Our last stop in Sweden was three nights at the mountain home of our friends Shideh & Lars (last seen in Hong Kong). Shideh, you may recall, was one of Mark’s childhood pen pals back when they had pen pals; they’ve reconnected as adults and she’s become one of our best friends. Lars is an art historian who specialized in running museums. His most recent gig was launching a major new modern art museum in Hong Kong funded by the municipal government there but, reflecting the challenges of working in such a bureaucratic environment he’s now in semi-retirement back in his native Sweden.So part of this summer was planned around visiting them in the house Shideh – an architect, besides being a great friend – designed up in Edsåsdalen, a tiny town up in the mountains several hours north of Stockholm. The house was supposed to be just a holiday retreat while they lived primarily in Stockholm. Instead, after trying it out, they discovered they love the peacefulness up there and now live there most of the year.
This is, by a fair margin, the furthest north we have been on this adventure, north even of the various stops we made on the Trans-Siberian Railroad four-plus years ago. To put it in context, it is only slightly south of Fairbanks, AK. So we were way up there.
The area is primarily known as being a ski area and there are, allegedly, nice mountains in the area. Unfortunately the three days we were there, though, were dark, cloudy, cool, rainy days and we couldn’t see the mountains a bit. Since Shideh and Lars are friends, though, we had to accept their word that there are mountains around. Their house, in fact, is almost directly under one chairlift that, in the winter, ferries people up the slopes for skiing. And despite the latitude and the accompanying cold weather, they say they love it most in the winter when they can ski, both downhill and cross-country, to their hearts’ content.
What did we do for three days up in the mountains? Well, notwithstanding a calendar that said mid-August, the weather wasn’t notably cooperative; it was overcast and often raining, with temperatures typically in the high 40s or low 50s. So we spent more time just sitting around the house chatting than perhaps we otherwise would. And that’s not a bad thing; Lars and Shideh and seriously interesting people. Of course hanging around the house also means eating plenty. From pancakes to local walleye, and paella to rhubarb crumble, along with plenty of wine and some serious Negronis, it was a feast. I’ll spend a few weeks getting the pounds back off.
Despite the less-than-ideal weather, we did a couple nice hikes too. One was up the mountain from their house on a trail through some remarkable fields and forests where we discovered cloudberries, a wonderful Northland berry that I’d never heard of before. The next day, with a forecast even more ominous, we hiked down to a beautiful lake. Apparently if you live in an area like that you don’t let the prospect of a little rain slow you down, particularly when you have all the gear you need to stay reasonably dry. And then there was the afternoon jaunt to Åre, the “big” ski resort town (population 1,417) about 12 miles away where I found a nice pair of hiking shoes. That’s the sort of souvenir I can appreciate.
The big event, though, was the annual opening of “surströmming”, a fermented herring that translates as “sour herring” though we thought of it more as rotten herring. As explained by Wikipedia, “just enough salt is used to prevent the raw herring from rotting.” Call me skeptical that they actually use that much salt. In fact, Wikipedia adds, “According to a Japanese study, a newly opened can of surströmming has one of the most putrid food smells in the world…” OK, after our experience, I can attest to that.
And what’s with the “annual opening”? Back in the 1940s, to prevent surströmming from being sold too early – presumably before it was fully rotten – the Swedish government passed a law forbidding its sale before the third Wednesday in August. And while the law is no longer on the books (even nanny-state Sweden has its limits), people still treat that third Wednesday as the official launch. So the little town of Edsåsdalen hosts a party the following weekend to celebrate and share this little delicacy. And, with Lars & Shideh, we were invited.
First, though, we had pre-dinner gin-and-tonics with Sven-Olaf and Renate, Edsåsdalen’s first couple. Sven-Olaf, you see, is a fifth-generation local whose great-great grandparents were some of the area’s first non-native settlers. His family once owned most of the land in the area, including the land on which Lars and Shideh’s house now stands, along with the one inn and pretty much everything else around. Their pre-dinner soiree included smoked moose and turn-of-the-(last) century paper napkins that had belonged to Sven-Olaf’s grandmother.
Then it was off to dinner in a little cabin (on land that Sven-Olaf and Renate own, of course) that functions as the town’s community center. As we walked up the steps to the cabin the smell was simply overpowering; it was all I could do to not gag. And that was outside still. Once inside the 30-or-so people already there were already chowing down. In that sense it was a strange kind of potluck. The several families all brought various dishes, as in potlucks I’m familiar with, but people didn’t really share their dishes. If you’re family brought a particular dish to go with the surströmming, you ate that dish. And, in a move that felt very much at home to this Minnesotan who grew up amidst a large Scandinavian population, when we got there at 7:05 people were already well into their meals. The event had, after all, been scheduled to start at 7:00. None of this “fashionably late” stuff going on here.
How was the surströmming? I can’t tell you, actually; I just couldn’t get over that smell. Mark was more adventurous, though, and said it was … OK. You eat it with potato and chopped onion and bread, so the taste is reasonably hidden. I should add that I wasn’t the only one who resisted the temptation. While Lars claims to genuinely like the stuff, Renate herself – a native German – gently declined to join. Fortunately even among surströmming aficionados, it’s only a small part of the full meal and there were lots of other great dishes – including a cloudberry cake Shideh made – to fill us up. Along with plenty of Aquavit (the local Scandinavian distilled drink) to wash it all down with.
Thus ends our time in the mountain house and our visit with Shideh & Lars. It was pretty much a perfect visit despite the weather. All that’s left is a quick overnight stop in Stockholm and then we’re off to the former Yugoslavia for a few weeks to explore more of the world we still haven’t seen. After four-plus years on the road it’s a little surprising just how much of it there still is!