Nordic Countries

views updated


NORDIC COUNTRIES. The Nordic countriesmembers of the Nordic Councilare Finland, Iceland, and the Scandinavian countries (in a strict sense Norway and Swedenthe Scandinavian Peninsulabut generally this group includes Denmark as well). Finland is in many ways different from the other Nordic countries because its language is of the Finno-Ugric group (related to Estonian and Hungarian). The languages in the other countries belong to the Germanic group, and Swedes, Danes, and Norwegians understand each other when they talk together. The Icelandic language has closer ties with Old Norse. In the circumpolar areas there is an ethnic group of about around 50,000 people called Samis (often called Lapps, a designation they consider derogatory) who use a Uralic language, in addition to the language of their state (Norwegian, Swedish, and Finnish).

Many parts of Norway and Sweden consist of mountains, valleys, and enormous forests, while Denmark's highest point is less than two hundred meters above sea level. Denmark is smaller than Norway and Sweden, but comparatively it has much more cultivated land. Iceland, with its glaciers, hot springs, volcanoes, and large areas of barren land, is only populated along the coast, and fishing has always been important there. Finland, "the land of a thousand lakes," is a country of forests crisscrossed by rivers and lakes.

Sweden and Denmark are old independent kingdoms that historically have had strong aristocratic cultures. Both Norway (independent since 1905) and Iceland (independent since 1945) were ruled by Denmark for centuries, and the culture imposed by Danish or Danish-educated civil servants is still a part of the heritage in those countries. Finland, first under Swedish and then under Russian rule, gained its independence in 1919 and is also marked by the traditions of its former rulers.

The Nordic countries were mainly agricultural societies (although fishing was also important) until the last part of the nineteenth century, when industrialization marked a shift from rural to urban dominance.

The Lutheran religion was introduced in the middle of the sixteenth century, and this is still the religion of the majority of Nordic people, even though church attendance is relatively low and secular ideas dominate most fields. A Greek orthodox minority lives in Finland.

It is possible to draw a line between a northern area, which comprises Iceland, Norway, and the north of Sweden, and a southern area, including Denmark and the south of Sweden, which has ties to northern Germany and the Baltic. The west (in particular, the southwest) of Finland has strong ties to Sweden, while in parts of eastern Finland there are many similarities with Russian traditions.

Nordic Diet and Food DistributionSell the Best, Use the Rest

In general, diet in a region depends on what kind of food a region produces. For example, in the Nordic countries people along the coast eat more fish, people in the mountains eat more milk and cheese from sheep and goats, and people in the lowland plains eat more meat and bread. Yet a little more than one hundred years ago, many agricultural products were not only seen as food but also as money. Social conditions were such that much of what the farmers and peasants cultivated and caught was used in a barter economy to obtain other necessary goods (such as salt, spices, and special tools).

The Nordic elite had strong ties to their counterparts abroad. The aristocracy in Sweden and Denmark, the civil and ecclesiastic administrators in Norway, and merchants in the many ports along the Atlantic and Baltic coasts followed European habits and fashions and wanted fresh and exclusive food. Many of these people were rich landowners with lots of livestock; thus they could afford to have fresh meat at all times. They slaughtered animals regularly and had cooks to prepare different dishes at their request. The wealthy also had poultry, geese, turkeys, and sometimes fish ponds on their estates. They also had regular delivery of game, fish, and wild berries from the forests. Poor people picked lingonberries (Vaccinium vitis-idaea ), bilberries (Vaccinium myrtillus ), and in the north the yellow cloudberries (Rubus chamaemorus ), which they sold to the upper classes, who used them for fruit drinks or for jams and jellies to go with roasts. Game was a privilege of the aristocracy in Denmark, as it was in most of Europe, but in the big forests of northern Scandinavia, hunting was free for everyone. Among the European nobility, the prestige of using wild animals as food was very high; this was also true in the upper classes in the Nordic countries, and very often the wealthy in these countries would buy game sold by poorer countrymen. When the smaller farmers and peasants slaughtered their domestic animals, they put aside the best cuts of meat and sold them to the manors, to the butchers in the towns, or to the ironworks where there were many foreign engineers and specialists who preferred this kind of food. In this way farmers received a certain amount of necessary cash. If a farmer had a goose or two, he would sell them, and if he had hens, he would sell the eggs. One of the most important dairy products, butter, was a means of payment as well as food.

