Monday, 18 May 2009

Syttende mai (17th May)

some of the loot I raided at the Scandi Kitchen

Last week I emailed a few friends inviting them round for a 'Syttende mai', or 17th May brunch at my Bloomsbury digs

To the uninitiated, I explained 17th May is Norway's Independence Day and joked that we'd be celebrating both Norway's independence (from Sweden? Denmark? who knows...) and, I quote, "Norway's victory in this years' Eurovision" - a contest that curiously enough Norwegians get quite excited about. Almost as excited as the winter Olympics when tall, strapping 'Weegie men and women win everything except the bobsleigh and that stupid game the Scots are so fond of

What can I say, it's a small country. There's moose, whale hunting and the singing of folk songs on dark winter nights to keep us occupied, but really what we secretly hanker for is glory on the world stage, even if it is a ghastly Euro song contest defined by truly appalling songs, louche dancing and twee choreography. Norwegians' love of Eurovision is a real litmus test - I reckon one of the main reasons I emigrated from this otherwise charming arctic country ten years ago was to escape the banality of small-country jingoism

But I digress. Lo and behold, Norway won the battle of the Euro warbling on Saturday night with a mono-browed kid fashioning himself as Peer Gynt, singing about fairy tales

And now the whole country's gone bananas

So yesterday my mates and I spent a happy few hours - actually we spent a happy eight hours - musing about the silliness of Eurovision, cringing at the songs we tracked down on YouTube and excavating songs from Eurovisions gone by. In sum, we got a little carried away despite professing a dislike of this terrible song contest. France's entry from last year, incidentally, is very very funny.

We also discussed the aphrodisiacal qualities of umami, but that is another story
Of course what we were congregating for was the food. And the bloody marys. I'll start with the food and get to the bloody marys...

Peter's Yard Crispbread, my new favourite 'knekkebroed'

In true Scandi style, I put on a smorgasbord for 'syttende mai'. In less Scandi-style, or at least Bergen-style where my Dad's from, I didn't invite everyone round for a 7am breakfast as we did when I was growing up in Norway. That would be why the Bergenese refer to themselves as the "last of the Vikings", they start drinking Aquavit at 7am

We kicked off not with Aquavit, but with a platter of crispbread snacks topped with 'kaviar' from a tube, a slice of hard-boiled egg and dill. Simple, frugal and delicious if I say so myself. The sourdough crispbread from Peter's Yard makes a great base for strong flavours such as the kaviar,and is seriously addictive - I get through wheels of the stuff in one sitting it's so moreish. If you're thinking, "eew, crispbread" think again, this isn't fibrous or dry like Ryvita, or even authentic Swedish brands which can be quite tough on the mouth and tummy. Nope, this is the real deal - handcrafted, full of flavour and not in the least bit dry or fibrous, thus making an ideal base for a snack to whet the appetite. You can find smaller packs of it in La Fromagerie and from the end of May, large tins like the one above in Fortnum & Mason

The kaviar, which you can see in the first photo above, is a divisive food - it's creamy and has a sweet and salty taste that we Scandis are fond of, which is admittedly not to everyone's taste, but with some egg and dill it seemed to go down a treat. Though I did receive a few bemused looks when I mentioned it was from a tube. Snooty Brits, don't you know there's a recession on?!

Anyway we sat down to an array of pickled herrings, some tasty trout and cured salmon - you might be able to detect a pinkish hue in the salmon below, that's a Russian beetroot cure. Adding to this aquatic Nordic feast were 'Abba' sweet and salty anchovies, which you can see in the photo above - again, not sexy food, but for me replete with nostalgia as it was my first solid food. My Dad always had toast with anchovies and a soft-boiled egg for breakfast, and claims as a toddler I once climbed up on his lap and gobbled up his breakfast in one fell swoop. So Mama J from that day onwards made two plates of anchovy and egg toast at breakfast, one for Dad, one for me. To this day anchovy and egg on toast is resonant of a happy childhood and a real litmus test of friendship - any friend who tries it and concurs with me that it's delicious is a true friend for life.

But back to the smorgasbord. Aside from herrings, salmon, anchovies and trout there was mackerel in tomato, another divisive food, but I added some Turnham Green ketchup to soften the blow for the mackerel-phobic and everyone hoovered it up. A little embellishment goes a long way with the fish-phobic I find.

