas beverages – Julmust is a Christmas beverage like a spiced Coke while the Christmas beer was a dark ale and both are only available at this time of the year. I knew Sweden took Christmas seriously!
There is an order in which a julbord (or smörgåsbord in general) is tackled and it’s probably best to follow the rules (I also noticed that the julbord was cleared in this order too…so don’t follow the order and you risk missing out on a whole course!). The restaurant was packed that night but seatings had been staggered, making trips to the julbord not overly crowded.
The first round should be the herring and gravadlax and other cold seafood. I’ve got a book on Scandinavian cuisine dating back to the 1960s that states that herring should be a course by itself, followed by the rest of the fish and seafood. I don’t know what approach is more common today but there’s nothing stopping you from just eating lots of herring.
Of the herring, my favourites were in a creamy white and dill sauce, one with lingonberries and another in mustard. Some preparations were a bit too salty but most were excellent. I can never turn down gravadlax too but I passed on most of the fish mousses. This being the west coast, there was a good variety of shellfish on offer too (prawns, crabs, langoustines) and we were most taken with the smoked prawns. In addition to the fishes, there were eggs topped with caviar, baked herring, hard cheeses, boiled potatoes and breads and whipped salted butter.
After you’ve had your fill of foods from the sea, move on to the cold meats. Salamis, sausages, pates, hams and other cured meats were all laid out invitingly. And as there should be on every julbord, there was julskinka, a Swedish Christmas ham, already sliced up. Pork, beef, lamb, duck – almost all the major meat groups were out in force on the table. In addition, there were lots of condiments – pickles, chutneys, a whole array of mustards and a mysterious mimosa salad, which I discovered later was mainly fruit in mayonnaise.
I loved the julskinka with its coating of mustard and breadcrumbs and also the sliced cooked pork belly. My favourite though was a smoked duck “ham” that had been cooked with cinnamon and cognac – gorgeous! And their red onion confit was wonderful.
The hot foods are the last savoury course. Swedish meatballs, pork ribs, prinskorv (little sausages like Vienna sausages), boiled sausage, creamed spinach, brown cabbage, green cabbage, lutfisk and poached fish with all the fixings (peas, bacon, melted butter, white sauce) and, of course, Janssons frestelse (Jansson’s temptation – a baked potato gratin with Swedish anchovies). My book from the 60s suggests that one should eat Jansson’s temptation with the first herring course but I pay attention to this combo on anyone’s plates that day.
Our lack of vegetables had us hitting the peas, spinach and cabbage pretty hard – the spinach and cabbage were sweetened. The Jansson’s temptation was delicious though salty and the lutfisk was jellylike and flavourless, necessitating the stuff on the side. Strangely, this was the least exciting course to me – I think the strengths of the julbord and smörgåsbord lie in the cold and room temperature courses or perhaps my thoughts were a bit skewed because I was already quite full by this point.
Finally, the desserts and sweets. Swedish cakes and desserts aren’t particulary sweet and these were no exception. I skipped the ris à la Malta (a creamy rice pudding) and tried a dry cheese cake (it tasted like unsweetened pressed ricotta), an almond biscuit that I topped with cream and preserves and my favourite, a delightfully light and crisp fried biscuit topped with sugar. There were a few other biscuits and a selection of soft cheeses but those I skipped.
I was really saving myself for the sweets! There was a whole cupboard full of bowls of the most delectable looking titbits. There were homemade fruit jellies, chocolates, truffles, marshmallow santas (they appear to be very popular in Sweden at Christmas time), candied nuts, caramels and knäck (a Swedish Christmas toffee). The variety was enough to make anyone gasp in awe.
We were utterly stuffed after making our julbord rounds (there were definitely some repeats) but saved room for some tea and coffee to aid digestion. More popular in the room was the drinks trolley that was making the rounds.
It was a fantastic experience. The staff did everything to make us feel welcome, explained to us how to approach the julbord… and my apologies for rushing them at the end! We were having such a fab time that we almost lost track of time and found that we only had 10 minutes to run to the dock in time for our ferry. We made it!
I would definitely highly recommend everyone going to Sweden to try a julbord (or at any other time of the year, a smörgåsbord) – it’s very obviously a big part of Swedish culture and it’s good fun! It’s not cheap (this one was 535 SEK, not including drinks – and we were invited) but I’d definitely save up to have one. but Reservations are essential at this time of the year – book in advance.
Pensionat Styrsö Skäret
430 84 Styrsö
Thank you again to the West Sweden Tourist Board (Facebook page, Twitter, Blog) and Visit Sweden (Facebook, Twitter) and also to the Gothenburg Tourist Board for organising this wonderful Christmas trip for us. Our flights were provided by SAS and a return trip to Gothenburg from London Heathrow is £103 including all taxes and charges.
That brings my Christmas in Gothenburg series to an end – all my photos from Gothenburg can be found in this Flickr photoset. Now it’s time for Christmas in London. Merry Christmas, everyone!