The Food of the EliteMore European than Nordic

Even if the Nordic countries were sometimes considered the Ultima Thule (the northernmost part of the world fit for human habitation) by people farther south, they were never isolated from the European continent. The well-known Viking raids during the Middle Ages were quickly followed by diversified commerce. Luxury products began to be imported, and there are even two Danish cookbooks from about 1300, among the earliest manuscripts of this kind in Europe, that exhibit clear influences from Mediterranean cuisine. German and French cookbooks were translated into Nordic languages in the seventeenth century: a Swedish edition of the famous Le cuisinier françois was published in 1664. This means that many of the dishes consumed in the Nordic countries were not too different from what was being eaten elsewhere in Europe. However, certain national specialities were still popular. In the eighteenth century, Swedes served the hors d'oeuvres at a so-called brandy table, which was often placed in a separate room from the dining room. Many foreign travelers in Sweden reported a habit of eating bread, butter, and salt fish before the meal and swallowing it down with glasses of brandy. The similarities with the Russian zakuski tradition seemed evident, but no one has resolved the issue of which tradition influenced the other.

Some of the game was unique to the Nordic region, particularly reindeer, but also elk, capercaillie, hazel hen, and black grouse. The upper classes valued fresh fish very highly, but they also consumed lots of dried, salted, and smoked fish. Salmon was considered a great delicacy, as were oysters, mussels, lobsters, and eels.

Fresh fruit and vegetables were granted much prestige in upper-class circles, and many different species of produce were imported or grown on experimental farms in the eighteenth century. Menus from that time indicate that asparagus, artichokes, and pineapples were popular items. In general, people stuck with cabbage, onion, carrots, and other roots, but they generally considered vegetables an "animal food" and not proper nourishment for manual workers. A study from the 1890s by Amund Helland that compared food habits in Norway with those in Paris showed that the Norwegians ate 10 kilograms of vegetables per head per year, while Parisians ate 118 kilograms.

The Food of the Lower Classes"Humble Pie"

Since the best cuts were generally sold, offal and the less desirable parts of the animal were the most-used cuts of meat, especially among poor farmers. People always used the offal efficiently, for example, it was often minced and put into sausages or similar casings. Blood was used to make puddings, sausages, and other dishes. When making sausages, people also put grain or flour, salt and pepper, and sometimes onion in the casings. These blood dishes were in use in all the Nordic countries, but not in the eastern part of Finland, where many people belonged to the Orthodox Church.

Newborn calves were a special case. Calves were born at different times throughout the year, and the elite fattened them for some weeks and used them as roasts. However, there are accounts of a more popular and simple preparation dating from seventeenth-and eighteenth-century Norway. Ordinary people would not have the means to feed a calf in winter, so the whole newborn animal was boiled, the bones and hairs sifted away, and the remaining substance, a sort of jelly, eaten at once or kept for later use. The fat meat from the head of pigs and sheep was used in dishes such as sylte, which was more in keeping with the German tradition (Sülze ) than in the French (fromage de tête ) or English (brawn). Sylte was spiced with pepper and clove.

Different kinds of fat were also important ingredients in very simple, popular dishes. Some of them were dumplings, where the fat from the slaughtered animals and poultry was mixed with flour. They had many local names (klubb, kams, klot, palt, kumle, kumpe, ball ) and corresponded roughly to the Central European Knödeln and Klösse. The flour was mixed with leaf fat from domestic animals, as well as with fat from seabirds, seal blubber, and roe and liver from fish. The fishermen in the north mixed cod liver and roe with flour, spices, and raisins and put this mixture into the cod's head or sound (air bladder) and boiled it in water. In some cases parts of the fish itself, fresh or salted, were added to this mixture, and potatoes were partly substituted for the flour. Before the use of forks and plates, slices of the ball were cut with a knife and placed between two bits of crisp flat bread, similar to the way one eats hamburgers today. A special type of ball was made from the blood of domestic animals, but more often this mixture of flour, blood, and some spices was made into sausages or baked into a soft flat bread.

