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Snapshots of Swedish food culture

Interview with Dr. Richard Tellström, Department of Restaurant and Culinary Arts, Örebro University
Images de la culture alimentaire suédoises; interview avec Dr. Richard Tellström, Department of Restaurant and Culinary Arts, Örebro University
Sigurd Bergflødt

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Dr. Richard Tellström is a researcher at the Department of Restaurant and Culinary Arts at Örebro University, Sweden. His dissertation project investigated from an ethnological viewpoint how food culture heritage is commercialised and politicised in Sweden and Nordic countries. Important research questions have been to explore how some parts of the food culture are regarded as useful and other parts ignored or “forgotten”.

Richard Tellström is also working as a lecturer at different universities in Sweden and as an adviser to authorities and companies on how food culture can be used as an asset for developing regions suffering of economic regression and for development of food products and gastronomic tourism.


1Sigurd Bergflødt: Richard you are one of the most profiled food researchers in Sweden, working both at the academic level and at the development level. You have recently been involved in an exciting TV program that is well-weknown in all the Nordic countries. In all your works and presentations, you mostly speak about Swedish food culture and that is the reason why we have this interview today. The subject is vast, so let’s begin with the country perspective: how would you define Sweden and Swedish people, today?

2Richard Tellström: Sweden has five minority groups and the Finns are the largest of these groups (today around 500.000 people). The others are the Sami people (around 90.000 people and also an indigenous people), the Finn-Mienkäli group mainly in the north close to the boader of Finland (around 40-70.000 people), the Romani and Travelers group (around 15-20.000 people) and Jews (around 20.000 people). Sweden has during the 20th century received both immigrants and refugees and almost 1 million of Sweden’s 9 million inhabitants are today assumed to be first or second generation immigrants. All these groups of course carry their cultural ideals, and since food culture is culture, you can find a large variety in eating habits, food choices, and food ideals, both on group and individual level. It is therefore difficult and almost impossible to say what is typical for a geographic area since it is populated by so many different people. Food culture is today very kaleidoscopic. The food culture described below can be called “a mainstream Swedish food culture” and minority food cultures are to a large extent excluded.

3SB: This kaleidoscopic perspective is extremely interesting because we often forget the multisided aspect of our “national” culture, especially in a Nordic context, where frontiers are extended and ambivalent. But how embedded in eachother are those different groups when we speak about Swedish food culture? Does this mean different products, different recipes, and different traditions?

4RT: Today Sweden has only around 0,5-1 % active farmers, one of the lowest figures in Europe, so we mix our own food production with imported products. We have therefore created a new national food culture which is based on both domestic and foreign products but remodeled to suit Swedish taste and texture preferences, creating a new elaborated food culture with Swedish characteristics. But of course you can still see some differences related to both geography and historic ideals; I come back to that later.

5SB: Perhaps you could say some words about the general factors behind the development of Swedish food culture? How would you describe Swedish food culture in a longitudinal perspective?

6RT: Food culture is created with a combination of human ideas, fashion ideals and the foreign cultures we look up to, but also by technical innovations, political regulations in combination with the existing landscape, and to some extent, the climate. Swedish food culture can from this perspective be divided into three major periods during the last 1000 years. The older period was until 1850, the industrialized era was around 1850-1980s and the post-modern and hedonistic epoch, 1985 until today, in which we currently live.

7During the earliest period mentioned here, the Viking era around 800-1000 AD, food production was a mixture of agriculture products (rye, barley), milk production and a little meat preferable from pigs, fish and game. After the Viking era, when there was a slave system in use, Sweden had a free peasant class with rather large influence in relation to the priests and nobility classes.

8The climate has a large influence over what ideas can be developed into a food culture . Food production in historic times, and even today, took place during the 120 day long summer period (from May to August). During this period, the farms were to produce a surplusthat could be stored over the long and dark non-producing winter. The surplus needed to be at least enough to last until the coming year’s harvest, but preferably so much that you also could survive a famine, a war period, and/or a plague which could be expected at least every fourth-fifth year or so. The food production was therefore oriented towards products which could be dried, fermented, pickled, and in more wealthy households, salted and smoked. These two last preparation techniques also became common, however, among peasants and commoners in the 17th century. Bread has been the base in Swedish food culture since the late Viking era, before that it was the porridge that was the base (porridge is still an important breakfast dish in Sweden). In historic time you ate bread with your soup or stew, you served boiled meat or poultry on bread, and it was the bread that secured you from starvation. Today bread has a new status in spite of GI- and LCHF-diet (Low carb diet) trends, and the consumption has increased a great deal in the last 20 years. In Sweden you can find different bread types related to geography and these types are still today consumed in a certain regional way. The bread types were related to what type of mill you could to grind the flour on (water or wind mill) and how you planned to store the baked bread. In the southern parts windmills were used and people could bake new bread quite often, resulting in soft breads. In the more northern parts of Sweden they used water mills which could only be used two times a year (after the autumn rains and during spring after the snow melting) resulting in thin and hard breads which were stored. Still today,more hard, thin bread made of barley is consumed in northern Sweden than in the south.

