Experiencing the Julbord: Christmas Smörgåsbord
Sandra Carpenter gives the scoop on what to expect at a Swedish julbord and includes a few places in Stockholm to give this holiday buffet a try.
Originally published December 2016.
In Sweden, a key part of celebrating the holidays is to go to a julbord. Literally translated as the Christmas table, the julbord is the Swedish smorgasbord to end all smorgasbords and it includes an enormous variety of both cold and warm dishes. From traditional Swedish to Italian, Spanish, Asian, Lebanese or Greek to all seafood or vegetarian, there is truly a buffet to suit everyone. Julbords are held at a vast majority of restaurants and hotels in town as well as on boats, in castles and other unique venues from roughly the end of November to around Christmas and sometimes into January.
During my 12 years of living in Stockholm, I’ve been to at least one julbord every year and have always enjoyed the tradition. This year was no exception– I just went to a julbord at a castle outside of Stockholm called Häringe. The best description I can give of what going to a traditional julbord is like is that it is an all-you-can-eat Thanksgiving buffet that goes on for hours.
Like so many traditions in Sweden, I’ve been told there’s a right way to eat at a julbord. I have relied on the kindness of my Swedish friends to help me in figuring this all out. Here, I will share what I’ve been taught and seen.
Typically, you are served a warm glass of glögg (mulled wine) before starting the meal. And then the food frenzy begins. Tradition says that you start a julbord at the cold seafood buffet first and you help yourself to different types of sill (pickled herring), salmon, eel, shrimp, and, cheeses, pickles and hard breads.
Back at the table, try some Swedish snaps (akvavit) to help with washing down the herring. Spirits are high at this point and drinking the snaps often brings on the singing of such Christmas drinking songs as Hej, tomtegubbar.
When you are ready for more, leave your plate at the table, go and pick up a clean one at the buffet and move on to the second course: the cold meats. This round includes the julskinka (holiday ham), moose and reindeer sausage, roast beef, turkey, salami, julost (Christmas cheese), pates, crisp breads, pickled cucumbers and beetroot salads.
Once back at the table, there’s usually another song or two to accompany this course. And when you are again ready, pick up a new plate for round three and head to the warm dishes part of the buffet. Here, the offerings can include köttbullar (meatballs), prinskorv (small sausages) and Janssons frestelse (Jansson’s temptation is a gratin made with potatoes, onions and anchovies). There is usually cabbage, kale, and potatoes and there can also be ribs, quiche, warm salmon and dopp i grytan (literally dip in the pot—dunk your bread into a ham juice fondue).
Lutfisk is a notorious Swedish Christmas dish that can also be special ordered at this point. Made from dried and salted whitefish with lye, I’ve never been able to get beyond the smell to actually try this dish. But I know many Swedes believe it is an essential part of the julbord.
At this point in the buffet, you can go back for seconds on anything that you particularly fancy. I usually just take the opportunity to look at everything again and walk around so as to better digest the food because dessert is next.
Let’s just say that dessert often has a room of its own at a julbord. There are jars of homemade candies and platters of baked goods that you could help yourself to. The options here can include chocolates and candy canes, cheesecake, pies, puddings, crème brûlée, gingerbread cookies, meringues, mousse, pralines, risgrynsgröt (rice pudding), lussekattor (saffron buns) and cakes are all possibilities.
Obviously with this amount of food for lunch or dinner, eating at a julbord is all about pacing yourself. Eat too much on the cold dish end and you’ll never make it to the warm dishes and desserts. And you have to get to the desserts!
Where to go – Julbord in Stockholm
I went to the julbord at Gamla Riksarkivet last year and it was one of the best that I’ve been to. Top Swedish chefs Christian Hellberg and Niklas Ekstedt collaborated on the menu and it includes all the classic Swedish julbord dishes. As for the setting for this julbord, the building dates back to 1890 when it was originally used to store the Swedish National Archives. It’s on an island called Riddarholmen and the building was recently renovated and is gorgeous.
Other traditional and well-regarded julbord spots in town include the Grand Hotel, Operakalleren and Oaxen.
Two of the best Asian versions in town include Berns and East.
As far as the castle option, I went to Häringe this year and it was a good place to go outside of town.
Stromma offers julbord lunches and dinners on classic old steam ships that travel on the archipelago.
For a julbord with amazing views of Stockholm, try Kaknästornet and Fåfängan. As for medieval settings reminiscent of the Viking era, try Sjätte Tunnen.