Another way of combining fat and cereals was the mölje (jumble): crisp flat bread was broken into small pieces and put into a bowl with the liquid from boiling meat liver. Fishermen ate a mölje with crisp flat bread and cod liver. All these examples show an efficient use of all the parts of animal or fish products that were not sold or saved for important occasions.

In Finland there were and are examples of a special combination of flour with fish or meat, pies, and pasties. In the east they are called piiras or piirakka (Russian pirog ) and kukko, which is a big pie with dough all around. Pirog is normally smaller than kukko, and if it is big, the filling is exposed with no crust on top. The filling in kukko may be meat, potatoes, cabbage, and turnips, but it was originally fish. In the west, along the coast, a similar pie had the name "herring cake."

Meat and Status

As in most societies, meat held more prestige than other food in Nordic countries, but there were also differences in the evaluation of different kinds of meat. The importance of pork in older times could be seen in the Swedish and Danish terms used for it, fläsk/flaesk, which are similar to the German Fleisch, which is a generic word for "meat." Today beef is more expensive than pork, but in the Middle Ages pork was much more expensive than beef and mutton if one calculated its average price by weight.

As a general rule, it is possible to say that swine dominated the meats of the south for a very long time, while cattle were more important in the north for several reasons, not least of which was that they provided hides and milk products. The tough meat from old and worn out cows and oxen was not used in steaks and roasts; rather, it was boiled in a pot with cabbage, groats, roots, and available herbs and spices. This meat was normally salted and put into water before it was boiled, so the salt could be extracted and the meat would soften. Mutton was also boiled this way. One common word for these dishes was kål (cabbage), which was used whether they contained cabbage or not. The Old Norse word, however, was sodd, which simply means "boiled." The use of this word is probably a sign of how old this dish is.

Mutton had played a very important role in Nordic countries, but the number of sheepand goats, the even less prestigious domestic animalshas gradually diminished in Nordic countries during the last few centuries. Mutton was often eaten uncooked, since it had been dried, salted, and occasionally smoked. In general the meat was very seldom eaten fresh, except among the elitea fact often commented upon by foreign visitors. This was, especially in the northern regions, a result of the climatic conditions. The summer season during which animals could graze was very short. During a winter with deep snow, feeding animals required a lot of fodder. Animals that were raised only for meat production were slaughtered after the summer, when they were at their fattest. In order to preserve the meat, the farmers had to dry, salt, or smoke it. Pork was often kept in brine.

This preserved meat could be kept for years: it was considered a symbol of wealth to have stocks of meat at the stabbur, a special storehouse built on pillars. From Denmark we know of the tradition of gammelmadsfad (plate of old food) or saltmadsfad (plate of salt food), which involved a big platter with all sorts of smoked and salted meat that could stand on the table for weeks. In Norway reports from wedding feasts in the eighteenth century tell about plates with old food that were put on the table but not eatenthey were only used as a decoration year after year.

Fish Consumption and Preservation

In the United States, especially in the Midwest, the Scandinavian population identifies with a peculiar dish: lutefisk. This dish has a jelly-like consistency and often a yellowish color. The dish is generally unpopular among people who have never tried it. The same holds true in Sweden, where lutefisk is considered a national dish.

The best raw material for lutefisk is the dried cod from the northern coast of Norway, where the air is rather cool. The tørrfisk, or stokfish, holds almost no humidity, lasts for years, and has been exported to Europe since before the year 1000. The fish had to be beaten or softened in water before they were cooked. In the late Middle Ages a special method emerged for the preparation of this dish: a potash lye or soda was put in the water to help soften the fish, and the result was lutefisk (lye fish). The oldest sources for this method are found in Sweden and Germany, but there are also recipes in early Spanish and French cookbooks, so the dish may have existed elsewhere.

Drying is probably the oldest method for fish preservation in Scandinavia, where all sorts of fish were cleaned and hung up to air dry. Even herring was dried, but it did not last as long as other fish because of its high fat content. In the north of Sweden and Finland, pike and other freshwater fish were dried. Salmon that could be dried, salted, and/or smoked held the most prestige.

Cod and other white fish were also salted in brine. This was the most common way to preserve herring, and salted herring has been an important part of Scandinavian diet for centuries. It was either eaten cold or grilled, normally with bread or porridge, and later with potatoes.