9SB: The Swedish crisp bread is well known all over Europe. It is almost a symbol for Swedish food. Is it only a symbol, or do Swedish people eat crisp bread every day?

10RT: Crisp bread, also known as knäckebröd, is still very common. As much as 85% of all Swedish households have crisp bread at home. In southern Sweden and Skåne, where wind mills were used, they ate (and still eat) a soft rye bread, kavring. It’s very popular and is the base in many Swedish starters. Sour dough was commonly used until 1850 when the more powerful industrial yeast was preferred.

11During the late 19th century, steam mills were developed, followed by the electric mill, resulting in a preference for soft breads of different types. Sweden’s staple food has through history been the bread. Turnips were used but as a complement to the bread. In the early 19th century, the potatoes took the leading role and bread became a complement to the meal and the potato, and the bread received a more sandwich-like role, which it still has. Open-faced sandwiches are still typical for the Swedish kitchen, ever since the 19th century, either simple ones with just some slices of cheese or more exclusive ones with a small mountain of freshly peeled shrimps which we commonly eat nowadays. We have several strong, hard cheeses like the Prästost (freely translated: Vicars cheese) from southern Sweden. This cheese was produced on the vicar farms, since the 16th century, with the use of rennet and not a cheese type that you found among common people. During this period Sweden’s nobility and burgess classes picked up food trends from Germany, Holland, England, and of course, France. This has a certain effect on how dishes are seasoned and prepared, but the raw ingredients for the dishes were usually not imported so instead they used Swedish products and substitutes. The main preparing techniques in lower classes had been boiling. Higher classes sometimes fried their food or roasted meat on spits, and sometimes even baked it in the oven. When the wood stove was invented and implemented in the early 19th century, the preparing techniques changed in a revolutionary way. As a result, common people started to make a new type of dishes. We still eat them today and it’s the traditional dishes with meat, potatoes, gravy, and some vegetables (or what we daily refer to as a proper meal).

12SB- So we are then entering a new period in the evolution of Swedish Food Culture?

13R.T: Yes, 1850-1985 could be resumed by a self-sufficient, industrial system and more fresh food. The second period in the Swedish food culture history describes the step into industrialization and new food ideals. However the storage system continued to live on until Second World War.

14Until the mid-19th century, almost all food production within Sweden was local, both in production and where it was consumed. The cities were an exception as were, of course, the more wealthy classes. After 1800-1850 food wasn’t necessarily consumed where it was grown or produced anymore but instead transported all over the country and mixed with imported raw ingredients. Both the local and regional food culture habits and the local food products gradually vanished. In Sweden, the agricultural system started to become ndustrialised during the first decades in the 1800s and this was a process stimulated by the government. Villages were broken up, the farmers` smaller fields were forced into larger units, and people were forced to live in farmsteads instead of in the old villages. They started to be mono-crop-producers focusing on just very few crops or animals, and turned away from being self-sufficient. Regional and local varieties in food products were therefore actively put out of market, and we began to create food standards.

15In this process people started to leave the countryside and move in to the cities and we got new types of food, new dishes, and new ways of both cooking and eating. The taste preferences, but not the dishes, from the old kitchen continued, however, to live in spite of changing food types. Still, in Sweden we eat rather salty food, we sweeten our bread, we like sweet jelly and cowberry jam served to meat, and we have a weakness for sour food such as sour milk, sour butter, sour dough bread and pickled herring and vegetables. During the 20th century fresh food became more and more popular, replacing the old food types, and it is in this process the old the Schnapps-table was transformed to the Smorgasbord, also a starter before the first course until early 20th century when it became a full meal in itself, and that is how it is usually eaten today. The Smorgasbord consists of a number of small dishes, from which you can take your pick. The Smorgasbord combines the traditional flavors from the historic and traditional self-sufficient storage system with modern dishes prepared in French styleNowadays more green dishes have been added to this meal format as well.

16Today the Smorgasbord can be found on more exclusive restaurants but it is also common to eat it at home during Easter, Midsummer, and Christmas celebrations, in larger or smaller versions depending on how many guest you have, what type of party you are preparing and your own family traditions. The Christmas Smorgasbord or the Christmas buffet is probably the grandest expression of the modern Smorgasbord and it is common that workplace Christmas parties are celebrated with this meal.