With all that cured and pickled umamilicious fish I made a simple potato salad accompaniment with a sauce based on creme fraiche, trusty Heinz salad cream and given extra zinginess with Pommery mustard, lots of chopped spring onion and sprigs of dill. Perfect with the fish. Some side dishes of beetroot, gherkins, and plenty of wholemeal sourdough bread rounded off the smorgasbord, which we washed down with beer, white wine and - for the sensible few - pomegranate cordial. No Aquavit in sight, thankfully, the stuff is lethal

it was a dark, gloomy Sunday outside, at least it didn't snow

After scoffing with abandon we moved on to coffee and cake, another Scandi tradition taken very seriously in Norway. It's just not 17th May if you haven't consumed at least a few slices of cake and pastry, and ideally a few scoops of ice cream for good measure. I made a simple chocolate almond cake with no wheat as one of my pals is gluten-intolerant, and before I had a chance to snap it with my Finepix we demolished it. No time unfortunately for making ice cream this year

To complete the nostalgiafest however, I made a classic cinnamon bun cake, for which you can find the recipe on this blog (entry 16.11.08). If you look carefully in the first photo above there is a small yellow cube with 'Kron Jast" on it - this is a fabulous Swedish fresh yeast available at the Scandi Kitchen and I now use it for all my yeast baking. It imparts a much more discrete yeast flavour than dried yeast, and produces a really vibrant, springy dough. The cinnamon bun recipe's from Trina Hahnemann's Scandinavian Cookbook and is one of the most reliable cinnamon bun recipes in existence, I've tried many over the years and this one is most bona fide one yet. Without fail the buns come out perfect - fluffy and full of flavour - a mix of subtle cardamom in the dough and pungent cinnamon butter laced through the buns. Instead of making individual buns I placed the cut slices in a cake tin and baked them as a cake so that in the spirit of commensality everyone could commune over the cake by tearing off a bun. Predictably my polite British friends used a knife to cut slices, rather than tear the cake, to which I shall refrain from making any negative comment.

the breaking of buns

Eventually after copious cups of coffee, some more wine, and a bottle of prosecco we capped off the bruncheon with a pitcher of bloody marys. Somehow this seemed sensible at the time, but as I write my 'Syttende mai' entry I'm reminded of why we don't gather for Sunday brunch more often - the subsequent hangover's a persistent one. Suffice to say, there's no vodka left, we used an inordinate amount of tabasco, horseradish and worcester sauce and that was the end of our brunch, we might as well have drunk Aquavit! Everyone shuffled home at 7pm, with goofy grins on their faces reminiscent of the kid who won Saturday's Eurovision, and after cleaning up I tumbled straight into bed to read the remainder of this weekend's FT

So there you have it, a happy 17th of May was had by all ;)

I'm imposing a strict regimen for 10 days while revising for final exams next week, so there'll be less of the eight-hour brunches, more of the the dude below. A reprise of Sunday's bruncheon shall have to wait til June, as will the baking. Until then, that's all folks!

p.s. in case you're wondering, the first photo also features a small black box of liquorice known as...'spunk'


Miss Whistle said...

Ah, Kaviar, food of the Gods!

Love your blog,

-- MissW

Multe Music said...

You should really try making Bloody Marys with akavit. The caraway in the akavit really compliments the drink. Then add a pickeled asparagus spear. Perfect!! It's the best! And that's what we had for our Syttende Mai brunch in the States.

Signe said...

Thanks Miss Whistle, am so glad I have a fellow Mills Kaviar fan out there. Made a sandwich with it yesterday, actually on caraway rye bread you'll be pleased to hear Multe Music. Topped with a boiled egg you can't ask for a tastier lunch.

Thanks for the tip Multe Music about adding Akevitt to a bloody mary, that's a brilliant idea as it's so totally disgusting on its own. That stuff really grows hair on your chest if you drink it neat.

Pickled asparagus spear as a BM garnish? Intriguing. I'm averse to the celery stick and usually slice a long piece of cucumber but shall try asparagus. Imagine a freshly cooked asparagus spear would also do the trick...

The Larder Lout said...

Fish-phobia - such an extraordinary concept. My flatmate Sam (who you met) has always claimed to hate fish, yet every time I have seen him eat it he has enjoyed it. I think he finds it too embarrassing to admit he lied all along, so every time he says: "I usually hate fish but this is great". Strange people, this supposedly anti-fish brigade.
Loving the Scandi feast vibe...will have to go back to my maternal grandmother's roots (a Norwegian through and through) and get stuck in to some Kaviar. Nice.

Signe said...

Agree w/you James, fish-phobia's odd. I find fish-phobics tend to dislike fish because they've had a bad experience in their formative years with either a dodgy piece that's gone off or eaten something that's been cooked to oblivion. It's easy to love fish if you grew up in a country where it's available fresh from the sea, which is why it's puzzling this country doesn't have a 'fish-culture' the way Scandis do...

When you move to London you'll have to come round for a Scandi kaviar and anchovy fest James ;)

Good luck w/exams - when are you finished?

Anonymous said...

Mmmm toast,anchovies and boiled eggs, sounds like a dreamy combo. Will definitely be trying that one! Must try the crispbread too, sounds lush.

Signe said...

Definitely try it Rejina, though I'd recommend Abba anchovies (of course I would!) rather than Italian or Spanish style ones as Mediterranean ones can be v.salty. Abba's are in a sweet and salty brine which really goes well with egg, and the Peter's Yard crispbread is a perfect base for all this umami-goodness ;)