High-quality salt was expensive, but necessary for a good product. Among ordinary people who had little money for salt, a special method of preservation developed for herring and some freshwater fish. The Swedish term gravlaks (buried salmon) dates back to the Middle Ages, when the fish, sometimes lightly salted, was buried in the ground or in a barrel. It could be kept for months because of the slow fermentation that occurred. The result was soft flesh, but also a sour taste and a strong, unpleasant smell. In Sweden this method is still used to make the sour strömming, a herring from the north of the Baltic Sea (the Gulf of Bothnia). People in Norway also used herring, but today they mainly use trout from inland rivers and lakes. Icelanders use the flesh of the hákarl, a species of shark. The same fermentation technique exists in other circumpolar areas, and it is related to the old Roman garum/liquamen process.

In the modern version of gravlaks, the salmon has only gone through the early stage of the chemical process, where enzymes soften the flesh. Filets of salmon, with salt, sugar, pepper, and fresh dill spread between them, are placed under heavy weights for a couple of days in a cool place. This method of fermentation probably developed within the upper classes at a later time than the original method.

MilkA Way of Life

Milk was extremely important in the northern part of Scandinavia, Iceland, and parts of Finland. In this area's tough climatic conditions, sheep and cattle were raised partly for hides, partly for food, but first and foremost for milk. In Iceland skýr, a curdled milk from sheep or cows, is considered a national dish.

One of the most important dairy products, butter, was so important in the northern countryside that it was used for hundreds of years as a symbol of wealth, particularly at weddings, where pyramids of sculptured butter were raised at each end of the table. The butter was formed in special wooden cases with patterns of flowers or animals. Folk museums display these butter sculptures as examples of popular art.

For the past several centuries, the elite of the Nordic countries have imported cheeses from Holland and Switzerland. These cheeses are made in the general European fashion by adding rennet to the milk. This was a different tradition from the one in the northern regions, where the milk was coagulated in a process caused by lactic acid. Some of these cheeses were sweet, a little like puddings or desserts, and others were made from sour milk, usually from a cow, but also from sheep and goats. One of the most famous and prestigious cheeses was the gammalost (old cheese), which was dark brown and rather hard with a grainy texture.

Milk was almost never drunk sweet; rather, it was made into different sour-milk varieties. A very special type was the "long milk" or "thick milk" that would stay fresh during the summer. It was also called tettemjølk in Norway and tätmjölk in Sweden after an herb (Pinguicula vulgaris ) that was put into the milk that was said to cause the souring process. Today many people dispute the role of the herb: the process also starts when a little old milk, containing certain bacteria, is put in the kettle with the new milk.

In the northern areas, milk had to be substituted for beer as a common drink because of the low production of grains. The daily drink of ordinary people was blanda, which was sour whey blended with water. The inventive use of whey, the substance remaining after cheeses are made, is specific to the northern regions. It might be boiled into a sort of soup and eaten together with bread (sour milk was also used this way). Whey might also be boiled for hours until it became a thick substance. This was then put into wooden cases to cool and, when finished, looked like brown bricks. This "cheese" was either made from the whey of sweet or sour milk (the sour being the cheapest) and was spread on flat bread instead of butter by the poor and servants.

BreadFlat, Soft, Hard, Sweet, Dark, White

The cold climate and the meager soil in the north made it difficult to grow grains other than oats and barley; since these do not contain gluten, they could not be used for leavened bread. The result was different sorts of flat, thin bread, specialties of the northern regions. These stood in contrast to the leavened rye bread in the southern part of Scandinavia, Denmark, and the Swedish region Skåne (which was part of Denmark until the seventeenth century). In Finland a dividing line can be drawn between the west and north, where different sorts of hard breads were baked, and the east, where soft rye bread was common.

The Danes, like the German and Dutch, had smørrebrød (butter bread), a dark rye bread served with butter and cheese, cold meat, sausage, liver paste, or other delicacies (internationally known as "open sandwiches"). While the flat bread in the north was baked on griddles (iron plates), bakery ovens were more widespread in the south, and the Danes often bought their bread from the baker. The Danish bakers, organized in guilds with strict rules, were obliged to have certain products ready at all times: white bread, coarse rye bread, and skonrogger (from sifted rye), in other words, alternatives for all classes of society. The status of bread had to do with the kind of flour used: for example, during festivals, the elite would eat only white bread made from wheat flour. This bread was best when fresh, but most people would let their bread dry out, which made it more economical since it would last longer.

