Feast and Phrase

Gastronomy in the world of words.

Tag: scurvy

Cardamom Roll

Sweden – A Food Journey

This time last week, I was flying back home after an incredible visit to Sweden: two nights in Stockholm followed by a four-night package with The Aurora Zone at Brändön Lodge, Luleå. Exploring city comforts and the silent wilderness, I also got my first taste of Swedish food culture! Here are some of the highlights…

StockholmStockholm in the winter sunshine. All images are mine unless otherwise stated. Feel free to use any, but please credit ‘Feast and Phrase’ with a link to this article.

Stockholm – Day One

The buzzing street of Drottninggatan has all kinds of shops and eateries. I came across the stylish and almost subterranean Il Caffè. Trendy orange or white tables and smart wall graffiti dotted a series of reconverted basement rooms – these seemed to extend endlessly, as if following the ceiling pipes deep into the building.

Il Caffe 2The entrance of Il Caffè.

I wasted no time in getting introduced to the Swedish practice of fika. For the uninitiated outsider, it is a simple ‘coffee break’. For the Swedish people, it is a social gathering with coffee and sweet treats that is as much a national institution as ‘afternoon tea’ once was for the British. However, fika is not limited to the afternoon. Any time can be fika time.

Il CaffeOrange table and robot graffiti. 

Actually, as a non-coffee drinker, I only got partly introduced to fika and probably committed some form of sacrilege by going straight for the assortment of buns and pastries on offer by the till. I chose a kardemummabulle (‘cardamom roll’), enjoying every aromatic mouthful. The classic kanelbulle (‘cinnamon bun’) was also on offer – a delicacy which is so revered that it even has its own national day – visit Sweden on the fourth of October and you can celebrate kanelbullens dag, or ‘Cinnamon Bun Day’.

Cardamom RollA kardemummabulle (‘cardamom roll’), with a kanelbulle (‘cinnamon bun’) in the bottom right.

I instead picked up one of the nöttoppar (‘hazelnut macaroons’) for later. This was so good that I actually returned to buy more on the morning of my flight to Luleå!

Hazelnut macaroonOne of the nöttoppar (‘hazelnut macaroons’).

Stockolm – Day Two

Today brought history and food together, starting off at the Vasa Museum. The almost completely intact Vasa is one of a kind – the only seventeenth-century warship in the world to be preserved in such a state. Built too narrow and tall, it was blown over and sank on its maiden voyage in 1628, only to be found 333 years later.

VasaThe mighty Vasa warship.

The ship had enough space for six weeks of provisions, which included bread, meat, peas, fish, and of course, beer. Söfring Hansson, captain of the Vasa, also worked as a merchant and was apparently responsible for providing the navy yard with hops. In terms of overall provisions per man, the monthly ration for members of Sweden’s fleet was as follows:

Ship’s ale: 1/2 barrel = 63 litres
Bread: 1/2 barrel
Meat and dried fish: 1 ‘lispund’ = 8.5 kg
Dried peas: 1/2 ‘fjärding’ = 16.2 litres

From the provisioning plans for soldiers of the fleet, 1628. Part of the museum exhibition.

At a time when water was not safe to drink, beer was essential. Hot ale was a remedy for ague or fever, while scurvy – the bane of all sailors during this age – was cured with lemons. (Scurvy is most famously associated with pirates, but has affected everyone from Ancient Egyptians to Portuguese explorers. For an overview of the disease and historical accounts, check out this scurvy history.)

I left the Vasa for Historiska, the ‘Swedish History Museum’. This bright and modern museum has plenty of interesting things to see, including extensive exhibitions on the Vikings and the development of Swedish culture. The on-site café was excellent value for money – so I felt, given that Sweden is definitely on the costly side. There were filling lunch options from 75 – 90 SEK, including a salad bar and tea and coffee, which are often extra in other places. On top of that, the museum was free!

HistoriskaThe excellent Historiska Museum café. 

I finished the day with the Nobel Museum, which has a small section on the Nobel Banquet. The shop had recipe books drawing on the lavish menus that have been enjoyed by prize-winners over the years. You can see the menus for each year on the official website.

Nobel BanquetSome of the Nobel Banquet books on sale.

Brändön Lodge

Imagine a grand pine cabin nestled in the snow with 15 smaller cabins by its side, all looking out over a stretch of frozen sea – the ice around a metre thick, making it perfect for snowmobiles and other vehicles to drive over. This is Brändön Lodge, standing next to the Bay of Bothnia: all part of the Luleå Archipelago, which contains some 1,300 islands.

