Farm story 10: For housewives unused to cooking.

Hemmets kokbok, The Home Cookbook, written in 1937.

Despite our shared love of junk food and international cuisine, there are still differences between the Swedish and the British diets. Swedes eat more fish and shellfish, whether cooked or marinated, while the British love their roasts, whether beef, lamb, pork or chicken. At any one time, the vast majority of Swedish kitchens will have at least one of ten main sorts of crispbread in their cupboards and a large slab of cheese in the fridge. British cupboards on the other hand are likely to contain at least one packet of biscuits and probably a bottle of malt vinegar, for fish and chips. The implements we have in our kitchen drawers also differ slightly. We all have garlic presses now, but a Swedish kitchen is not complete without at least one cheese slicer and a couple of wooden butter knives, while the British kitchen drawer will boast a tea strainer (even if we mostly use tea bags nowadays) and a potato masher, neither common in Sweden.

Back in the 1940’s these differences were even more striking. This was clear from a book I found in the farmhouse on Tjörn, Hemmets Kokbok (the Home Cookery book) , produced by the Uppsala School for Domestic Science in 1945. It was the fortieth edition - the first edition had appeared in 1903 – and by the end of 1945 it was estimated that no fewer than half a million copies had been printed over the years. This is an extraordinary number bearing in mind that the total population of Sweden in 1945 was only 6.7 million. This book belonged to Signe, Olle’s mother, for although her name isn’t in it the date of her forty-third birthday, 16.6.1947, is written in pencil on the back of the front cover. Perhaps it was a present. The book, 22 x 14 cm and 3 cm thick, was carefully covered in white waxed paper and although the pages are slightly yellowed there isn’t a single grease spot or smear on any of them. On the inside back cover are three handwritten recipes for raisin cake, coconut cake and swiss roll. There are also three lines which look like instructions on how to make your own Ribena. It’s simple enough. You take one litre of blackcurrants (the farm has always grown black and red currants) and one litre of water. You then add three sugar lumps a day for three months. I’ve never tried it but one of these days I may be tempted to give it a go.

Under their paper, the bottle-green covers are pristine. The front one is almost entirely covered by a picture by the popular Swedish artist Carl Larsson, famous for his portrayals of idyllic Swedish interiors and happy domestic scenes. This one is part of a larger picture called Martina med frukostbrickan (Martina with the breakfast tray) and was painted in 1904. In the foreground of the picture is an attractive dark-haired maid in a cap and white apron who is looking directly at us. Underneath she has a red dress with a high neck and wide, gathered sleeves. She’s carrying a large tray with a bottle of beer in the centre accompanied by a cheese, a ham with a fork sticking out of it, bread and coffee. The background shows part of a kitchen or perhaps a dining room, with pewter plates and tankards on one shelf , glasses on another, and a lamp shaped like a large flower suspended from the ceiling. This is the ordered, comfortable, idealised picture of Swedish life to which housewives in towns and farms from the Artic circle to the plains of Skåne, doubtless aspired. This same picture appeared on the front on every edition of the book from 1909, through two world wars, until the middle of the swinging sixties. And it’s a picture which still resonates with many Swedes today.

The Foreword to Signe’s book was written by Anna Schenström, the Principal of the College of Domestic Science which produced it. It’s almost three sides long and introduces the revised, 35th edition, which came out in 1937, two years before the Second World War started. Up until then, there had been only minimal changes since the first edition was published in 1903, so it was high time for an update. The new book, the Foreword states, is intended to be used in the borgerlig (solid middle class) home, and the recipes are for good, plain everyday fare. It adds that this is a home cookbook and despite the fact that it contains a few extravagant, more expensive dishes for special occasions, we are warned that the recipes in the book are neither luxurious nor extravagant. (It is understood that these are undesirable qualities in housewives in general and in recipes in particular.)