The Swedes are especially known for their sweet and spiced breads. One French diplomat remarked as early as 1634: "The bread had a terrible taste, made as it was with wort and sweet fennel." This was the dark vörtbröd, made with beer wort, molasses, spices, citrus peel, and raisins. These sweet breads were earlier a luxury or used only for festive situations. The expression "sweet bread days" meant (and still means) good times.

PorridgeFor Hunger and Luxury

Porridge is an old dish, perhaps more ancient than bread, and it has been used in many cultures. Flour mixed with water ("water porridge") was the simplest variety and was long thought to be a synonym for poverty. Scandinavians also mixed the grains with milk, cream, or whey. As was already mentioned, whey soup was eaten with bread. Milk made the porridge more attractive, and during annual festivals and rites of passage it turned into a luxury dish, rømmegrøt (sour cream porridge), with the addition of cream or butter. In modern times, porridge is more like a pudding made from rice and milk and is often sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon, but the butterye (a lump of butter in the middle) is still a relic from the past.

In early modern times and up until the nineteenth century, rice was a luxury that very few could enjoy. It was more common in Denmark, where they also ate porridge from maiz (corn), buckwheat, and pearl sago. Oats were not popular in Denmark unless they were made into groats, which were easier to digest. Danish porridges were often boiled with sweet milk, but in Skåne (southern Sweden) there is also a tradition of serving beer on porridge. In Denmark they have øllebrød (beer bread), which is rye bread that is diced and boiled in beer with sugar and lemon peel. In characteristically Norwegian style, when øllebrød was introduced there it was made with a mixture of beer and milk.

Nordic Drinks

Blanda, sour whey or milk mixed with water, was previously mentioned as a daily drink in northern regions. But beer production occurred everywhere: a very light and simple beer for daily use, and stronger brands for festivals and special occasions. Since the Middle Ages, more exclusive beers were imported from Germany, and the more affluent of society imported mead (made from honey). Grapes have never been grown in the Nordic countries, but wine has been imported since the time of the Vikings, especially after clergy with southern European roots established churches and monasteries in the region.

Ever since the eighteenth century, akevitt brandy made from grainhas become more and more common. It is considered good for health and physical strength. Farm hands received a shot of akevitt when they started work at around 5:00 A.M. and when they began to tire in the afternoon. Akevitt was also used with sugar and spices in drinks, but imported brandy was preferred for this use. The introduction of potatoes in Nordic countries offered new and cheaper possibilities for akevitt, and the production and consumption led to widespread alcoholism in the countryside in the early nineteenth century. However, things began to change when popular temperance and abstinence movements emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century. The government introduced restrictions on distillation of alcohol, and coffee gradually replaced beer and brandy as the daily restorative drink.

The Sami Diet

A portion of the Sami people lived as nomads with their flocks of domesticated reindeer, but some also lived on the coast (the sea Samis) and were more residential in nature. Their diet placed an emphasis on meat and milk. The Samis ate meat from many wild animals: bear, otter, hare, marten, and wolverine, but never fox and wolf. Contrary to the rest of the Nordic population, they had no prejudice against horseflesh, which they ate dried. Their main source of food was reindeer, and they used every bit of it: the head, heart, and tongue were delicacies of great value. They never roasted fresh meat, but always boiled it. They preserved much meat for future use by dryingthey never used brine. Dried meat was easier to transport. Also, blood was freeze-dried and then ground into a powder. Fat was appreciated, especially the rich rectum fat that was dried and used as cream in coffee, when this drink was introduced.

Among the Samis there were strict rules as to who could eat what. The heart and the genitals of the buck were reserved for men. Men also had the responsibility of preparing meals, particularly if the meal involved meat from reindeer and bear.

Fish was important for the Samis along the coast, but people also fished in the rivers of the great plains. The fish was boiled or dried for later use, and the roe was considered a special delicacy.

In general, bread has no tradition among the Samis, the exception being the sea Samis. For the nomads, carrying bread or flour and purchasing flour was no easy task. When bread finally was introduced, it was almost always unleavened.

