From brännvinsbord

to smörgåsbord

Published in the book SMÖRGÅSBORD 2010


By Donald Boström

Sweden’s world-famous smörgåsbord began life in the 16th century as a drinks table, a brännvinsbord, set with small goodies to keep the wolf from the door till dinner was served. Invited guests arriving by horse and carriage would step into the parlour and help themselves to the spirits and the cold dishes. Standing, or seated plate-on-knee, they might talk for hours until the last guests had arrived and the meal proper could begin. Today the smörgåsbord is a worldwide success, but the road from brännvinsbord to Smörgåsbord has been both long and devious.

For several centuries the smörgåsbord was an institution among the well-to-do, but it has also had its detractors. It was not until Tore Wretman, that legendary maître de cuisine, addressed the subject in the middle of the last century that the smörgåsbord became a national institution in Sweden. Today it has both refinement and the common touch and, above all, is quintessentially Swedish.

The 16th century brännvinsbord consisted of bread and butter, cheese, fish, meat and snaps and was always served cold, straight from the larder, often with local and seasonal variations.

 Simultaneously with Gustav Vasa, Tycho Brahe, Martin Luther and the Reformation, Sweden was afflicted by war, famine and pestilence. Many farmsteads up and down the country were so badly hit that they were granted tax exemption. During those turbulent times a new kind of table – the brännvinsbord – evolved which included several dishes.

 Having several dishes at once was a perfectly natural arrangement, not least in Swedish agrarian society, where nothing was wasted. At slaughtering time, chops and filets were not the only products taken care of. The animal’s head was turned into brawn and its blood was literally used to the last drop. This resulted in a number and variety of dishes to put on the table. Sweden was not alone in this practice of serving several small dishes. Russia has a counterpart called zakuski, and the luxurious gorging of the Romans evolved into an Italian tradition of small dishes which in turn is presumed to have spawned the tapas of Spain. Denmark has had det kolde bord since the 16th century, often associated with weddings and major festive occasions and having snaps and pork as its mainstay. In the Eastern Mediterranean and Lebanon they call it meze.

Sweden’s brännvinsbord changed very little for a number of centuries, but then in the 19th century came a technical invention which changed the course of culinary history, namely the iron stove. The step from an open fire to hotplates and oven dramatically transformed the art of cooking and spurred the development of the smörgåsbord. With

open fires, cooking had mostly meant boiling. The iron stove had plates and an oven, which meant that food could now be fried, roasted or baked and cooked in completely new ways. The smörgåsbord has never looked back since.

The meatball, a classic of the smörgåsbord, was made possible by the introduction of the mincer, during the mid-19th century. Meat could now be minced instead of just scraped into little pieces. For centuries, food had been dried, salted down, pickled and marinated. Now, with the stove and the mincer, the foundations were laid of our classical Swedish flavours and the Swedish smörgåsbord.

An important factor in the transition from brännvinsbord to classical smörgåsbord was a growth in the number of dishes on the table and the introduction of hot ones. Towards the end of the 19th century, more genteel eating establishments appeared on the Swedish scene. Luxury restaurants, hostelries and railway restaurants provided the

smörgåsbord, which in this way became familiar to growing numbers of people. The smörgåsbord blossomed forth in its full splendour towards the end of the 19th century, but it also had its detractors. Young people thought it was strictly for wealthy, fat old men.

But the smörgåsbord survived the assaults of the knuts (grilljanne in Swedish), very much due to its becoming established as a Christmas table. 1919 is a historic year for the smörgåsbord. That year, for the first time ever, the Swedish Academy mentioned the word julbord (Christmas table), and the smörgåsbord had arrived, once and for all.

In 1912, the year of the Stockholm Olympics, restaurants went, so to speak, the whole hog, offering the smörgåsbord as main course “with nothing to follow”.

The smörgåsbord hit the international scene at the New York World’s Fair in 1939, when it was presented in the Swedish pavilion and became one of two Swedish words to have been globally exported, the other one being ombudsman. ’

It was Tore Wretman who effectively introduced the smörgåsbord into Sweden’s welfare state. From his base at the Operakällaren restaurant he made it internationally renowned. Tore Wretman’s inspiration came from France, and for the first time the smörgåsbord was now structured. Whereas previously the different dishes had been put out more or less at random, Tore Wretman took the view that the food should be relished in a particular sequence, and accordingly he created five rounds.

The first round contained herring, Baltic herring and cheese, while other fish like salmon and eel came in the second round. The third round contained cold meats like liver paste and brawn, while the fourth featured small hot dishes like meatballs and Jansson’s Temptation. The fifth and last round consisted of desserts like Maltese rice, apple tart, punch tart and fruit salad.

Following on from where Tore Wretman left off, Gert Klötzke and Niclas Wahlström are carefully modernising the classic Swedish smörgåsbord with an additional three new rounds and new recipes. The fifth round, which was dessert, now becomes the green round, with vegetarian dishes. The sixth round is devoted entirely to cheese and the

desserts, now with confectionery added, do not come until the seventh. The eighth and final round consists of coffee, cakes and biscuits. Compose your rounds carefully, don’t mix the flavours, and allow yourself plenty of time to savour and enjoy.