Strange foods, and how to find them

Sweden may be a mecca of sorts when it comes to yogurt but try finding a simple potato waffle and you will be sorely disappointed, writes obdurate blow-in moaner Paddy Kelly in his latest petulant sideswipe at the bosom that feeds.

Strange foods, and how to find them

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.

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OPINION: Sweden’s incredible disappearing climate election 

The campaign so far suggests that Sweden's image as a paragon of virtue on the environment might be at risk, says David Crouch

OPINION: Sweden’s incredible disappearing climate election 

Four years ago next month, a 15-year-old girl sat down on the cobblestones outside parliament in central Stockholm. She refused to go to school until Sweden’s general election that September, to draw attention to the climate crisis.

July 2018 had been the hottest in Sweden since records began 262 years ago, and forest fires had ravaged large parts of the countryside. Greta Thunberg’s school strike gave voice to a pent-up feeling that something must be done to curb global warming.

Within months, she had become one of the world’s best-known figures in the climate debate, leading mass protests for immediate and radical action. 

But this Friday, July 1, Thunberg was back on the cobbles outside parliament with just four supporters, repeating her message of 2018. She might be tempted to ask, after all her campaigning: why doesn’t the climate have a higher profile in this year’s Swedish elections? 

There is every reason for it to do so. According to the latest report from the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change, the world has “a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future”. Some damage was already irreversible and ecosystems were reaching the limits of their ability to cope. Their findings were an “atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership,” said UN secretary-general António Guterres. 

Sweden’s self-image as a leader on green issues is undermined by recent slippage, delay and prevarication. In 2017, left and right came together to agree that the country should become “the world’s first fossil-free welfare state”, with zero carbon emissions by 2045 and negative ones thereafter. Sweden became the first nation to enshrine this target in law. However, the country is not on target to achieve this goal. In its latest assessment, the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency said more measures would be necessary to prevent progress from slipping further behind on its climate transformation. 

As for other environmental targets that the country committed to achieve by 2020, 15 out of the 16 goals have not been reached. Growth, prosperity and consumption are taking precedence over the environment, researcher Katarina Eckerberg told Dagens Nyheter: “It’s the elephant in the room. No one dares to tell the truth, we are [just] trying to polish the surface a bit.” 

At the party-political level, climate policy seems to have stalled. Since Magdalena Andersson took office in the autumn, the “climate collegium” (klimatkollegium), set up in 2020 as a place for ministers to discuss essential climate initiatives, has not met. Party leaders debated energy and climate in public in early May, but the focus was on the hit to citizens’ pockets caused by rising fuel prices, with left and right united on lowering taxes. What we do for the climate in Sweden won’t bring down the temperature in India, said Sweden Democrat leader Jimmie Åkesson, whose party rejects the 2045 zero-carbon target. The Green Party, who left the government in November, has seen its ratings sink steadily lower in the polls. 

Sweden’s greenhouse gas emissions actually increased by 4% in 2021 – partly because the economy bounced back after Covid, but still a worrying trend. Almost 80% of wind power projects in the country were vetoed by local municipalities, as the kommuner increasingly say no to wind power, putting a spoke in the wheels of Sweden’s green transformation.

This all adds up to climate taking a back seat so far in this year’s general election campaign. This is in sharp contrast to Norway’s “climate election” last autumn, which saw the country’s reliance on oil come in for sharp criticism and success for parties campaigning on green issues. The climate dominated the campaigning in Norway after the IPCC published a “code red” warning on the climate. For Germans also deciding whom to vote for last September, alarming events at home and abroad drove home the urgency of the climate crisis, with deadly heat waves, wildfires and devastating floods that left more the 200 dead.

More recently, the Australian election in May became essentially a climate election, with the victorious centre-left putting climate change and environmental policy firmly back on the agenda. Closer to home, a feature of elections in Denmark and Finland in 2019 was that the climate also enjoyed a profile higher than ever before.

Meanwhile, however, the world seems to be going backwards on the climate. This week, the US Supreme Court ruled that the country’s main environmental regulator has no power to limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. Thanks to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, demand for coal has shot up. Just months after the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, there is a backlash in business circles against so-called “woke capitalism”, with the idea of environmental investment coming under attack from populist politicians and financiers.

Swedes themselves are consistently well-informed and concerned about the environment. The environment and climate are around fifth on the list of voters’ main concerns, after crime, health, schools and inflation. Immigration and refugee issues, which have long dominated the Swedish debate, are in sixth place, while defence and security – despite the debate over Nato – are down in seventh place, according to an Ipsos poll in June.

But at the polling booth, when it comes to casting their vote, it seems that most Swedes have little faith that political parties will make much difference. Despite the fact that the climate had such a high profile in 2018, the issue did not even end up among the top 10 reasons for choosing a party to vote for, according to polling station surveys commissioned by SVT. Instead, voters feel this is a global problem rather than a Swedish one. “It wouldn’t matter if every Swede held their breath so as not to emit a single molecule more of carbon dioxide – progress would still be negative,” the head of polling company Novus told Svensk Dagbladet last month.

So Sweden seems set to continue to make slow but unspectacular – and even disappointing – progress on the climate in coming years. It would be a shame if the country, with its solid record on the environment and its fondness for grand declarations about the future, were to become a byword for greenwashing rather than a beacon for a better world. Greta and her supporters have work to do here at home.

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.