Butter, cheese, and boiled dishes were made from milk. Herbs and berries were used instead of spices. The usual drink before coffee was water, sometimes mixed with male (sap from birch trees). The main meal was in the evening, and it always consisted of meat or fish. For lunch a lighter meal was common, such as soup or reindeer meat or, in summer, a cheese gruel.

A New Diet in an Urban Society

During the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries, the Nordic countries went through a process of urbanization, industrialization, democratization, and the emergence of stronger commercial links to the world outside. Many of the old traditions in meat preparation were changing. For example, the introduction of meat grinders made it possible for most social groups to mince meat. In earlier times, this was a privilege of rich houses, because it demanded servants who worked for hours with knives. Now everybody could make the meatballs that were and still are extremely popular national, everyday dishes in several of the Nordic countries, where they are referred to as "mother's meat balls."

A special dish that is less common today because it demands so much work to prepare is stuffed cabbageminced meat in cabbage leaves (instead of the Mediterranean version with grape leaves). An unsubstantiated legend claims that the Swedish recipe, called dolma (a Turkish word), was brought to Sweden by King Charles XII, who spent several years in Turkey after his defeat at Poltava.

In general, with the advent of urbanization, the tendency went in the direction of more fresh food than before. In addition to the balls made of minced meat, cutlets of pork, sausages, chicken or veal fricassees, roasts, and steaks also became very popular. In Denmark the "old food platters" were replaced by "roast platters." The introduction of the kitchen stove was instrumental in this change.

In Norway, where there was no local tradition of leavened bread, the spread of bakeries and bakery ovens in the late nineteenth century led to the emergence of a great variety of breads. Apart from the wheat and rye bread known in Denmark, healthy new alternatives were offered, such as kneippbrød (after the German doctor Sebastian Kneipp), grahambrød (after the American dietician Sylvester Graham), and later whole-meal breads of different recipes.

As in so many countries, butter faced competition from the new artificial substitute, margarine. Many farmers replaced butter with margarine and received extra money to buy salt, spices, coffee, sugar, and other foreign products. This happened at about the same time that the entire system of dairy production went through a fundamental change. Instead of making different dairy products on the farm, farmers started to sell their milk to the new factories where butter and cheese were produced with modern techniques. This practice also followed a shift in cheese preferences. During the nineteenth century, Swiss and Dutch cheeses grew more popular, and the Nordic countries imported both cheese and dairy specialists from Gouda, Edam, Leiden, and Switzerland. The specialists trained local dairymen to make cheese a new way, and one of these cheeses, the Norwegian Jarlsberg, has been a success in the world market.

During the nineteenth century, coffee became the daily drink everywhere. It spread from the big cities to the countryside and from the elite down through all the other levels of society.

Potatoes represented the most extraordinary shift in food consumption, with a complete breakthrough occurring during the Napoleonic Wars. After that time, preparing the main hot meal was barely possible without boiled potatoes, the basis of Scandinavian cuisine. The nineteenth century was also a great time for herring catches, and the low price of these two products led to the expression "salted herring and potatoes," meaning a poor man's food or husmannskost. Also roast fresh herring was a very common dish among ordinary people. However, herring was also present in the smörgåsbord, which has been popular in Swedish restaurants and hotels since the late nineteenth century. Around a big brandy pot with taps for different brandies and akevitts were several sorts of cured herring, sardines, marinated sprats, smoked eel, grilled eel, eel in jelly, pig trotters, brawn, sausages, and later also gravlaks and smoked salmon. Today the smörgåsbord is not only an introduction to a meal, but it can be a full buffet lunch or dinner, complete with hot dishes (such as meatballs and steaks with onion). Dessert consists of different kinds of fruits, sweets, and cakes.

Food and Feast

Special occasions in life and rites of passage have always involved special dishes. The main objective has been to serve something special that sets that day apart from the rest. In rural societies, where resources were not always abundant and cash flow was low, a system of gifts emerged. Guests brought food to weddings and funerals, often butter and rich cheeses, which were all put on the table and then brought back if they were not finished. In the twentieth century, this custom changed with the advent of a more urban society and smaller families. New habits spread gradually from the aristocracy to the middle classes and then to the whole population. The pièce de résistance at special occasions, in most cases, was a roast.

