The strangest thing when changing country of residence is not the new language, nor the temperamental weather, nor on which side of an escalator one should stand in order not to annoy the natives. No, the biggest smack in the face is undoubtedly the food, and nothing can make an expat experience that grinding churn of homesick misery like a casual wander through the aisles of the local supermarket.
Moving to Sweden is not like moving to Mars or to Narnia; it is still basically western Europe and all of the familiar foods are present, many of them with the same packaging and often with the names in English. But despite this, many surprises are in store.
Take yogurt. The Swedes are very fond of yogurt. Never before in fact have I seen such an array of yogurt and yogurt-like products offered in the average supermarket. The Irish also like a bit of yogurt but there tends to be only two types in Irish shops: yogurt loaded with sugar that is marketed at kids; and yogurt loaded with sugar that is marketed at adults. The Swedes take yogurt to a whole other level, a swirling cornucopia of yogurtness the likes of which the world has never seen. If you want yogurt, or something even remotely like yogurt, then you’ve undoubtedly come to the right place.
But elsewhere things are a little greyer. Consider, for example, potato waffles, those chirpy, crispy, processed-to-within-an-inch-of-their-lives potato squares that are ideal for breakfast, dinner or random snacking. These are truly the kings of quick-and-dirty cuisine and can be prepared using nothing more than a toaster. Yes, you heard me, a toaster!
And they are not available in Sweden at all. Anywhere. Ever.
At this stage I would normally launch into a rant about salt and vinegar crisps not being available in Sweden either, except for the fact that, right now, after years of absence, they are indeed available. I don’t however expect this state of affairs to last very long, so as soon as they are pulled again in favour of crisps with troubling names like “Sourcream and Dill” or “Pistachio and Hermit” you can be sure that you will hear some irritated squeaking coming from my general direction.
But it’s not just in the shops where the foods can confuse. Outside in the real world one occasionally comes across items that appear to be identical to food in the old country, but cruelly aren’t. A case in point is fish and chips. Many of the bars in Stockholm offer fish and chips on their menus, but what you get is not actually fish and chips at all. It is similar, I grant you, and the dish contains the same basic ingredients, but in some strange way it is just all wrong.
It’s like in a B-movie where you wake up to find your whole town has been subtly changed but you can’t quite put your finger on how or why, until the inhabitants start peeling off their faces to reveal their big shiny bug-eyes and chase you across fields of towering corn at a lively stagger, arms outstretched and fingers twitching.
These fish and chips pretenders are simply not the real deal. The chips are the wrong shape, as well as the wrong texture, all crisp and perky and thin instead of fat-soaked and limp and juicy. The fish isn’t quite right either – in place of a great slab of succulent flesh wrapped in a multidimensional layer of batter, you get a small fillet or two with a neat bread-crumbed surface or a light coating of batter substitute. It’s all very tidy and polite but not at all fish and chips as they should be.
It strikes me as odd that a country like Sweden, obsessed as it is with both fish and potatoes, could not find the customers to keep a single traditional fish and chip shop going. But I guess it’s just not their thing. I wouldn’t either trust my native Irish culture with the preparation of a nice bit of sill or a plate of saffron buns, and you can still encounter the belief that coffee is just an odd flavour of tea and should be prepared and served in a similar fashion, at a similar strength, and sometimes even in a similar teapot.
And then there’s the Guinness. Although the old black and white can be found at most bars in Stockholm these days, not many of them really understand how it should be served. There are depressingly many bars where the Guinness is pulled in a single draught and presented to the customer as-is, with a head deep enough to drown a leprechaun. This is just shockingly wrong.
One would think that a bar serving Guinness would put aside the ten minutes required to teach the staff how to pull it properly. It isn’t difficult. Here, look, I can do it in a single paragraph, without even drawing breath:
Tilt the glass at a slight angle and fill it 2/3s of the way to the top. Allow it to sit for 2 minutes. Fill the rest of the pint with the glass sitting level, pushing back on the pump for the last few seconds. And there it is, the perfect pint.
And so, with a good pint of the black and white at hand when one needs it, life in Stockholm is almost perfect. Now if only there were some crispy potato waffles to have with the pint then I would be a very happy camper indeed.
Paddy’s Tips: There are indeed places in Stockholm where one can experience the dubious joy of English/Irish comestibles. Try the legendary English Shop at Söderhallarna where you can get hold of, among many other things, two kinds of suet. Or there is the excellent Taylors and Jones on Hantverkargatan 12 for all your spicy, meaty, crusty needs. As for excellent Guinness, I have it on good authority that Bronco’s basement, at Tegnérgatan 16, is great and I can personally attest to the fact that Pub Anchor around the corner on Sveavägen 90 is no slouch either.
If you want to hear more from Paddy, be sure to visit his world-ignored blog which can be found here. And it’s a pretty good bet that he’s complaining about something.