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2022-06-19 00:21:58 By : Ms. Vicky Lee

Celebrate the summer solstice with fresh langoustines and homemade mayonnaise, stuffed herring with rye and a berry-filled pavlova

It’s not difficult to understand why Scandinavians celebrate light. I’ve been in the north of Norway and Sweden in the middle of winter and it’s hard to convey just how dark it is. The darkness is thick; you feel as if you could fall into it.

Initially you have to battle against the sense that you should go back to bed. You feel that the day is done. Motivation is hard unless you’re used to it. Scandinavians handle darkness well. They’re pragmatic. More candles are sold in Scandinavia than anywhere else. Pools of candlelight dot windowsills, cafés and kitchen tables.

Summer days, particularly the longest ones, are when Scandinavians seem to drink in enough light to carry them through the rest of the year. Around midsummer there’s almost a giddiness in the air, a drunkenness, a sense that the light will never end. I spent one midsummer on a small Swedish island. It was one of those ‘pinch me’ experiences. 

I fell in with a chef who spent every summer there and invited me. Her brother picked us up in his gleaming wooden boat – it was like the water taxis you see in Venice – and half an hour later we were swimming in the Baltic, a brackish sea which feels gorgeously limpid, thicker than the Atlantic or the Mediterranean. We were the only people there; it was one tiny island with one wooden house, so nobody erected a maypole. 

The traditional Swedish maypole is 20ft tall with two hoops at the top. It’s the focal point of midsummer celebrations as everybody dances around it, even those who are usually reticent. Flowers, greenery and berries are central. Girls spend the afternoon making floral wreaths for their hair, children string daisies together and make necklaces of tiny strawberries.

On our island the focus was on the food. We set up a table on the jetty and gathered juniper – it was all over the island – over which to cook the fish. At 10pm we sat down to pickled herring, radishes, cucumber and dark rye bread. After that came the salmon, tiny potatoes tossed with dill and butter, sour cream, and boiled beets that were hastily peeled at the table.

None of this was grand. The salmon was cooked on an ancient barbecue, the warm beetroot was brought to the table in a saucepan. It was one of the most memorable meals I’ve ever eaten and the light was intoxicating. It looked as if the sun would set but it never quite happened. In the middle of the night, I wandered around looking at pictures on the walls of the house, had a cup of coffee back on the jetty and felt elated.

If you think it’s worth marking special days with food – I do – midsummer is a good excuse, even though it’s not traditional here. We have dark days ahead as well, though they’re not quite as long. Midsummer isn’t celebrated on the same day even across Scandinavia, so choose any day around 24 June. 

What you cook is up to you, as long as it’s summery, but this menu is special. Langoustines are expensive but you only need three per person. Smaller prawns – already cooked – with mayonnaise are a good alternative, and you can buy jars of herring in different sauces – the Swedes buy them – and add the foods mentioned above. 

If you don’t fancy herring, you can cook salmon – the buttermilk dressing overleaf can be served with it – but herring are cheap and make a change. Add cooked beetroot, cut into cubes, tossed with dressing and red onion. Berries are not negotiable. Put flowers in jam jars, string up some bunting and light all the candles you can lay your hands on. Glad Midsommar.

Crayfish, widely eaten in Sweden, aren’t easy to get here, but we have fantastic langoustines (also known as Dublin Bay prawns). There are about 25 langoustines in 1.5kg, which is generous (and filling) for six people. 

In restaurants you normally get three per person, so you could buy fewer. They’re not cheap but this is a special occasion and you’ll be able to make a huge pan of rich shellfish stock with the discarded shells. I bought mine from Keltic Seafare, based in Scotland.

Supply napkins, tea towels to use as bibs and plenty of kitchen paper. This is a messy business.

Prep time: 20 minutes plus freezing time

If you can’t get fresh herring, buy frozen. The Fish Society is a good source. Get your fishmonger to scale and fillet the herring, leaving a ‘hinge’ at the side so you can open each one like a book. (If you opt for frozen ones they will have been prepared like this.) Feel along the fillets for little bones and remove any you find. It is almost impossible to get rid of the tiny ones, but I don’t mind those – they just disintegrate as you eat them.

The salad is more vegetable- than grain-based, but you could just serve boiled baby potatoes and steamed asparagus or green beans on the side. If you can’t find fresh horseradish root, use creamed horseradish from a jar and spread it on to the herring fillets after the mustard, but don’t be overgenerous with it.

It’s not original but everybody loves this and it always looks pretty spectacular. You can add stoned cherries to the berry mixture. The cardamom flavouring brings a breath of Scandinavia. Don’t put this together until the last minute as the berries get soggy and ‘tired’.

Cooking time: 1 hour 20 minutes, plus overnight drying out

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