Diana Henry’s three-course Scandinavian menu for Midsommar
It’s not hard to see why Scandinavians celebrate light. I’ve been to northern Norway and Sweden in the middle of winter and it’s hard to say how dark it is. The darkness is thick; you feel like you could fall into it.
At first, you have to fight the feeling that you should go back to bed. You feel the day is over. Motivation is difficult unless you are used to it. Scandinavians handle darkness well. They are pragmatic. More candles are sold in Scandinavia than anywhere else. Candlelight pools dot window sills, cafes, and kitchen tables.
Summer days, especially the longest ones, are when Scandinavians seem to drink in enough light to get through the rest of the year. Around midsummer there is almost a dizziness in the air, a drunkenness, a feeling that the light will never end. I spent a summer on a small Swedish island. It was one of those “pinch me” experiences.
I met a chef who used to go there every summer and invited me. His brother picked us up in his shiny wooden boat – it was like the water taxis you see in Venice – and half an hour later we were swimming in the Baltic, a brackish sea that seems beautifully clear, thicker than the Atlantic or the Mediterranean. We were the only ones there; it was a small island with a wooden house, so no one erected a mast.
The traditional Swedish flagpole is 20 feet tall with two hoops at the top. It is the focal point of the Saint-Jean celebrations because everyone dances around it, even the most reluctant. Flowers, greenery and berries are in the center. The girls spend the afternoon making flower crowns for their hair, the children string daisies and make necklaces of tiny strawberries.
On our island, the focus was on food. We set up a table on the pier and picked up juniper – it was everywhere on the island – on which to cook the fish. At 10pm we sat down for pickled herring, radishes, cucumber and dark rye bread. Next came the salmon, tiny potatoes mixed with dill and butter, sour cream and boiled beets that were hastily peeled on the table.
None of this was grand. The salmon was cooked on an old barbecue, the warm beets were brought to the table in a pan. It was one of the most memorable meals I have ever had and the light was intoxicating. It looked like the sun was going to set, but it never really happened. In the middle of the night, I walked around looking at pictures on the walls of the house, had a cup of coffee on the pier and felt elated.
If you think it’s worth marking special days with food – I think so – midsummer is a good excuse, even if it’s not traditional here. We also have dark days ahead of us, although they are not as long. The summer solstice is not celebrated on the same day, even across Scandinavia, so choose any day around June 24.
What you cook is up to you, as long as it’s summery, but this menu is special. Langoustines are expensive but you only need three per person. Smaller prawns – already cooked – with mayonnaise are a good alternative, and you can buy jars of herring in different sauces – the Swedes buy them – and add the foods mentioned above.
If you don’t like herring, you can cook salmon – the buttermilk vinaigrette on the back can be served with it – but herring is cheap and a change. Add the cooked beetroot, cut into cubes, drizzled with vinaigrette and red onion. Berries are non-negotiable. Put flowers in jam jars, string garlands and light all the candles you can get your hands on. Happy Midsommar.
Langoustines with mayonnaise
Crayfish, widely eaten in Sweden, aren’t easy to get here, but we have fantastic langoustines (also known as Dublin Bay prawns). There are about 25 langoustines in 1.5 kg, which is generous (and filling) for six people.
In restaurants you normally have three per person, so you can buy less. They’re not cheap, but it’s a special occasion and you can make a huge pot of rich shellfish broth with the shells thrown in. I bought mine from Keltic Seafare, based in Scotland.
Bring napkins, tea towels to use as bibs, and plenty of paper towels. It’s a messy business.