With a full contingent of Eastern European ancestors, I haven’t a Scandinavian gene in my body. But after two trips around Denmark and Sweden, I bonded so deeply with the food that I’ve been compelled to feed my addiction to herring, lingonberries and dark rye bread ever since. Mange tak (many thanks) to Berkeley’s Nordic House, for their steady supply of edible treasures from these far northern realms.
On a recent foray to their spacious San Pablo Avenue store, the festive atmosphere was evident, as Scandinavians of all stripes were stocking up on special foods for the holidays. Pia Klausen, whose father, Peter Caroe, started Nordic House in Oakland in 1962, was busily filling the shelves with cans of fish balls and jars of lingonberries. The elder Caroe, now 81, is still at the store helping out his daughter. In 2000, Pia and her husband took over the Oakland shop that shared the block with the now defunct Neldham’s Bakery. Last May, the couple bought and moved into this cheery, light-filled Berkeley space, where they offer made-to-order deli sandwiches, a selection of cheeses, house-made sausages, liver pate, meatballs, pork and lamb roll, as well as scores of imported foods from lefse (a Norwegian potato tortilla) to licorice candy.
But the friendly crowd of shoppers on this early December afternoon was focused on Christmas-themed comestibles. This basically translates to meat and that meat is most often pork. Each country has a specialty that is enjoyed for Christmas dinner and throughout the season: Norwegian pork ribs, Swedish brined ham and Danish pork with crispy skin. With a book of pre-orders growing longer by the day, Pia has had 100 Swedish hams brining in barrels in her back room since November.
Other traditional meat dishes include Norwegian cured, dried and salted leg of lamb fenalår (akin to prosciutto) that is placed on a table for passersby to cut off a little chunk everyday, and pinnekjøtt – dried, salted lamb ribs that are soaked in water for a day and then steamed over birch twigs.
On this Saturday, Pia’s husband, Arve is in the kitchen with assorted cousins spending the day butchering and tying the special Danish pork roasts which are prized for their crackly skin. Arve, who works for Otis elevator in San Francisco by day, is Norwegian. He and Pia met when his mother worked for Pia’s father at the store in Oakland. He is quick to point out that the wrappings on his fingers are not because they are cut, but to protect him from the effects of hand-tying strings around 100 pork roasts a day. These will be frozen, and then shipped across the country in dry ice to Danes as far away as Florida. In weeks to come, they will produce more pork roasts for local customers to buy fresh.
Pia, who speaks fluent Danish and spent a year in the old country after graduating from school, tells me about one of the most beloved holiday rituals involving the classic Christmas dessert, fluffy rice pudding made with whipped cream and drizzled with warm cherry sauce. While slivered almonds are mixed into the pudding, there is only one whole (blanched) almond hiding somewhere in the serving bowl. The lucky diner whose portion contains the whole almond wins a prize, usually a marzipan pig.
Many Nordic House regulars are older, first-generation immigrants, but now younger family members are taking over the cooking responsibilities. Second-generation Dane, Sandra Pedersen, drove in from Concord with her husband, but was on the cell with her father who wanted to make sure she was buying all the necessities, including: brown gravy, liver pate and the rice pudding mix.
“Yes, we always hid the almond in the pudding,” she says smiling. “It was a big game. Everyone in the family would make a show of pretending to find the lucky almond and hide it in their cheek, or try to talk without opening their mouths or feign secreting something in their napkin. This is the first time I am making the dinner for my parents, who are getting older now.”
My last trip to Stockholm was a couple of Decembers ago and I still remember the eerie sensation of the sky going dark around 4pm. But instead of pouring tea, my hosts handed me a cup of another warm libation, with a welcome kick: glögg, spiced mulled wine and other spirits. The hot crimson liquid also holds a handful of raisins and almonds. Glögg (or gløgg in Danish) does not have a single recipe but varies among families, usually containing some combination of cinnamon, ginger, cloves, orange peel and cardamom. The red wine (Pia says not to use your best vintage — her family poured from a big Gallo jug) can be empowered with the addition of brandy, vodka or aquavit. Heat the liquid, but don’t boil, as you wouldn’t want to lose the “warming powers” of all that alcohol.
To make it easy: Nordic House sells a bottled glögg mix to get you started, and my Danish friend Kim’s secret is to soak the almonds and raisins overnight in a mixture of vodka and port.
Gløgg parties are common throughout Scandinavia during the entire the month of December. In Denmark, the typical snack to accompany gløgg is æbleskiver — spherical popovers made in a special cast-iron pan with rounded indentations. The moist egg-y orbs are unsweetened and traditionally eaten sprinkled with powdered sugar and dipped in strawberry jam. Nordic House sells both the pan and a packaged dry mix to which you add eggs and milk. Another traditional gløgg accompaniment are thin flower-shaped ginger cookies, sold under the brand-name “Anna.” Wait a minute…maybe I could be related after all.
2709 San Pablo Ave.
Berkeley, CA 94702
This post was first published on KQED’s Bay Area Bites