I'm in Stockholm, perched on a high stool at a marble counter in the covered market, lunch menu in hand. I like the close proximity between waitress and diners; the formality of white shirts and long aprons, the little dish of pale, ice-cold butter and the chewily nutty rye bread. Most of all I like the close proximity of fish stall to plate. There can be few more promising locations in which to unfurl a napkin, even this paper one.
Behind me, the high-ceilinged room that has been home to a food market since 1888 is buzzing, in a polite kind of way, with shoppers patiently queuing (they are good at queues, too, the Swedes) for trays of lingonberries the colour of holly, soft apricot chanterelles and silver-grey oyster mushrooms. There is row upon row of pinky-orange salmon as thick as duvets, scallops twinkling on the open shell, and wooden crates of snapped-shut mussels. Crayfish are lined up like soldiers on parade; one suspects a hugger-mugger pile would go against the grain in this city of calm and order. I bet all hell breaks loose on Friday nights.
Across the room are several counters with ready-made meals that are a match for even the most up-itself Parisian food hall: mushroom soup the colour of mink; potato pancakes with crisp bacon and parsley, and slices of halibut the size of your hand for frying with mushrooms and a scattering of cockles.
I dither over the menu, whereas everyone else simply hands theirs back to the waitress unread. Apparently I am the only person in Östermalms Saluhall who doesn't know the menu off by heart. I dip my toe in safely with an order for lightly salted salmon and dill potatoes, the fish being so gently cured as to be verging on sashimi, the accompanying tiny potatoes simply sliced and steamed, then tossed in light cream sauce with fresh dill. They like their dill here: clean tasting, with the purity of a snowfall. I am unsure if this constitutes a main course, so I back it up with a second plate, this time of pickled herring, just in case.
To spend a week in Sweden and not eat herring or mackerel seems downright rude, and at the market with their white-coated scalers, gutters and slicers, it might even be an imprisonable offence. Like not eating potatoes with your meal. To my left and right are glass counters bearing pickled herring with mustard, with beetroot, with aniseed, with onion and juniper, with dill of course, oh, and with something I can't quite put my finger on.
What really appeals is the salty sharpness of this food; it is rare that one gets to use the term lip-smacking in its true sense, but that is exactly the expression for traditional Swedish food. Clean, ice-bright flavours. Think sour cream, vinegar, cream cheese, dill, cucumber, clove, mustard and horseradish. Think juniper, cranberries, allspice and wave upon wave of aniseed. Nothing palls, nothing cloys, and no sign of cheesy-queasy anywhere.
I had heard it said that you can't feel a hot-blooded passion for food in this city. But you know what, there is a calm respect for it instead. A feeling that they know when something is right and there is no point in changing it. So there really is no need to see the menu. You just know that there will be crisply fried potato pancakes with bacon and lingonberries, neat little meatballs with cream sauce and mash, there will be salmon every which way and herring, crayfish soup and yet more herring. Roll on Friday night.
Potato cakes with bacon
It is highly unlikely you will find lingonberries anywhere in Britain, so I have used cranberries instead. Serves 3.
50g butter, melted
oil for frying
unsmoked bacon rashers
Peel the potatoes, cut them into large pieces and bring them to the boil in salted water. When they are tender to the point of a knife, drain and briefly return to the pan, place over a low heat and leave for a minute or two to 'dry out'. Melt the butter in a small pan. Mash with a potato masher or put it in the bowl of a food mixer with a beater attachment. When there are no lumps, add the flour, salt and pepper, and the melted butter.
Blend till smooth and soft, but stop before they turn 'gluey'. Line a baking sheet with non-stick baking parchment or flour to stop the cakes sticking. Roll the mixture into 6 balls somewhere between golf ball and tennis ball size, then flatten them to form a potato cake. Set aside in a cool place to settle.
Put a little oil in a shallow pan, set it over a moderate heat and, when the oil is really hot, lay in the potato cakes, leaving plenty of room around each one. Let them colour on the underside, then when they are golden and crisp, turn and cook the other side. You may need to add a little more oil, depending on how hot your pan is.
For the cranberry sauce:
75g golden caster sugar
12 juniper berries
Tip the cranberries into a stainless-steel saucepan. Add the sugar and the lightly squashed juniper berries. Peel the orange with a vegetable peeler, cut each strip of peel into matchstick-sized shreds and add to pan. Bring to the boil, turn the heat down and simmer gently for 10-15 minutes. The berries will plump up and change colour to a darker red. Serve chilled. Makes enough for 8-10 portions.
To serve: cut the bacon into large pieces, about twice the size of a postage stamp. Line a grill pan with foil, add the bacon and grill till lightly crisp. Serve with the potato cakes and the cranberry sauce.
Warm mackerel, rye bread and dill sauce
A rustic lunch, Scandinavian in spirit. Serves 3.
3 mackerel, filleted
a medium onion
150ml white-wine vinegar
50ml white wine or vermouth
½ tsp mustard seed
6 whole white peppercorns
9 black peppercorns
2 tbsp caster sugar
2 bay leaves
For the mustard sauce:
100ml white-wine vinegar
200ml creme fraiche
2 small handfuls of chopped dill leaves
Set the oven at 180C/gas mark 4. Rinse the mackerel fillets and lay them in a shallow ovenproof dish. Peel and thinly slice the onion, and put it in a saucepan with the vinegar and wine or vermouth. Add the mustard seed, peppercorns, sugar, bay leaves, and two pinches of salt. Bring to the boil, then pour over the fish. Add enough water to cover the fish. Cover with foil and bake for 20 minutes.
For the mustard sauce: pour the vinegar into a small saucepan and add a similar amount of water, then bring it slowly to the boil while you peel and finely chop the shallot. Add 4 roughly crushed peppercorns. Within a few minutes the liquid will have reduced to a couple of tablespoons. Turn off the heat.
Scoop out the bits of shallot with a draining spoon. Turn the heat on and stir the creme fraiche into the seasoned vinegar. Stir in two teaspoons of mustard, and the dill. Let the sauce come to the boil, then turn down to a simmer till it has thickened to the consistency of double cream. Season with a little salt.
To serve: lift the fish from its cooking liquor, divide between three plates, adding a few of the onions as you go. Spoon over some of the sauce. Eat with thinly sliced rye bread.