Over the course of this semester, it has become increasingly clear to me that learning about a new place through experiencing its culinary traditions is my favorite way to travel. Whether it was discovering the Portuguese fondness for pastries in Lisbon or gaining an appreciation for just how much Hungarians love sour cream in Budapest, my time in Europe has been filled with little foodie lessons in each place I’ve visited. Stockholm was to be no exception.
I will confess at the outset that I had very little notion about what Swedish cuisine consisted of, beyond the obvious: Swedish meatballs, which I had only ever sampled at – you guessed it – Ikea. And, when I took the Nordic Experience tour with Food Tours Stockholm, I did indeed eat Swedish meatballs – but I also had a lot more.
We began at Hotorgshallen, or the Old Haymarket, a huge food hall in the heart of Stockholm. I loved this place – it was big, bustling, and filled to the brim with stands selling mouth-watering goods. My only regret is that I wish I had gone back later, on my own, and spent more time browsing among the stalls.
Still, we got a solid introduction to Hotorgshallen on our tour, visiting four different vendors while there. We began with a stand that sold a wide variety of sausages, where we sampled four different kinds. I unfortunately didn’t catch the names of all four, but a few stood out: the elk sausage (which was quite salty, but still delicious), the sausage with apples (a strange combination, in my book), and a more traditional sausage that our guide said was a Swedish staple (“It’s like our macaroni and cheese.”)
Oh, and one more thing – this vendor also had free samples of blood sausage sitting out. Not wanting to be the unadventurous one, I did what everyone else in the group did and tried some. I was prepared to be disgusted, but it mostly tasted like…nothing. It had an unpleasant texture but no strong flavor one way or the other, so all in all, it was not a horrifying experience.
We moved on to the next vendor, where we found more meat waiting for us. This time, however, we were to try something I hadn’t ever sampled before: reindeer. We were given a tray with a reindeer sausage, a piece of cold smoked reindeer, and a reindeer mousse. All three were tasty, though I must admit that the sight of the mousse freaked me out (but the dish actually tasted quite good). My overall impression of reindeer meat was that it was delicious, yet the whole time I was eating it, I kept hearing a small voice in my head saying, You’re eating Rudolph.
Next, it was time for cheese at Saluplats Ost, where we encountered perhaps the most passionate cheese enthusiast I have ever met (not that I have met lots of people who are passionate about cheese, but if I had, this guy would probably win; he had a tattoo on his calf that read “Dr. Cheese” in German). The enthusiastic cheesemonger gave us four varieties of Swedish cheese to sample: buffalo mozzarella, vasterbotten (a Swedish classic made from cow’s milk), lillangens getmese (a sweet goat cheese), and bredsjo bla (a blue cheese, from a sheep, aged about 11 months). With the exception of the blue cheese – which is just never going to be my thing – I really enjoyed each.
Dr. Cheese (real name: Jon) also took us down to the basement of Hotorgshallen, where we were able to step inside the cheese cellar. It was a large – and smelly! – array of cheeses. He asked us if we had ever seen such a collection of cheeses and I didn’t have the heart to say that, yes, I had, as I had visited Gruyeres a few months earlier. Even so, the cellar here was impressive.
We concluded our time at Hotorgshallen by sampling the cuisine of Sweden’s friendly neighbour to the east, Finland. We were served a rice porridge topped with mashed eggs and butter which, we learned, is a traditional Finnish dish that would always be served at parties and gatherings. Just hearing the ingredients listed, I wasn’t sure this was a dish I would particularly care for – but it was actually quite tasty. Thumbs up, Finland.
We left Hotorgshallen and headed out onto the streets of Stockholm to find even more food. Our first stop was Cafe Tranan, a venerable institution that opened in 1929. There, we had traditional Swedish meatballs (served with sides of mashed potatoes, lingonberries, and pickled cucumbers) and beer (a light lager that I, a self-professed non-beer-drinker, really enjoyed). The meatballs and accompanying sides were, quite simply, delicious. Just how much did I enjoy them? I posted on Instagram that I’d “never be able to eat an Ikea meatball again.” Which may well be true.
(Burning question: Are pickled cucumbers just…pickles?)
The meatballs would have made a fine meal in and of themselves, but we still had more food to discover. We headed next to Tennstopet, another well-established Stockholm institution. There, we sampled a Swedish classic: fried pickled herring. I have to admit that I was taken aback by just how pickled the herring was; I’ve always been a fan of pickles, but this was a bit much even for me. There were two Swedes on our tour, and they weren’t fans of the herring either; they said that their families and friends constantly give them a hard time for their refusal to indulge in the dish! After trying the pickled herring, I have to say I agree with their hesitancy. This was good, but perhaps only in small portions.
Our herring adventures weren’t over yet, however, as we made our way next to Westermans Fisk for more fishy treats. There, we were served a platter of fish to sample: smoked salmon, herring with mustard, and more pickled herring, along with a side of potatoes, sour cream, and chives. Our waitress told us the Swedish believe that, when it comes to herring, the fish goes through three seas: the actual sea water it originates in, the pickling process, and your mouth. Clever!
We also were served Swedish snaps (aka, schnapps) with our fish. Our guide had printed out a traditional Swedish drinking song – written phonetically for those of us who couldn’t speak Swedish – which we sang as a group before downing our drinks. And by “downing our drinks,” I mean, I drank half of mine and then casually sipped the rest because I am a wimp.
After all that meat, fish, and cheese, it was time to move on to dessert. We began at Bakery & Spice, where we sampled bits of kanelbullar, or cinnamon buns. Our guide even told us that the treats are so beloved that Sweden has its own national cinnamon roll day. This, quite frankly, is something I think the US should consider adopting.
I enjoyed the cinnamon bun samples so much that I returned to Bakery & Spice the next day for breakfast. I bought a cinnamon bun of my own and then ate it at the nearby Vasaparken which, in case you were wondering, is essentially the perfect way to start the day.
After sampling cinnamon buns, we made our way to Chokladfabriken, a gourmet chocolate shop. There, we had a super rich – and super yummy – hot chocolate along. We also each received a small piece of gourmet chocolate. The chocolate our guide selected had a hint of licorice in it, and though I don’t generally enjoy licorice, this was quite good. Earlier in the tour, while we were walking, our guide had given us a small piece of salted licorice to try, which was incredibly sour (and disgusting!) – so it was good to see licorice redeemed somewhat.
Though we were all quite full at this point, we had one final stop on our tour: Cafe Ritorno, for some fika (coffee) and a few more pastries. We tried chocolate balls (super simple, yet incredibly rich and delicious) and “vacuum cleaner” cake. Our guide mentioned that the vacuum cake was so named for one of two reasons: either because bakers allegedly made it by combining all the previous day’s leftovers, including crumbs from the floor, together, or because its blue marzipan frosting makes the pastry resemble a vintage 1950s Electrolux. Whichever is the case, it was a damn good piece of cake.
As you can probably tell, we sampled a lot of food on our Nordic Experience tour. While not every item was something I loved (I’m looking at you, pickled herring), there were many delicious stops, and even when I was trying foods I didn’t care for, I still enjoyed the experience. I was impressed by the quality of the tour, the amount of stops, and the variety of food we tried; Food Tours Stockholm puts on a good event, and I would definitely take another tour from them the next time I visit Stockholm. Perhaps most important of all, they taught me that there’s much more to Swedish cuisine than meatballs – though, of course, I can happily confirm that meatballs are still important to the Swedes and still delicious.