Potatoes are the soul of Scandinavian cooking. They are eaten with almost every meal, and accompany anything traditional. You would think that, given such culinary success, they have been here for ages, but in fact potatoes have been eaten in Scandinavia for only 200 years. Learn more about Scandinavian potatoes.
Even if they were known before, they were regarded with great suspicion: potatoes ar a member of the nightshade family, and it was hard for the authorities to convince the public that they were edible. When people finally were convinced, everybody grew and ate them; as well as being a crop that protected people against famine, potatoes were relatively easy to grow on the extremely stony ground of much of Scandinavia.
Most importantly perhaps, people soon realized that potatoes fitted beautifully with all the core elements of Nordic cooking – fish, butter, cream, herbs, apples and onions. Everything tasted much nicer with potatoes than with the porridge, hard bread, pea mash and parsnips that were eaten before the potato became the staple.
Nowhere is the potato cherished as much as it is in the north, where the year’s new potatoes are awaited with great excitement. The first new potatoes of the year are auctioned at sky-high prices and the event is even published in the papers. Local people hunt the potatoes down from numerous road stalls with rickety signs or from the shops – suppliers frequently run out by noon, despite the often ridiculous prices.
Appearance and taste
Many Scandinavians grow potatoes in their gardens just to enjoy the exquisite taste of very young, new potatoes. Freshly dug new potatoes are a national passion. Mothers teach their children the only truthful indication that potatoes have been newly dug, when you rub your fingers against the flaky skin it must come off in one stroke, revealing a moist, mother-of-pearl sheen to the flesh.
We have many Nordic cultivars; some are in constant use, while others are kept in the Nordic gene bank, from where anyone can order a few spuds and help to keep the regional potato heritage alive. There are two Nordic gene banks, NordGen in southern Sweden and one secure storage bank on the Atlantic islands of Svalbard.
There are specific cultivars for new potatoes, and potatoes for winter use. New potatoes have a much higher water content and are best boiled. Starchy winter potatoes have numerous uses, as mash, baked, fried or oven-cooked edges, making use of their starchiness. Special waxy salad potatoes are also available. In reality you must love what you can get as the number of cultivars available in the shops is very few. If you want to eat old, tasty cultivars, or potatoes for a specific use, you must grow your own or go to a farmers’ market.
Buying and storing
New potatoes are supposed to be bought fresh every day, while old potatoes can be stored as long as they are kept out of the light. Instead, use a a crock with a lid kept in a cool, frost-free place. In spring, all potatoes tend to sprout, sending out long, pale shoots if kept in the dark. As long as the sprouts are small and the potato is not too wrinkled it is fine to eat. A partial sprinkling of black spots on the skin are harmless scabs which you can remove with a good scrub.
Damaged green (or partly green) potatoes should not be eaten. The green could indicate that the level of toxic solanine is high, even if this is not always the case. It’s not good enough to cut off the green patches.
Potatoes provide plenty of starch, relatively high levels of vitamins and also good protein.
It’s important to remember the difference qualities of seasonal potatoes and the traditions of how to serve potatoes all year round reflect this.
In Scandinavia, when new potatoes are in season, they are the most important part of the every day meal. Roles are reversed for a short time, meat and fish becoming the accompaniments to the potatoes, temporarily the stars of the dinner show. A salty-sweet matjes herring, chives and dill, and a blob of crème fraiche, or a few rashers of bacon, butter and dill, are all you need for dinner until the new potatoes become old news, by which the magic is gone, and potatoes assume their traditional accompanying role.
Even though pasta and rice are becoming the everyday starch in many Scandinavian families, potatoes remain a vital part of traditional cooking. Many open sandwiches are unthinkable without potatoes. Maybe the most popular smørrebrød is a piece of buttered rye bread, boiled, sliced new or even old potatoes, chives, homemade lemony mayonnaise and perhaps a rasher of bacon. And then of course there’s the eternal classic – rye bread with potatoes, various herrings, dill and onion.
Want to try something different?
How this dish ever got its name, I have no idea. It’s far too filling to get you in the mood, but it’s very satisfying in other ways. It’s a cheap and comforting dish in its own right.
1 quantity caramelized onions
for the baked apples
4 eating apples
4 tablespoons sugar
20 rashes of bacon
for the mashed potatoes
1.5kg floury potatoes
54g salted butter
200ml full-fat milk
Salt and pepper
Serves 4 – 6
Quarter the apples and remove the core, then arrange in a baking dish. Sprinkle the sugar on top and turn the apples to coat. Arrange the bacon rashers on top. Bake in the oven at 200ºC/gas mark 6 until the apples are tender and the bacon is crispy.
Rinse and peel the potatoes if they are large, cut into slices. Boil in unsalted water until completely tender, then drain, keeping some of the water. Mash the potatoes with the butter, milk and black pepper, using a balloon whisk. If the mash is too dense, add some of the cooking water. Salt at the last moment, to avoid glueyness.
Heap up the mashed potato on a pretty dish to form a Norwegian mountain, then arrange the apples, bacon and onions around the base, and let a knob of butter melt down the peak.
Scandinavian Potatoes, written by Tor Kjolberg
Feature image (on top): Monika Stawowy/Unsplash