Beautiful, grass-fed, tender, fat-marbled beef is much sought after in Scandinavia and is the reason for all the lovely, rich stews that are a cherished part of the Scandinavian cultural heritage. But you can only buy this beef at markets, on farms and special dedicated butchers as good beef is not easy to get.
So at the moment, Scandinavians eat beef mostly as steaks and minced meat, and the long-simmered stews are not so popular as they should be. When you do find good beef, however, the potential for these lovely dishes is evident.
We have to be truthful about the reasons for the decline in beef eating in Scandinavia. Perhaps this is partly due to the fact that Scandinavians don’t take the science of hanging meat very seriously; most Scandinavian beef is hung for 10 days, which is much less than is usual in the rest of Europe, and is not enough time to allow enzymes and lactic acid in the meat to work their magic.
Another reason is that people who are concerned with organic issues, and animal welfare, rarely eat meat, and even if they do, it’s not beef; so there is not a large body of people campaigning for better treatment for cows, more access to grazing, and so on, which surprisingly are not issues that most Scandinavians are much concerned about. As a result, the demand for high-quality beef remains small.
Large parts of Norway and Sweden are too difficult to farm, and cattle are still kept in semi-wild areas, giving beautiful, richly marbled and tasty meat. Southern Scandinavia is a dairy country, and here the quality of the beef is not so interesting. This may very well be because somehow Scandinavians never go round to producing really prime-quality beef in their milk-producing regions.
Most of the beef is from milking cows or young steers, which are too old to be used for veal, and far too young to have the rich, deep mineral flavor of beef.
However, there is small-scale production of beef cattle where the land is suited to permanent grass, and their meat is prized by people who know what they can expect from really good beef.
Veal used to be a much sought-after meat; the very young calves were always tender, and the meat a lovely pale color, with a milk and grass flavor. True, good-quality veal is very difficult to find nowadays, mainly because we are not willing to pay the price for it.
Cattle have been very important to the Scandinavian economy since the early Middle Ages, when the population was dramatically decimated by the plague. There were so few hands left to farm that wheat and other grains became extremely expensive. Whereas cattle herding was relatively easy to manage, most herding was done by children, which left the surviving men free to work at other tasks. For a century or more the population ate more beef than at any other time in history.
Before effective refrigeration, cattle were slaughtered only in winter, when they could safely hang in cool conditions. With the invention of cooling, butchers could slaughter animals all year round, and tenderize the meat by hanging it for several weeks, making big roasts a possibility. Even so, most of the meat was tough, and suited only for salting, stews and soups. As a result, Scandinavians have a large and very old tradition of these dishes, which is well worth preserving.
The cow has played a major role in creating what we now see as typical and unique Scandinavian landscapes. The high pastures in northern Scandinavia are kept lush and green by grazing cattle, and in the past grazing was the only way to prevent large areas being taken over by trees. In centuries gone by, it was common to keep the cattle in woods, where their grazing would keep down trees, thereby creating beautiful low-grown meadows both around and in the woods.
Lovely hay fields, studded with deciduous trees, provided winter fodder, and later the cattle were let loose to graze both the grass and the trees.
Buying and storing
You will have to trust your butcher, who should know about meat, and ask him which cuts he finds suitable for the dish you are going to make. The meat will have to be hung for at least three weeks to have the taste you are after, and it will be worth eating only if its grass fed and has access to year-round exercise.
Cuts of meat vary too much around the world to be precise, but as a general rule you will need dark, fat-marbled cuts from the front part of the animal, breast and neck, for stews. These take time to cook, and are comfortably cheap compared to the back cuts that are more tender, and much more expensive. The marbling will ensure that the meat will be amazingly tender and juicy, after long hours of simmering in the pot.
If it’s veal you’re after, you will also have to know and trust your butcher. You must buy proper veal, which comes from young calves, that are no more than 10 months old, slaughtered just before their meat develops into a nondescript beefy flavor, and has been hung for two weeks. Choose organic veal that will have the right, slightly acidic taste from wind-blown sun, warmed grass and milk, and nothing else. What you don’t want is veal raised under cruel conditions, fed on milk only, and slaughtered just before the animals’ legs collapse. The flesh may seem nice and pale, but it will leave a foul taste in your mouth.
Scandinavian traditional beef dishes tend to be spicy and tender stews that need long, slow simmering. The slowness of the cooking means that these recipes are not particular popular at the moment, but the tide appears to be turning; young people are starting to realize the beauty of food that takes more care to cook, but is richly awarding and cheaper – much cheaper – than the steaks and roasts that are easy to make, but cost a fortune if you want proper meat.
Scandinavian Beef and Veal, written by Tor Kjolberg
Norwegian Beef Stew (Lapskaus)
Serving 12, Units US
5cups beef broth
1onion, finely chopped
Dice the beef, cover with water, and simmer for one hour.
Separately, wash and peel the vegetables and potatoes, and cut them into bite-size cubes.
Bring the beef broth to a boil. Add the carrots and the rutabaga, and cook for 15 minutes.
Then add potatoes, and cook another 15 minutes.
Add the meat and onion, and season to taster with salt and pepper.
Continue to cook until the stew thickens and the meat, vegetables and potatoes ae all tender (but not mushy).
Stir occasionally while cooking, being careful not to let them burn.