Food and snaps in


Published in the book SMÖRGÅSBORD 2010


By Donald Boström

How is harmony created between the food we eat and the drink served with it? The idea is for the combination of food and drink to heighten the total experience of the moment at the table. Harmony of flavour depends on the drink not drowning the flavours of the food but bringing them out, and vice versa.

Taste is a personal thing – you are the only one who can decide what you like eating and drinking. There is no right or wrong of taste to which the personal experience of taste is subordinate, but the theory of taste formulated by Tim Hanni in the USA at the beginning of the 1990s has proved to work with the overwhelming majority of people. He starts with the five basic tastes which are statistically verifiable, at least sufficiently to convey a credible picture of how tastes function in different combinations.

The five basic tastes we can distinguish are sweet, sour, salt, bitter and umami. Umami is a relative newcomer in this connection, and its recognition as a “genuine” basic taste remains a moot point. The basic tastes are captured at different points in the mouth and on the tongue. Sweetness is best felt on the tip of the tongue, salt on the sides at the front of the tongue, sourness further back along the sides of the tongue and bitterness at the very rear. The hundreds of other aromas which we experience as taste are actually fragrances, as is confirmed by the classic test of holding one’s nose while sampling a mixture of sugar and cinnamon. When we cannot smell the fragrance, the

basic sweet taste is all we perceive of the mixture. If on the other hand we let go of our noses, the cinnamon aroma becomes clearly noticeable. When combining food and drink one has to take into account, not only the basic tastes but also the flavour strength and spiciness of the food. Put simply, the rule is mild drinks with mild food and tasty drinks with tasty food, so that there will be no risk of either of them getting the upper hand.

• Sweetness in food reduces the experience of sweetness in drink.

• Salt reduces all other taste sensations, making the sweet less sweet, the astringent less astringent. Salt neutralities the bitter and sour. ‘

• Sourness is the antithesis of sweetness, and the two are often balanced in food and drink. Sourness in food intensifies the experience of sweetness in drink.

• Bitterness accentuates bitterness and pungency.

• Umami, quite tellingly, is Japanese for “delicate” or “tasty”, it is semi-sweet and is present, for example, in crab, and king scallop, certain vegetables and fungi. Umami heightens sensitivity to bitterness while salinity softens the effect of umami.

The typical Swedish tastes which we find on the smörgåsbord are sweet-and-sour and three of our basic tastes: sweet, sour and salt. The historical roots of our Swedish tastes are easy to see: before the refrigerator was invented, people pickled, marinated, salted and dried food to make it more durable. Swedish pickling – gravning – it will be remembered, is done with salt and sugar, and herring is pickled in sour distilled vinegar (ättika). These are typically Swedish, or rather, typically Nordic tastes.


Spiced snaps occupies a strong position on the smörgåsbord. It came originally from the monasteries of Europe, as a medicine for the Black Death, among other things, in the 14th century. Gradually people began drinking it for its flavour, together with pickled, marinated, salted and dried food. One reason for the popularity of spiced snaps at the smörgåsbord is that it does not contain any of the basic tastes sour, salt or sweet, thus eliminating the risk of taste collisions and giving snaps a wide range of applications – unlike wine, for example. In addition, the caraway, dill, aniseed, fennel and coriander flavouring of snaps makes for a brilliant partnership with the flavourings of the smörgåsbord. Moreover, the alcohol has taste-reinforcing properties which release the aromas in the same way as fat and sugar used in cooking. And it is actually true that spirits break down fats, which comes in handy when negotiating the eight rounds of the smörgåsbord. Both the snaps in itself and its spices facilitate digestion of these groaning buffets. Considerations of taste are in fact the very reason why we have chosen to gear this book to the eight rounds of the smörgåsbord. From round one with its herring, Baltic herring and eggs, to round eight with its coffee, biscuits and confectionery. One round is followed by the next, piloting the tastes onwards without any fear of collisions.