Different regional traditions have developed around religious holidays. Among the many old traditions tied to the long Lenten period before Easter, only the sweet rolls with whipped cream still exist. A special Easter dish in Finland originated as a Lenten dish among Catholics in the southwest, but it has since spread to the whole country. Mämmi, a dark brown porridge-like substance made from malted rye and baked in the oven in boxes of birchbark (today cardboard), is served with thick cream and sugar.

Feasts for saints were much more important in earlier times, but the roast goose of St. Martinmas in November has survived in Denmark and in southern Sweden, where it is accompanied by svartsoppa (black soup) made from goose blood and giblets. On the thirteenth of December the Swedes celebrate Sancta Lucia with elements from an ancient regional feast. Young girls in white robes and candles on their heads march through the streets singing an Italian song and handing out lussekatter (Lucia cats), which are small saffron cakes. A special feast without any connection to religious traditions is held every August when crayfish are in season. Crayfish parties are merry events that involve paper hats, special plates, and lots of singing and drinking. The crayfish are boiled in dill and served cold. Swedes eat more crayfish than most people in the world. Most of the crayfish are wild, but there is an increasing farming industry in addition to the importation of about 3,000 tons of crayfish every year.

The Icelandic Thórablót in January is named after the Norse god Thor (Thunder). Blót was a religious ceremony that involved offerings to the gods and reputedly much eating and drinking. The food is hákarl (sour buck's balls), boiled sheepheads, and hangikjöt (smoked meat of lamb).

Christmas Celebrations

The one occasion in which the Nordic population as a whole still maintains traditions is Christmas. At this time people eat large quantities of meat. Many baked items are prepared exclusively for Christmas and are called Christmas cakes, of which there are seven required types.

The traditional Christmas meal is generally served on Christmas Eve, but the food is very different from country to country. In Denmark the traditional main dish was goose, as in Hans Christian Andersen's story "The Little Match Girl." In recent times, duck has been substituted for goose, but the stuffing is the same: apples and prunes. Dessert is a sweet rice pudding made from rice boiled in milk, with almonds and whipped cream added. Christmas Day in Denmark involves different traditions, but very often roast pork is served.

In Norway there are regional differences: roast rib of pork with sauerkraut is served on Christmas in the east, boiled cod is served in the south, and lutefisk is served in the north. The specialty of the west is pinnekjøtt (stick meat), a dried, salted, and sometimes smoked rib of lamb, which is put in water during the night so some of the salt is extracted and placed above steam for several hours. Tradition says that during the steaming process the long ribs should rest on sticks of birchwood. It is served with mashed turnips. Boiled potatoes accompany all the aforementioned dishes.

In Sweden julskinka (Christmas ham) is obligatory, but it is only one of the dishes served at an expanded smörgåsbord. Swedes eat lutefisk and rice porridge during the Christmas period. Another traditional element of this feast is the vörtbröd, which is dipped in the broth where the Christmas ham has been boiled, and a special hard Christmas bread that is a little softer than the crisp rye knäkkebröd.

Julskinka is also a main dish in Finland on Christmas Eve, but there it is often smoked in the sauna. In addition, the table holds sausages and the traditional oven-baked dishes in earthenware, called "boxes." These boxes contain liver, potatoes, turnips, and so forth. This kind of meal is also typical for weddings and other big events, although the julskinka is then often replaced by a roast of elk or other game. Dessert is a thick soup of dried fruits, also a very popular dish in Finland. Before this rich meal the Finns eat a hot lunch with lutefisk and rice porridge. In the southeastern part of the country, the pirogs will be on the table for Christmas.

On Christmas Day in Iceland the traditional dish hangikjöt is served and eaten cold. On Christmas Eve in Iceland people have no set tradition, but loin of pork and grouse are fairly common dishes.

Toward an International Cuisine?

Since the start of the twenty-first century, many old Nordic traditions have begun to change. Food consumption and food habits in Nordic countries today have been strongly influenced by international trends such as fast food, ethnic cuisine, and gourmet-restaurant culture. This development is a break from what was, until the late twentieth century, the general fare for the majority of the people in this region.

