Magnus Nilsson on Christmas

Author: Pat Nourse
Photography: Erik Olsson

Magnus Nilsson is sick of talking about reindeer blood. He's also heard plenty about whales, not to mention puffins stuffed with cake. But such are the trials of the Swedish author who has chosen to undertake a worldwide promotional tour of what might be the master work on the cuisine of the Nordic region. Nilsson, the chef at Fäviken, the acclaimed 16-seat restaurant in the central Sweden wilds, chose to write the book because he found coverage of the subject more than wanting. The result, The Nordic Cookbook, is a volume of substance. Just shy of 800 pages, it clocks in at several kilos, but the real weight of the book comes from Nilsson's intellect and the scope of his research across the kitchens and barns of Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands.

For all that, though, it's far from a heavy read. If the idea of paging through the culinary traditions of the Faroes strikes you at first as the definition of soporific, consider this passage introducing a recipe for the eggs of the northern fulmar, a native seabird:
The fulmar will naturally do its best to stop those trying to steal its eggs, and even if it won't attack you physically and try to claw your eyes out, it will scream loudly and then projectile-vomit a red and stinky ooze of semi-digested sea creatures in your direction. From my own experiences, I can tell you two things: first, that the accuracy with which the birds release this stuff, which if you weren't there would have stayed where it belongs, inside the bird, is spot on. Second, there is surely no detergent yet discovered by mankind which will make the smell go away from your clothes.

It's an understatement to say that Nilsson makes a wry and companionable guide through the frozen north. Beyond the mere fact of his erudition, his flashes of wit and opinion place him in the rarefied company of Alan Davidson, Patience Gray and the other truly great food writers.

Talking over lunch at Firedoor in Sydney's Surry Hills at the end of a month-long tour of Europe, the US and Australia, though, he's had enough of interviewers seizing solely on the book's exotica. (An interview with NPR [National Public Radio] in the US so incensed him that he felt the need to point out in a lengthy Instagram post straight afterwards that the book is not, in fact, mostly about reindeer blood.)

"If someone's just flicked through it, the first thing you'll hear from them is, 'Oh, there's whale in here, and puffins'," he says, "but, if they've actually read it, they're, like, 'This is pretty common food in here - I didn't know that you guys ate that'.

"Ten per cent of the book's recipes are un-useful - even to a Dane, seal intestines aren't an everyday ingredient. But I want people to cook from it. That's the whole point, to expand people's knowledge."

With that in mind, we thought we'd talk about foods in the book that are more familiar to your average Nordic person, but with a seasonal twist: Christmas.

"In Sweden, we have a ridiculous Christmas tradition," says Nilsson. "All across the world people have pretty opulent Christmases, but they all pale against the Swedish one. The julbord - the Christmas table - is like the grand version of a smorgasbord. It's something that people think we've been doing forever, but we haven't, we've just been doing it since the '30s.

"At my house, I'd say we'd cook 60 courses. Six-zero. Something like that. And that's for just eight of us. We do it for the owners of Fäviken as well - just over 100 courses, basically every traditional dish, 12 kinds of herring, everything. I would say that even a family with absolutely no interest in food would have a good 25 courses.

"But the deal is we usually continue eating that same food till the 13th day of Christmas [Epiphany, January 6], except for New Year's Eve."

And to drink? Mulled wine, of course. But also the Swedish Christmas cocktail, mumma (see below), consisting of dark beer, fortified wine and lemonade, possibly spiced with cardamom and lemon zest, is a favourite with Christmas dinner.

"The way it usually works is we celebrate from St Lucia's Day on December 13 to Christmas Eve, which is when we have our Christmas meal. You spend 10 days just cooking for Christmas, then you eat a big meal on the 24th and usually what happens is around three o'clock in the afternoon, the whole country ceases to function and we all watch the same television show, which is 45 minutes of Donald Duck and Disney movies. It's very strange, but it's been like that since the '60s.

"After that, we start eating - we usually do some mulled wine with Donald Duck and then after that we go for the herrings and fish dishes, the two first servings of the meal, then around six o'clock we take a little break, and you deal with the whole present situation, and then you just continue eating until midnight. Apart from mulled wine and Christmas cocktail, you're drinking beer and aquavit the whole time, too. We don't do Boxing Day, We're just very, very, very hung-over."

The Nordic Cookbook, Magnus Nilsson (Phaidon, $59.95)

Swedish Christmas Cocktail
Mumma

At its simplest and most original, this drink consists of only porter beer, a sweet fortified wine (like Port or Madeira) and a Swedish soft drink called sockerdricka. Today, most recipes for Mumma also contain gin and some of them contain cardamom and citrus flavourings as well. Mumma is a popular drink with Christmas dinner.

Make sure the serving jug, glasses and all the ingredients are ice-cold when you start; it will foam like nothing you have ever seen otherwise.

Prep time 10 minutes
Makes 1 litre

500ml (2 cups plus 1 tbsp) porter beer, chilled
330ml (1 1/3 cups) sockerdricka or another lemonade, chilled
100ml (1/3 cup plus 1 tbsp) sweet Madeira, chilled
50ml (3 ½ tbsp) gin, chilled
1 lemon
Pinch of finely ground cardamom, to serve

Carefully pour all the liquids into a large chilled jug. Grate the lemon zest on top and stir very gently. To serve, pour into chilled serving glasses and add a pinch of cardamom to the foam. It's in no way traditional, but I also like to keep the lemon to hand, so that anyone who wants to can add a squeeze of the juice to their own glass. I think this is delicious.







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