However, nobody could say that the staff who produced the book were stick-in-the-muds. The Principal tells us that there are many new recipes in this edition, particularly in chapters dealing with fish, vegetables and food conservation. We are also warned that quite a lot of foreign recipes have been included. They have, of course, been adapted to Swedish tastes but will most likely be unfamiliar to readers. But just so that the ladies didn’t panic and run screaming from their kitchens, the author adds that all of them have been fully tested in the College and are completely reliable. Quantities and methods have been meticulously described, Miss Schenström writes, because one of the key aims of the book is, “to provide trustworthy instruction for housewives unused to cooking.” The Principal obviously regards it as her duty to cater to the needs of this group and their unfortunate families.

Miss Schenström was clearly not just a pretty face. In the Foreword she describes how the new edition has taken into account new findings in the fields of nutrition and human physiology and introduced recipes featuring new foods and methods of cooking. However, by 1944, like many people at the end of a long career she may have been feeling a little weary so can be forgiven for her rather plaintive tone when describing modern demands for culinary variety. She also allows herself to feel rather sorry for the way housewives of the day had to, “adopt new standards with regard to nutrition, and the taste and appearance of dishes.” The book was, and remains, a mine of information for anything food-related.

It contains, for example, a list of Swedish translations of relevant French words, like blancmange and croutons, and English ones like shortbread, as well as help on how to pronounce them. So Windsor soup was spelled phonetically as uinsår-soppa and sponge cake as spåndj-käk. Then at the back of the book are useful tables where readers can work out portion sizes, weights and measures. There’s also an alphabetically-arranged Key to Contents and further back some diagrams of animal carcasses showing the different cuts of meat. Finally. there are carefully-drawn coloured pictures of game birds, fish, vegetables, mushrooms and fruit.

The illustrations are a reminder of how rural Sweden was until the end of the Second World War, before which time more people lived in the countryside than in towns and only less experienced cooks would have any difficulty distinguishing between a pheasant and a partridge, or a cod and a carp,. Even today, around eighty years after the end of the war, many Swedish families own homes in the country or by the coast – often small wooden houses built by their forebears and used now only at weekends, or for a month or so in the summer. These families still go foraging or fishing, while in the autumn tens of thousands, particularly in the north, take a week or so off work to shoot elk or deer. Most Swedes, even those who live in cities, have more direct contact with the forest and countryside than the people of more densely populated European countries, meaning that a good many of the foods and animals illustrated in these coloured plates will be familiar to them. That’s not to say that readers would necessarily choose to eat some of them, but the book is a reminder that in times of poverty or war, people do not hesitate to eat whatever the sea, the countryside and their gardens offer.

If any proof were needed, the book contains no fewer than 16 pictures of game birds, confirming that Sweden remained a land of hunters at least until the time the book was published in 1945. Illustrations include: wood grouse (capercaillie), pheasant, partridge, grouse, black grouse, hazel grouse, wild duck, eider and even mallard. There are also pictures of forty fish, from fresh and salt waters, including everything from the relatively familiar turbot and pike , through to the unappetising-sounding lumpfish (sjurygg) and my favourite, sounding like a minor character from the Harry Potter books, the fourhorn sculpin (hornsimpa). This creature seems to be made up entirely of spikes, bones and scales and as nobody I know has ever heard of it, never mind cooked it, I cannot describe the taste.

The vegetables section contains fewer surprises. However, there are pictures of two root vegetables unfamiliar to me, one of which is named in the book as svartrot or scorzonera , which translates as black salsify, serpent root or viper's herb. There are also karotter, or round carrots, looking like weird orange radishes, and pepparrot or horseradish, which I first mistook for parsnips when I came to Sweden, but which is still sold in most greengrocers here. There are also two whole pages of mushrooms, eleven of which I wouldn’t trust myself to touch with a barge pole. The twelfth, chanterelles, are so distinctive in colour and shape that even I would dare eat them - if I ever managed to find any.

© Gwyneth Olofsson, 2023 For more pictures of the farm on Tjörn go to Instagram account gwyneths_swedish_farm

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