Stockholm Winter Days

We visited Stockholm during three days at the start of March, and three more days a week later. This city was still pretty frozen during our first days. Bundled up, we enjoyed walking through the snowy parks, along the icy waterfronts, and down the crunchy streets.

We walked from the largely 20th century commercial district of Norrmalm, across a river, to the medieval heart of the city, Gamla Stan.

Over the course of our travels, we’ve discovered that food tours are a fun way to start to get to know a new city. We were eager to join the food tour on our first morning in Stockholm. We rendezvoused with four other tour members and our enthusiastic tour leader, a young Swedish woman, at the Östermalms Saluhall; the current Saluhall is the temporary home of the 19th century Stockholm City Market while it undergoes renovation. She invited us to enjoy some popular cheeses (often eaten at breakfast), and some Swedish charcuterie, including moose and reindeer (delicious!). Of course, you must sip breakfast beer with the meats!

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Along our tour from the Östermalm district, through modern Norrmalm, to Gamla Stan (the medieval heart of Stockholm), we sampled locally made chocolates, a celebratory fish soup with shrimp canapés, and finally, Swedish meatballs! The setting for the meatballs was in a vaulted below-street-level room of a charming café restaurant. We thought we would share some bites from the first plate that arrived, but no, each one of us received a full plate. The plates included the meatballs covered with a rich cream gravy, mashed potatoes, lightly pickled cucumber slices, and lingonberries. While each family will have its own take on Swedish meatballs, apparently this combination of meatballs, gravy, potatoes and lingonberries is the classic. And both tasty and filling. Throughout, our guide was charming, full of history and stories about the neighborhoods we walked through.

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Our tour group was small. Joining the two of us was a 30-something gregarious man from Vancouver. He had attended a conference in Copenhagen, and was trying to pack in as many culinary experiences as he could before he returned home. He was far from shy, with a great sense of humor. The remaining two tour members were Swedish, around our age. We came to learn that they were sister and brother. She, who lives in Mälmo, near Copenhagen, had given this tour to her lawyer brother, who has lived in Stockholm for over 30 years. She told us that she has enjoyed food tours in other places, such as Venice, and thought it would be a good experience to share with her brother. He, on the other hand, looked like he thought this was all an enormous waste of time. Why as a Swede would he enjoy a tour of basic Swedish food with foreigners? Selfishly, we thought that this was great: We had two more Swedes who would share their knowledge about Stockholm and Swedish food. But the lawyer brother stayed pretty sullen, even when we asked open questions. As the tour proceeded, he from time to time related a little about Stockholm landmarks as we passed them. Perhaps with stereotypical Swedish restraint, he was little by little expressing pride in his city. During the last stop of the tour, in the restaurant with the Swedish meatballs, he grew a bit more open. We all spent time talking about Ikea (you can’t be in Sweden and not talk about Ikea it turns out) — the products as well as the company and its founder. At the very end, somehow we each were saying what we had particularly enjoyed about the tour. The formerly dour lawyer brother said that enjoyed meeting all of us, and sharing some of Stockholm with us. Tourist enthusiasm is infectious!

 

We spent part of a cold gray day in the Nordic Museum. The Nordic Museum is home to over one and a half million exhibits, including exclusive items and everyday objects, all with their own unique history. The collections reflect life in Sweden from the 16th century to the present day. One area of the museum was particularly interesting to us. The exhibits, of which this table setting is one, showed aspects of Swedish life, in different periods and related to different life milestones such as Christmas, weddings, birthdays and even funerals.

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A favorite simple Swedish dish is this: bleak (a white fish) roe, crème fraîche, finely diced red onions, lemon, dill, and buttery toast. We enjoyed this modest but delicious starter during a number of our Swedish meals. We enjoyed it so much that we have tried to recreate it at home. We needed to substitute trout roe for bleak roe, and our store-bought crème fraîche was a bit creamier than the Swedish version. Delicious nonetheless!

