Monday, December 19, 2011

Darkness

There’s a crucial aspect of Sweden’s geography that I’m starting to realize very few people back in the States grasp.

Although, considering that on visits back more than two old acquaintances have asked, “How’s Switzerland?” maybe I’m expecting too much? I digress.

Sweden has extremely high northern latitude. Our town, which is in the southern third of the country, is virtually the same latitude as Juneau, Alaska.



Why does it matter? Well, aside from the obvious climate effects of 15 percent of your country actually lying north of the Arctic Circle, it means the solstices are very pronounced.

During the summer, we enjoy long days with early sunrises and sunlight into the late evening. That comes with the tradeoff of dark days in the winter months, of course.

And after the summer solstice in late June, that shift from light to dark happens more quickly than you might imagine. While commuting to Stockholm every day during the late summer and early fall, I snapped a quick photo from the platform every Thursday morning at 6 a.m. from August 18 through September 29. These photos show the week-by-week progression towards darkness over seven weeks:















And the days have been much darker than that the last couple of months leading up to the winter solstice this Thursday — the shortest, darkest day of the year. The good news is there will only be more and more light each day from here on out until Midsummer.

On Thursday, the projected sunrise in Sacramento is 7:21 a.m., with a sunset at 4:49 p.m.

Here in Falk√∂ping, the sun won’t rise until 8:52 a.m. and it will set at 3:17 p.m. That’s three fewer hours of light on the darkest day.

I guess I should just be thankful we don’t live further north, where polar twilight or polar night engulf parts of the largest Nordic countries for much of the winter. Some towns will be lucky to have a few hours of twilight reflecting off the snow during the worst four weeks of the year from early December to early January.

The sun won’t even rise Thursday in Kiruna, Sweden’s northernmost city, but apparently they have to put something on the weather websites, anyway.



So when you think the days feel short in the U.S. in late December, just remember that they could always be shorter.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Lucia

Tuesday was St. Lucia’s Day in Sweden and other Nordic countries.

December 13 is the day to commemorate Lucia, a martyred Catholic saint. In a traditional Swedish celebration known as a luciatåg, a girl wearing a white dress and a crown of candles leads a procession of maidens.

Many processions also include star boys, and those performed by young children often feature gingerbread men and Santas as additional characters.

The celebrations revolve around singing. Sweden followed the Julian calendar until 1700, and December 13 was the shortest, darkest day of the year. The main song is about St. Lucia bringing light to the darkness.

People eat gingerbread and drink mulled wine, but my favorite food associated with the day is lussekatter, saffron buns that are eaten throughout Advent but particularly on this day.



Saffron, the world’s most expensive spice by weight, quickly became one of my favorite baking flavors when I moved here. I didn’t even really know what it was in the States.

Lucia is a winter tradition I hadn’t experienced yet, because I was working in Stockholm at this time last year and two years ago I hadn’t quite arrived for my first visit.

We spent the morning with a group of elementary school children from the school where Amanda’s mom works. They performed a procession in a church next to their school, about 20 minutes south of our town.



The parents loved every second of it.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Swedish Pizza

It is inexplicable that I’ve lived here for almost 16 months without blogging about Swedish pizza.

It’s been a staple of our diet since the day I moved to Sweden. I’ve estimated I probably eat six pizzas per month, on average.

Swedish pizza — which isn’t actually Swedish at all, but I’ll get to that in a minute — is healthier than their American counterparts. The crust is thinner, and the cheese and toppings aren’t always loaded on as heavily.

Pizza is also arguably the best bang for your kronor when it comes to eating out in Sweden. You might not have guessed it, but McDonald’s, Burger King and the like are insanely expensive over here. A pizza can run anywhere from $9 USD to $13 USD, making it one of the cheapest dinner options around. Swedish pizza is never sold by the slice, and in most scenarios the only size — around 12 inches across, but remember, it’s also thin — is the perfect amount to be a “personal pizza.”

Italian immigrants who came to Sweden to work in the late 1960s and early 1970s brought pizza here with them. Today, virtually every Swedish pizzeria is owned and operated by immigrants from one of the many countries that border the Mediterranean Sea. We’ve discovered only one, near Amanda’s family’s summer house, that is run by Swedes.

The most popular Swedish pizza (by a longshot) is kebab pizza. In the Middle East, where kebab originates, it’s supposed to be lamb meat. Here, it’s some nasty blend of lamb (if you’re lucky) with beef, chicken, pork, turkey and even goat, fish or other seafood, roasted on a vertical spit. It really is just shaved “meat.” I wouldn’t touch it with a three-meter pole, but most Swedes love it.

Kebab pizzas are smothered in both a yogurty sauce and a hotter sauce. Most Swedish pizzas are topped with some type of sauce, typically Bernaise.

The first Swedish pizza I ate during my original visit was a Quattro Stagioni (“four seasons”) with ham, mushrooms, mussels and shrimp each covering one quarter of the pizza. It was probably my go-to choice for my first six months here.

My favorite pizza these days is the Africana, which usually includes chicken, bananas, peanuts, curry powder and sometimes even shrimp, often with a pineapple ring in the center.



There’s even a place in town that serves it with a liquid form of curry. Remember what I said about sauces?



Bananas aren’t even the “weirdest” topping to someone accustomed to American pizza. At the lone “Swedish pizzeria” we know this summer, Amanda’s friend Nathalie ordered a pizza with meat sauce and asparagus.



Amanda’s Napoli pizza of sundried tomatoes and mushrooms was also loaded with broccoli and spring mix.



No matter if you’re sitting down or taking it home, every pizza in Sweden is served with an included order of “pizza salad,” a sour but tasty combination of shredded raw cabbage, oil, vinegar and spices.



Some people eat it before and some enjoy it as a side dish. Others put it on their pizza. I didn’t like it in the beginning, but it quickly grew on me.

Many people ask me whether I prefer Swedish or American pizza, expecting to hear the latter. But there really are a lot of things I like about Swedish pizza.

There’s a joke that every town and city in Sweden, regardless of total population, has one pizzeria for every 1,000 residents. In our city of roughly 15,000, that’s probably spot-on. I’ll have to count someday.

Anyway, my point is that there’s something almost endearing about how imperfect each pizza is. Even the spelling of the pizzeria can have flaws.



Every Swedish pizzeria is unique — Pizza Hut is the only chain with any level of Nordic penetration — and you never know quite what you’re going to get.









But you can almost always bet it will be delicious.