I love trying food from different cultures, especially as a different take on Christmas food, such as our Aussie Christmas dinner. I guess that by now, Swedish food isn’t so different for me, but I thought I’d share a favourite recipe of mine.
A traditional Swedish julbord, or “Christmas table” is a pretty meat-heavy affair, eaten at 4pm on Christmas eve, after the nation has sprung to life again following their Disney favourite; “Kalle Anka och hans vänner önskar God Jul” or “Donald Duck And His Friends Wish You Happy Christmas”. It is always the same clips, and this is one Christmas tradition I’m not overkeen on, but when in Stockholm…
Anyway, back to the julbord; it groans under a ham, which for me this year was a wild boar one, because the out-laws know I don’t like to eat factory farmed meat; various kinds of inglagd sill ; cold cuts; sausages; lutfisk; spare ribs; and Janssons Frestelse.
In my family, we also often have gravad lax. Also known as gravlax, gravlaks, graavilohi, or graflax depending on where you are in Scandinavia. In any country, it means buried salmon. In times before refrigeration, especially in northern European countries where snow covered the ground for a good part of the year, curing and burying meat was a great way to preserve it. Originally, people would use spruce or pine needles in the cure, but the balance needs to be perfect if your fish is not to end up tasting of a certain kind of disinfectant.
These days, everyone can make this easy recipe; you don’t even need a spade! In fact, you still have time to make it in time for a new year’s gathering, if you are having one. It looks impressive, for relatively little effort, and it is a big hit.
One thing I must urge you is to source your fish well. The increase in popularity of salmon in the last decade or so is concurrent with fish farming, most of which causes horrible environmental damage, due to over feeding and routine, excessive use of antibiotics. At the same time wild stocks are seriously dwindling, due to overfishing, ocean acidification and habitat destruction. In my opinion, salmon should be a treat, eaten very occasionally, so that we can afford to eat the best organically farmed salmon we can, meaning there is no unnecessary antibiotic use, and better care is taken to ensure that the fish are not over fed. This cure also works well for other types of fish, so you could still enjoy the recipe with cheap and plentiful fish, such as mackerel, or herring, so do feel free to experiment.
I made this amount of salmon for a large party, so you can also reduce the amounts of fish you use, but you must have enough cure to really cover the fish, so make a little more of that than you think you might need for the amount of fish that you have.
Recipe: Gravad Lax With A Creamy Mustard Sauce
For the Salmon:
100 g demerera sugar
75 g sea salt
100 g dill
1 tbsp juniper berries crushed
1.5 kg salmon fillet, halved
3 tbsp brandy
3-4 bay leaves
For the Sauce:
250 ml crème fraîche
2-3 tbsp finely chopped dill, depending on how much you like it
2 tbsp wholegrain mustard
1 tbsp runny honey
Salt and pepper to taste
Mix together the salt and sugar until really well combined. Remove the stalks from the dill and chop the rest finely. Mix into the cure with the juniper berries. The cure needs to look pretty green and herby, because you want to get a lot of flavour in there.
In a shallow dish, get some cling film or a cheesecloth, and coat with about a quarter of the cure. Press one half of the fish down well into the cure, skin side down. Rub the cure into the skin, and leave skin side down on the wrapping.
Then you need to load the flesh with the cure. Do this by brushing the flesh with half the brandy and laying about another quarter of the cure over the flesh. Lay a few bay leaves over the fish.
Repeat the brandy and cure on the flesh of the second fillet. Once it is well covered, then lay it on the first fillet, so they are flesh to flesh. If the cure falls out, tuck it back between the fillets.
Rub the last of the cure into the skin of the second fillet. Wrap the fillets tightly together. If you are using cheesecloth, bind it with a series of butcher’s knots, as tight as you can get. The fish will lose liquid as it cures, so it is best to keep it in the shallow dish, unless you really like cleaning the contents of your fridge.
Weigh down the fish, by piling a load of tins on top of a baking sheet on top of the fillets, and placing the whole lot into the fridge. Leave it to cure for 3 days, turning once each day. Rinse off and pat dry with kitchen towel before serving.
To make the sauce, simply mix together the crème fraîche, dill, mustard and the honey. Season to taste.