Brändön Lodge Brändön Lodge on the left, with a ‘lavvu’ or traditional tent on the right.

The unbelievable silence of the location and its Narniaesque beauty, combined with wonderful hosting by owner Göran Widén and his helpful staff, made for an outstanding experience. Added to that was a set of mouth-watering buffet meals where I became further acquainted with Swedish gastronomy.

Frozen SeaLooking out over the frozen sea.

I’m not much of a jam person, but the presence of two very unconventional varieties at breakfast (and the possibility of combining them with pancakes or waffles) meant some exceptions were made! The first was a golden jam made out of cloudberries, which look a bit like orangey-yellow raspberries; eaten throughout Sweden, they often grow in areas of boggy land.

CloudberriesUnfortunately, I didn’t take any pictures of the jams, so photos of the berries from online will have to do. Image from Flickr user Staffan Wingren.

A member of staff told me that each person has their own hidden cloudberry-picking spot, adding with a Bond-like smile that ‘if I told you, I would have to kill you’. A matter of national security! The second jam, which was pleasantly tangy in taste, was made out of sea buckthorn berries, which are bright orange in colour.

Sea BuckthornThe sea buckthorn plant. Image from Flickr user S. Rae.

A third berry which would have been impossible not to encounter during my trip was the lingonberry – a rich red berry which can be found in a host of Swedish dishes, accompanying everything from reindeer meat to desserts. I was also served lingonberry juice on several occasions. A cupful of hot lingonberry juice after adventuring over the snow is like a warming shot of sugary energy.

LingonberriesThe lingonberry plant. Image from Flickr user andreashallgren.

Featured in my itinerary was a hovercraft ride over the sea ice. My guide Andreas pointed out sea eagles feeding on the surface and drove us to the edge of the ice road which keeps islands connected in the winter. Returning to Brändön, we sat by the fire in a traditional tent or lavvu next to the lodge and indulged in coffee and a kanelbulle (or in my case, just the kanelbulle!).

HovercraftThe ‘Flying Condor’ hovercraft.

Another activity was a session of winter skills, where a group of us snowshoed into a nearby forest, following animal tracks and looking for wild dens. Stopping off, we were taught how to start a small fire with knives and flint. We then boiled up fresh pine-leaf tea using snow and a few cuttings from the surrounding trees. It seems that the younger plants have the best flavour, but my concoction tasted largely like boiled water, so I probably didn’t add enough. I suppose that’s what happens when you get a ‘tea-totaller’ to make tea…

FirePine-leaf tea boiling away!

Our guide Thomas pulled out a wooden cup which looked like a little hemisphere with a handle. This, he informed us, was a kåsa: a traditional drinking vessel made by Sweden’s indigenous Sami people, shaped out of a burl, or unusual tree growth. It was then I realised that we had been drinking out of black plastic versions of the same thing.

After our training in the forest, we made our way to the lavvu, where a large metal pan known as a muurikka had been moved over the central fire. Sitting back, we watched as Thomas rustled up vegetables in a creamy sauce. The majority of the group had these with suovas, (‘salty, smoked reindeer meat’), while I ate them with what I believe were cheese-filled rårakor – typical Swedish potato cakes. Embracing my newly developed taste-buds, I made sure to put a good dollop of lingonberry jam on the side!

Thomas CookingThomas gets to work cooking on the muurikka.

One particular delicacy which I didn’t have the chance to try on this holiday was kaffeost, or ‘coffee-cheese’. Baked from unpasteurized milk, the cheese has a consistency a bit like mozzarella and is added to coffee in little cubes. It has a famously squeaky texture between the teeth, and can also be eaten in slices with cloudberry jam. A shame to miss out, but a welcome addition to the long list of reasons for heading back in the future. Who knows? I might even be drinking coffee by then…

Citrus Fruit

A Scurvy History

Shiver me timbers! I seem to have completely missed out on ‘International Talk Like a Pirate Day’, which took place last weekend: that intriguing observance celebrated every 19 September since 2002, which started out as a joke among some American friends and has gone on to pick up followers worldwide.

