Friday, March 16, 2012

Chilling Out in Stockholm

Each winter, deep in the boreal forests of northern Sweden, a hotel is built anew, all of ice. Reindeer hides cover the ice beds, where guests are ensconced in down sleeping bags. There is even a wedding chapel, akin the Snow Queen’s palace in Hans Christian Andersen’s tale. Or so I imagine, for the touch of frostbite I got at the Norwegian Olympics in 1992 has left me with little inclination to sleep on ice, no matter how well insulated.

However, I was still curious, so I did the next best thing and visited the Ice Bar in downtown Stockholm.

“Your feet will freeze,” the attendant said with a laugh, looking down at my sandals. The weather in Stockholm was unusually warm, 80 degrees and no wind, practically sweltering by Swedish standards. But we were about to leave all that behind, as my 26-year-old daughter and I pulled on blue hooded ponchos that hung below our knees with attached gloves - but no foot coverings.

Nonetheless, we walked through the double doors. About a dozen people were standing around, including a group of women from Southern California. The room lived up to its name: the bar was made of ice; the shelves behind were ice; there were blocks of ice topped with reindeer skins to sit on and more blocks of ice forming alcoves and walls. Some of the blocks had designs carved into them. And yes, my feet were rapidly cooling.

The first drink was included in the entry fee, and the beverages fit the theme, with such evocative names as Torne River (a version of a lemon drop named for a northern waterway), Wolf Paw (lingonberry jucie and lime with Absolut 100), and Snow Flake (vodka with coconut, peach, pineapple and cranberry juices). All but the three virgin drinks were based on Swedish Absolut vodka. Tina had the Husky Sledge (vanilla vodka cinnamon, and apple), while I went for the Northern Light (raspberry vodka, crème de cassis, lime and raspberry puree).

The drinks were rather strong. That, plus the prices (95 or 125 Swedish kronor per drink , depending on whether you retained the same glass, or about $15 and $20 at the time) and the cold kept us to one. Despite my lack of appropriate footwear, I enjoyed our brief sojourn in a winter wonderland. We walked through the exit, returned our ponchos, continued past the gift shop, and back out into the still-warm summer twilight. 

Note: This piece first appeared under the same title on the travel blog ePicaro ( For more on Swedish cuisine, go to

Saturday, November 10, 2007

A Bit of Culinary History: Gingerbread

The Swedish word, pepparkakor, literally translates as pepper cakes. The first pepparkakor were honey cakes, flavored with pepper and other spices such as cloves, cardamom, cinnamon and anise, and were imported from German monks beginning in the 1300s. Over time, the pepper was eliminated from most but not all Swedish pepparkakor recipes and the honey was replaced by beet sugar syrup. Today, the word pepparkakor is used for gingersnaps while mjukpepparkakor refers to gingerbread. Swedes buy gingersnaps year-round from bakeries and grocery stores. But for many families, baking pepparkakor at home, using cookie cutters shaped like Christmas goats, pigs, angels, hearts, stars, men and women, remains an essential part of the Christmas festivities.

For more on Swedish cooking, go to

Thursday, November 8, 2007

November 11, Martin Day

For centuries, early November was the time of year when casks of wine were ready to be opened and when the geese, still plump from their summer grazing, were slaughtered and preserved for the coming winter. So, naturally, the French celebrated the feast day of their patron saint, Martin, Bishop of Tours with roast goose and bottles of new wine. (Interestingly, before Martin converted to Christianity, he was a Roman soldier and, like many in the Imperial Army, had been named for the Roman god of war, Mars.) During the Middle Ages, the custom of eating goose on November 11th gradually spread from France to Germany and then to Scandinavia, reaching Sweden in the 16th century.

Today, Martin Day remains an important holiday in Skane, Sweden's southernmost province, where inns and restaurants often serve an elaborate meal of blood soup, roast goose with potatoes and red cabbage, applecake with vanilla sauce and spettekaka, a towering meringue cake baked on a spit. One year, I attended such a dinner.

I was surprised to learn that most of my fellow diners, nearly all of whom were retirees, had never tasted blood soup. The chef described his methods. First, he cooked the veal stock, chicken stock, thyme, marjoram, cloves, allspice, apples and figs together. After straining out the solids, he added the goose blood but on low heat; if the liquid boiled the soup would turn into porridge. He then added madeira, port, cognac and black peppar, and let the soup rest in the refrigerator for two days. Just prior to serving, he warmed the soup and added glogg, mulled Christmas wine. I liked the taste of the thick, chocolate-colored puree, which reminded me of gingersnap cookies or a Mexican mole sauce. But sipping blood did feel strange and I couldn't quite bring myself to have seconds.

The roast goose, accompanied by red cabbage, brussel sprouts, potatoes, baked apple slices and prunes, was a bit of a letdown. The apple cake with vanilla sauce tasted a lot like that found everywhere in Sweden. Finally, the spettekaka arrived. This lightweight, crisp pastry was not as achingly sweet as I would have predicted but rather had a delicious eggy flavor. In fact, I like it so much that I resolved to track down a spettekaka bakery and bring one of these cakes back to my family in Boston.

For more on Swedish holidays, go to