17SB- This reminds me of Norway and Norwegian feast food, both by the form (buffet and its special structure), and the content (as mustard, dill, etc. and actually we speak about Swedish herring in Norway). Actually you just “went through” this new period almost corresponding to the 20th century, highlighted by changes in food culture, with new types of food, new distribution channels, more fresh food…. But what about the 21st century, or more concretely, what has changed with the last generation, after 1985?

18During the last 25 years Swedish food culture has changed dramatically. There are two strong driving forces for this; firstly the postmodern and hedonistic ideals, secondly Sweden leaving its old defense doctrine and becoming an EU member in 1995 which opened the borders for cheaper food.

19Sweden today has several parallel kitchens and food preferences at the same time. The consumption of meat, bread, cereals (pasta), vegetables, and fruit has increased a lot, and what used to be a large consumption of milk and potatoes has today reduced by 40-50%.

20The earlier consumption of prepared and warm vegetables has changed. Nowadays we see an interest in more cold salads of a rich variety, more careful consideration of what we eat, and an attention to the food that we assume to be healthy. Swedes didn’t only eat more fresh vegetable but also consumed more fresh dairy products and whipped cream as in the traditional bun, semla, which is consumed during lent. The contemporary drinking of fresh milk also started at this time. The last 25 years can also be characterized with increased wine consumption along with a large interest in different wine flavors. Even though we don’t have to eat according to the old self-sufficient storage system, we still like the taste of it.

21The different ethnic kitchens that you find in the western world can, of course, also be found here. The new French kitchen, la nouvelle cuisine, has had a strong impact on Swedish contemporary food culture during the 70’s and 80’s. Today it is common with Chinese-, Thai- and Sushi restaurants but Indian restaurants are a bit more rare. We have, of course, pizza restaurants but a perhaps odd behavior is that we eat it with a cold cabbage salad. More fancy restaurants can serve Italian food and the New Nordic and New Scandinavian cuisine has become increasing popular in the last 5-10 years. These two cuisines combine old storage flavors with modern fresh tastes, raw ingredients from the forests and seas prepared using new techniques, often in a post-modern, artistic way.

22An example of this is raw moose meat with green sprouts, quail egg, cream, and bread crumbs served on a stone – “A taste of the forest”. Swedish chefs today create a new type of dishes based on their ideas of the Swedish countryside, climate, and tradition. They have, to a large extent, left behind the classical French restaurant cuisine with its traditional dishes and cooking style and developed a new seasonal-based kitchen based on both history and innovation.

23SB: And what about everyday food? You were just speaking of new chefs and new trends, as the “taste of the forest”. But, do you see the impact of the New Swedish Kitchen in everyday life? How would you describe when people eat and what they eat? What about gender issues, in the Swedish food culture? Are men more present in the kitchen nowadays?

24In Sweden the eating times are very flexible. Lunch is eaten sometime during the mid-day and evening dinner between 5 and 8 PM. Compared with France, Swedes likes to eat when it suits them. The national tradition of serving meals at very fixed times isn’t so strong and Swedes prefer to adapt meal times to their family’s habits.

25The everyday food is often called Husmanskost and historically it was served to servants accompanying the gentry or to the servants on a farm. According to the regulations, it was to consist of good, cheap, and well-prepared peasant fare. Today it consists of one dish, e.g. meatballs with mashed potatoes and sauce. You can eat Husmanskost both at home and in a restaurant for lunch. It’s the often called Dagens rätt or Todays choice. Swedes usually eat both a cooked hot meal for lunch and another one for dinner. Between those meals simpler snacks are served as coffee with cakes, some fruit or a sandwich. It’s not common anymore to serve desserts for every day meal but for more festive occasions something sweet often ends the meal, both at home and in restaurants.

26Street food is also popular, such as hamburgers, kebab and hot dogs. A typical Swedish street food is thin bread roles which are traditionally soft, thin bread wrapped around mashed potatoes and one or two sausages.

27This dish, with bread wrapped around meat, is very old and could be traced back to the centuries in mid-Sweden where it was an everyday dish. However today it’s something that you buy when you are on the move and you usually don’t make this dish at home.

28A contemporary trend since the 1970’s is to barbecue. It is especially of interest to men. Even in the equality-oriented Sweden, the female task in these meals is to prepare the sauces and the side dishes, and to deck the table since the man is extremely occupied watching the grill, the flames, and the people around the house. During the summer you can find barbecue parties or just barbecue dinners going on in almost every backyard or front porch. Everyday cooking is, however, more egalitarian and Swedes like to share the responsibility for the everyday meal compared with e.g. the people in France, even if women in Sweden take a little more responsibility than the men do.

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Electronic reference

Sigurd Bergflødt, « Snapshots of Swedish food culture  », Anthropology of food [Online], S7 | 2012, Online since 11 January 2013, connection on 25 May 2018. URL :

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Sigurd Bergflødt

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Anthropologie of food est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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