(Correction: ‘gone on to pick up crew’. Incidentally, today is Google’s 17th Birthday, but I digress…)

Pirate GuysThe founders of International Talk Like a Pirate Day:  Mark “Cap’n Slappy” Summers (left) and John “Ol’ Chumbucket” Baur (right). Photo by Karl Maasdam, Karl Maasdam Photography; taken from the official website. The fruity featured image for this article is taken from Flickr user Peter Batty.

This got me thinking about scurvy – ‘Avast, scurvy curs!’ having first popped into my head, of course. Individuals deficient in Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) are unable to produce the protein collagen, which makes up bodily tissues like skin, bone, cartilage, and blood vessels. These begin to break down, resulting in fatigue, pain in muscles and joints, red dotting of skin, and most recognisably, swollen, bleeding gums.

Now notorious as a scourge of seafarers – who would run out of Vitamin C-rich fruits and vegetables while travelling – scurvy has in fact been recognised for thousands of years. A description of what is believed to be the disease occurs in the Egyptian Ebers Papyrus, dated to 1550 BCE; onion consumption is apparently given as the cure. The Indian surgeon Sushruta of the 6th century BCE wrote of a condition known as sitada, where ‘the gums of the teeth suddenly bleed and become putrefied, black, slimy and emit a fetid smell. They become soft and gradually slough off’. Similar symptoms were touched on by the Greek physician Hippocrates a century or two later:

‘[…] the patient smells foully from the mouth, the gums separate from his teeth, and blood flows from his nostrils. Sometimes also ulcers break out on his legs – and while some heal, others develop – his colour is dark, and his skin is thin; the patient is eager to walk about and to exert himself.’

Hippocrates, Internal Affections, translated by Paul Potter.

Sushruta-SamhitaSections of the Sushruta-Samhita. This is a 12th or 13th century Nepalese copy written on palm leaves; the watercolour imagery was added in the 18th or 19th century. From LACMA Collections Online.

Following Hippocrates and several other ancient writers, the next mention of what can be identified as scurvy occurred during the Crusades. The majority of nautical references came with the Age of Discovery, when explorers from the 15th century found the disease to be a serious and widespread cause of injury and death on their ships. This period saw the use of the term ‘scorbie’ and ‘scurvie’ as a name for the illness; the word was earlier used as an adjective for someone covered in ‘scurf’: scaly or scabby skin.

The journal of Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama’s first voyage to India describes how his men ‘fell ill […], their feet and hands swelling, and their gums growing over their teeth, so that they could not eat’. The same work gives a record of a fruity remedy called for when the crew dropped anchor off the coast of Malindi (now in Kenya):

‘The captain-major sent a man on shore with these messengers with instructions to bring off a supply of oranges, which were much desired by our sick. These he brought on the following day, as also other kinds of fruit; but our sick did not much profit by this, for the climate affected them in such a way that many of them died here.’

A Journal of the First Voyage of Vasco da Gama, 1497-1499, translated by E. G. Ravenstein (1898).

Vasco_da_Gama_(Livro_de_Lisuarte_de_Abreu)A portrait of Vasco da Gama from Livro de Lisuarte de Abreu (c. 1565). Located via Wikimedia Commons.

Two-thirds of da Gama’s men were lost to scurvy on this voyage. Even so, eating citrus fruits was generally known by sailors to help with recovery from the disease. In 1747, this was clearly demonstrated by Scottish naval surgeon James Lind, who tested different remedies on afflicted sailors, with citrus fruits producing exceptional results. He went on to publish A Treatise of the Scurvy in 1753: a time when more of Britain’s sailors were killed by scurvy than by fighting.

Lind pushed for the Royal Navy to give citrus fruit and juice to its crews, which became standard practice from 1795 onwards. As a result, the disease effectively stopped affecting members of the force. It is also because of this practice that British sailors came to be known as ‘lime-juicers’ or ‘limeys’.

V0003579 James Lind. Stipple engraving by J. Wright after Sir G. ChalA stipple engraving of James Lind by J. Wright, after Sir G. Chalmers (1783). From Wellcome Images.

It was not until Vitamin C was isolated in 1928 that scientists got on their way to definitively establishing it to be the cure – ascorbic’ essentially means ‘not pertaining to scurvy’. Raw fruits and vegetables are now known to be among the top sources of Vitamin C; cooking them leads to a drop in concentration. Oranges, lemons, chillies, broccoli, and many more – take your pick and keep scurvy well away!

Oh, and if you’ve ever wondered why ‘oranges’ are called ‘oranges’…

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