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Most lists of top Stockholm destinations include the Stockholm City Hall. Toward the end of our trip, we still hadn’t really had an architectural activity. So we gave it a shot. The City Hall’s visitor office offers an interesting and pleasant tour of the public spaces. The complex was built in the early years of the 20th century, the winning entry in a competition. The style (or styles) express a conjunction of nascent modernism, romantic nationalism, and italianate and byzantine references. A seductive mashup.

While the Nobel Prize program is not a city or even Swedish national institution, for many years, the Nobel Prize banquet takes place here, mostly because the City Hall includes a number of very large dramatic venues.

We read about and were told about a design store called Svenskt Tenn. We found a beautiful luxurious design and textile store. The store offers furniture, accessories and textiles, mostly related to a remarkable collection of printed fabrics. The following comes from the store’s own literature:

Eighty per cent of Svenskt Tenn’s range consists of products that are of its own design. Josef Frank alone left behind 2,000 furniture sketches and about 160 textile designs. The store also has furniture and other objects by some of the most skilled designers and craftsmen of our time.

IT IS NOT ONLY the aesthetic heritage that makes Svenskt Tenn so special, but also how the company is formed. Svenskt Tenn is owned by a foundation, with the goal that the company should live forever. All profit generated by the company is donated to research in areas such as environmental sustainability, genetics, biomedicine and pharmaceuticals.

Josef Frank designed gloriously bold and exuberant patterns in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. It seems that his designs remain today the heart of the collection at Svenskt Tenn. 80 years after their design, they struck us as stunningly current and vibrant. We bought some fabric with his designs to make pillow covers at home. Only after we had made our selection did we learn that the name of one of the designs is “Hawaii.” Apparently, that’s just who we are!

My (David’s) heritage on my father’s side is Swedish and Norwegian. My great grandparents came to the US in the late 19th century. For this trip to Stockholm and Sweden, I was much more focused on our goal of seeing the northern lights and staying a night in the IceHotel than on my family’s background. So I was surprised and taken aback by two things. People kept assuming I was Swedish, and would sometimes launch into Swedish conversation. Part of this was my facial shape, and part of it was when they read my family name. (While my name may have been an invention of an Ellis Island functionary, it does include “lund” which is a common Swedish name component.) The second surprise was a corny feeling of, “Oh these are my people.” Especially after having lived for so many years in the diversity of Hawaii, I can’t recall being somewhere where the people are so connected to my forebears. If anything, I had expected that I would note an intellectual connection. I didn’t expect to feel the emotional connection.

Here’s the note we found in our hotel room when we returned after our tour in the north. They obviously assumed I was Swedish! (Google Translate reveals: “Welcome back, David. We wish you a pleasant stay!”)

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We had gotten into Stockholm late the night before from a trip to the arctic of northern Sweden, and to our surprise slept until about 10 am. We headed out on a lightly snowy later morning in search of lunch (or perhaps brunch for us). Spontaneously we stopped into Strandvagen Restaurant at just after noon. Because we arrived without reservations, the hostess offered us a high bar-like table to her left, from which we could sit side-by-side and watch much of the dining room and bar. For us, this table was great since there were so many people to watch, and we could see busy Stockholm amid snow flurries just outside the dining room.

We ordered an eclectic selection: steak tartare, bi bim bop (who’d have known that there would be a Korean dish on offer?), and a white fish with lemons, capers, cheese and potatoes — all of which were very tasty.

What was most fun, though, was our server. Our raised table was considered part of the bar territory, so our server was also the bar tender. At one point we asked him his advice about where we could by some vodka to take back home to France with us (we have found it hard to find moderately priced good vodka in France). After he gave us some options, he brought three bottles of Swedish aquavit to our table, and then offered tastes of two of them (very effective up-selling since the tastes were really drink orders!). But they were very tasty and fun to try. (We changed course later and bought a bottle of aquavit to take home instead of vodka.) We enjoyed our tasty lunch, people watching, and an introduction to aquavit.

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This little restaurant is immediately next door to our hotel. Who’d have known?!

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