The use of minced meat is no longer limited to meat-balls, as it is eaten with spaghetti, in lasagna, on pizzas, in tacos, and in pita breads. This trend also implies a reduction in the consumption of boiled potatoes. However, there has been an increase in consumption of pommes frites (fried potatoes) and potato-based snacks. This has partly to do with the strong increase in fast food (so-called "street kitchens"), where earlier only hot dogs were sold, but which now offer hamburgers, grilled chicken, and other dishes.

Different types of fast food or ready-made dishes are also being used for the main hot meal, served in the afternoon after parents come from work and children from school. In Sweden and Finland they also eat hot meals for lunch, either in cantinas, cafeterias, or street kitchens. Many Danes and Norwegians, who earlier enjoyed their lunches of open sandwiches, are now choosing hot fast food or cold salads for lunch. Open sandwiches are also being challenged by new varieties made from French baguettes or Italian ciabatta. Whereas the extravagant open sandwich had to be eaten on a plate with a fork and knife, the baguette and ciabatta sandwiches, with fillings of ham, cheese, or shrimp, can be taken away and eaten while standing or walking; at the same time, these sandwiches have more substance than the original, less substantial English sandwiches.

Drinking habits are changing in the direction of a more southern European style. Alcohol is still important for festive situations, but wine consumption is increasing rapidly compared to consumption of beer and strong liquor. Coffee is still brewed and drunk in the same way (what is often called American coffee), but new coffee bars are growing up all over, offering cappuccino, cafe latte, and espresso.

Important factors behind these changes are increased wealth and prosperity, travel by Nordic people to Mediterranean countries, an influx of new products from southern Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas, and the new urban lifestyle promoted through mass media. However, the break with tradition is not complete, because the new trends are mainly affecting smaller groups, such as urban, educated young people with relatively good financial freedom. This probably indicates that more pronounced changes will take place in coming generations.

See also Germany, Austria, Switzerland; Lapps; Low Countries; Russia.


Becker, Wulf, ed. Befolkningens kostvanor och näringsintag i Sverige 1989. Uppsala, Sweden: Livsmedelsverkets förlag, 1994.

Bringeus, Nils Arvid. Mat och måltid. Studier i svensk matkultur. Stockholm: Carlsson Bokförlag, 1988.

Bringéus, Nils-Arvid. Man, Food and Milieu. A Swedish Approach to Food Ethnology. East Linton, Scotland: Tuckwell Press, 2001.

Fagerli, Rønnaug Aarflot. Endringer i nordmenns matvaner på 80-og 90-tallet. Lysaker, Norway: Statens Institutt for Forbruksforskning, 1999.

Fagt, Sisse, Margit Velsing Groth, and Niels Lyhne Andersen, eds. Danskernes kostvaner 1995. Copenhagen: Fødevaredirektoratet, 1999.

Gísladottir, Hallger<eth>ur. Íslensk matarhef <eth>. Reykjavik: Mál og menning, 1999.

Grøn, Fredrik. Om kostholdet i Norge fra omkring 1500-tallet og op til vår tid. Oslo: Det Norske Videnskaps-Akademi/ Jacob Dybwad, 1941.

Grøn, Fredrik. Om kostholdet i Norge indtil aar 1500. Oslo: Det Norske Videnskaps-Akademi/Jacob Dybwad, 1927.

Notaker, Henry. Ganens makt. Oslo: Aschehoug, 1993.

Olsson, Alfa. Om allmogens kosthåll: studier med utgångspunkt från væstnordiska matvanor. Lund, Sweden: Gleerup, 1958.

Riddervold, Astri. Lutefisk, Rakefisk and Herring in Norwegian Tradition. Oslo: Novus, 1990.

Roos, Eva. Social Patterning of Food Behaviour among Finnish Men and Women. Helsinki: National Public Health Institute, 1998.

Siggaard, Niels. Fødemidlerne i ernærings-historisk Belysning. Copenhagen: Nielsen and Lydiche, 1945.

Swedish IBP Committee. Food and Nutrition Research in Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden. Stockholm: The Swedish IBP Committee, 1970.

Talve, Ilmar. Folkligt kosthåll i Finland. Lund, Sweden: CKW Gleerup, 1977.

Henry Notaker