Serve with the thinly sliced gravad lax on bread, melba toast or knäckebröd, as a delicious starter or hors d’oeuvre.
11 responses to “Gravad Lax: Buried Treasure”
European (Scandinavian) salmon is widely considered to be safe and farming is properly controlled. There are however doubts about salmon from Chile or the “Pacific”. Checks are not so stringent, they say. No point in panicking or exaggerating… it’s a delicious fish.
I agree, it is a delicious fish:). I’m not meaning to panic anyone, but I do think it is better to use well-reared salmon that does not cause environmental damage. I feel exactly the same way about land-farmed animals. I like the “eat less, but better” way of thinking for all foods.
Thank you for this additional information about fish farming practices. It is hard to keep up across the board, there is so much that changes so quickly
Many thanks, a truly wonderful delicacy! Searching ‘River Cottage gravad max’ should get anyone too concerned about farmed salmon to a recipe adapted for sustainably fished mackerel. I’ve done it with what fishermen here call ‘slimy mackerel’ (‘blue mackerel’ in the shops for understandable marketing reasons) and bonito with great satisfaction (even substituting wild fennel for dill because the latter grows so briefly here in Sydney warmth and the former is all so easily foraged).
Hi Oliver, a Happy New Year to you.
I love Gravad max, it’s a great suggestion. I’ve also applied this cure pretty successfully to the European Perch (Perca fluviatilis) too, which I caught myself. You do have to watch the bones with the perch, however.
I get confused with the different mackerel that you have in Australia. I think the slimy mackerel is pretty similar to what I know of as mackerel, isn’t it? I also had what the shop called Mackerel and chips in Cairns, ordered by the Big Guy. I wasn’t too keen on an oily fish in batter, but it turned out to be a white fish, although googling mackerel wasn’t very helpful in that context. Do you have a better idea of what that could have been?
Yep, our slimy mackerel strikes me as much like a mackerel in the European sense (although unless yours is too, ours seems a very fragile critter for getting fresh to market – I struggle to get a firm fillet even a few hours out of the water with ours). Mackerel up in Qld will be a different fish altogether; a bigger, toothier contender that might be ‘school’, ‘Spanish’, ‘spotted’ or some other I don’t know – perhaps somewhere between a mackerel as you know it and tuna. I agree, an odd fish to batter and deep fry in oil, but, well… there is little I can say without denigrating my northern compatriots… maybe it’s the Qld fruit fly up there which makes it so hard to grow the tomatoes that such fish wants…
Ah thanks, worth looking them up, I think.
I meant to say I love the idea of wild fennel in the cure too, one I will have to give a go. I’d like to try pine needles too one day, but that needs a lot of care, and balance with other herbs. Strictly experimental for the time being.
Love the look of that – must have another go at gravlax as the one we made a few years back could have done with more time in the pickle.
Very interested by what you say about pine needles – I have a Scandinavian recipe for a venison stew that calls for pine needles but I’m a bit nervous about cutting swathes from the garden as I have no idea which are edible. Any clues please?
Hi Linda, So, as far as I know, most Firs, Douglas Fir, Spruce, Pines, Cedar, and Juniper have edible needles, which you can use as an ingredient in gravad lax, or stews, teas, wines and even beers. Please do not eat yew.
Also, try to steer clear of any that may have been sprayed with pesticides, and whenever you try a new forage, only eat a little at first, in case you have any sensitivities to it. If you want some more specific information on the edibility or otherwise of your particular conifer, you could try Plants For a Future, who are my go-to guys to double check the things I forage.
Let me know if you do try this stew, it sounds lovely
No, definitely not yew!
Thanks for that, it’s very helpful. I have a lovely new Finnish stewpot my husband bought me for Christmas and I wanted to christen it with something suitably Scandinavian.
I’ll have a rummage round the garden – no nasties there in terms of herbicides and pesticides. And I’ll check out that website. Many thanks.
I always include the disclaimers 😉 I know some people that would not be able to tell a yew, if it sprang from out of their chests.
Do you have a Scandinavian husband? I love foraging in Sweden, so many possibilites
Very sensible, nobody wants to get yued 😉
No, he’s not Scandinavian, his mum was an early adopter of Scandinavian design and had the same pot until it wore out through long use.
It still looks incredibly stylish and undated today, I love it.