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#AdventCalendar: Why do Swedes eat herring at every single special occasion?

Each day of December up until Christmas Eve, The Local is sharing the story behind a surprising Swedish fact as part of our own Advent calendar.

#AdventCalendar: Why do Swedes eat herring at every single special occasion?
Today we're taking a look at one of Sweden's most enduring food traditions. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

Have you ever wondered about the backstory of one of Sweden's most enduring food traditions?

We're talking about pickled herring (inlagd sill) and its omnipresence at every single special occasion in Sweden.

Sweden's festive feasts usually take the form of a buffet table; the julbord at Christmas, påskbord at Easter, and midsommarbord at Midsummer. Some recipes are seasonal, such as the abundance of eggs at Easter and strawberry cakes that take pride of place at the summer solstice, but there are also the usual suspects that crop up at each and every Swedish holiday.

Meatballs, prinskorvar (small sausages) and smoked salmon normally feature, but the real star of the show without which no buffet is complete is the pickled herring.

Herring are extremely plentiful in the North and Baltic Seas, so they have sustained generations of Swedes, even before Sweden was Sweden. The method of pickling the fish (first salting them, and then putting them in a mix of water, vinegar and seasoning) has been used since the Middle Ages, so that they could be preserved for storage and transported for trade purposes. 

When we say seasoning, it could really be anything. Onion, mustard, garlic, and lingonberries are some of the most common flavourings, but every chef and amateur will have their own favoured recipe, and recent years have seen some more adventurous combinations such as apple and cinnamon herring saffron herring. 


It's the ubiquity of herring that made it a holiday staple, in contrast to the spices now associated with Christmas, which gained importance because of their scarcity that made them a treat reserved for holidays.

Since national holidays like Christmas and Midsummer are typically a chance to take a break from everyday life and find comfort in tradition, people tend to eat similar foods each year, so old-fashioned dishes like pickled herring remain firmly on the menu.

However, Sweden isn't the only place where the fish is a festive must-have, as pickled herring is also among the 12 typical Christmas dishes eaten in Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania. 

Each day until Christmas Eve, The Local is looking at the story behind one surprising fact about Sweden, as agreed by our readers. Find the rest of our Advent Calendar HERE and sign up below to get an email notification when there's a new article.


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The three tasty treats that make spring in Sweden a forager’s dream

Although parts of Sweden are still under snow at this time of year, spring is in full swing here in Skåne in the south of Sweden. Here are The Local's top tips for what you can forage in the great outdoors this season.

The three tasty treats that make spring in Sweden a forager's dream

You might already have your go-to svampställe where you forage mushrooms in autumn, but mushrooms aren’t the only thing you can forage in Sweden. The season for fruits and berries hasn’t quite started yet, but there is a wide range of produce on offer if you know where to look.

Obviously, all of these plants grow in the wild, meaning it’s a good idea to wash them thoroughly before you use them. You should also be respectful of nature and of other would-be foragers when you’re out foraging, and make sure not to take more than your fair share to ensure there’s enough for everyone.

As with all foraged foods, only pick and eat what you know. The plants in this guide do not look similar to any poisonous plants, but it’s always better to be safe than sorry – or ask someone who knows for help.

Additionally, avoid foraging plants close to the roadside or in other areas which could be more polluted. If you haven’t tried any of these plants before, start in small doses to make sure you don’t react negatively to them.

Wild garlic plants in a park in Alnarpsparken, Skåne. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

Wild garlic

These pungent green leaves are just starting to pop up in shady wooded areas, and may even hang around as late as June in some areas. Wild garlic or ramsons, known as ramslök in Swedish, smell strongly of garlic and have wide, flat, pointed leaves which grow low to the ground.

The whole plant is edible: leaves, flowers and the bulbs underground – although try not to harvest too many bulbs or the plants won’t grow back next year.

The leaves have a very strong garlic taste which gets weaker once cooked. Common recipes for wild garlic include pesto and herb butter or herbed oil, but it can generally be used instead of traditional garlic in most recipes. If you’re cooking wild garlic, add it to the dish at the last possible moment so it still retains some flavour.

You can also preserve the flower buds and seed capsules as wild garlic capers, known as ramslökskapris in Swedish, which will then keep for up to a year.

Stinging nettles. Wear gloves when harvesting these to protect yourself from their needles. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

Stinging nettles

Brännässlor or stinging nettles need to be cooked before eating to remove their sting, although blanching them for a couple of seconds in boiling water should do the trick. For the same reason, make sure you wear good gardening gloves when you pick them so you don’t get stung.

Nettles often grow in the same conditions as wild garlic – shady woodlands, and are often regarded as weeds.

The younger leaves are best – they can get stringy and tough as they get older.

A very traditional use for brännässlor in Sweden is nässelsoppa, a bright green soup made from blanched nettles, often topped with a boiled or poached egg.

Some Swedes may also remember eating stuvade nässlor with salmon around Easter, where the nettles are cooked with cream, butter and milk. If you can’t get hold of nettles, they can be replaced with spinach for a similar result.

You can also dry nettles and use them to make tea, or use blanched nettles to make nettle pesto.

Kirskål or ground elder, another popular foraged green for this time of year.
Photo: Jessica Gow/TT

Ground elder

Ground elder is known as kirskål in Swedish, and can be used much in the same way as spinach. It also grows in shady areas, and is an invasive species, meaning that you shouldn’t be too worried about foraging too much of it (you might even find some in your garden!).

It is quite common in parks and old gardens, but can also be found in wooded areas. The stems and older leaves can be bitter, so try to focus on foraging the tender, younger leaves.

Ground elder has been cultivated in Sweden since at least 500BC, and has been historically used as a medicinal herb and as a vegetable. This is one of the reasons it can be found in old gardens near Swedish castles or country homes, as it was grown for use in cooking.

Kirskål is available from March to September, although it is best eaten earlier in the season.

As mentioned, ground elder can replace spinach in many recipes – you could also use it for pesto, in a quiche or salad, or to make ground elder soup.