"You’ve got soup. Why haven’t I got any soup?" barks a demanding Withnail in "Withnail and I".
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The Swedish menu: Bong water and a casserole beyond William Burroughs’s worst nightmares

Searching in vain for chicken soup in Gothenburg.

In the end, I made it to Gothenburg but I was so ill by the time I got there that all I could face eating was soup. I was in the grip of a hurricane-force cold that would have legitimately permitted me to call in sick if I had an office job. Four weeks of mooching about the place feeling sorry for myself and hardly eating had finally taken their toll.

Sweden is not a country that is particularly big on soup, if the shelves of the local supermarket are anything to go by. Back in England, even a Tesco Express will have a tasty selection but in this neck of the woods the best-looking was a tin of something called “meat soup” made by an entrepreneur named Gustaf Bong, who flourished around the turn of the 20th century. The Beloved looked at it doubtfully but it had a picture of a silver tureen on it and I was about to die so I feebly called for it to be placed in the shopping basket. (Which, incidentally, was on wheels and was pulled along by its handle; when I was well enough to do so, I amused myself by pretending it was a dog, whistling and saying, “Here, boy.”)

The soup, on closer inspection, was perfectly acceptable, being composed chiefly of salt and water. The manufacturers wished us a hearty “Bong appétit!” after the cooking instructions (they suggested, as well as heating it up, adding some herbs to make it taste of something).

I came to learn a few things, some of them disturbing, about Swedish cooking. The Beloved has a horror of fish so that rules out at least half of it but there is plenty more to stir the appetite, especially if you are fond of variations on pork and potatoes. But it is not all like that.

Take flygande Jakob, which translates exactly as “flying Jacob”, a dish that the website scandinavianfood.about.com describes as a “classic Swedish casserole” but whose recipe was first unleashed in a cookery magazine called Allt om Mat in 1976. Its chief ingredients are chicken, bananas, peanuts, bacon and whipped cream. Allt om Mat is the Swedish for “You’ve been had”; I began to see the deep wisdom behind The Muppet Show’s decision to make its crazed chef a Swede.

As it turns out, the Swedes have incredibly sweet teeth and can be seen promenading around town every Saturday with a bag the size of a rucksack filled with confectionery – the kind you’d get from a pick-and-mix at a service station. Apparently, they used to do this every day until the dentists made them promise to do this only on Saturdays. You think I’m making all this up, don’t you? They’re also very fond of their cinnamon buns, which even I have to admit are rather yummy. The miracle is that I didn’t see a single overweight person while I was there.

Not that I saw too many people. There are only about 12 of them in Sweden and I was mostly confined to my sickbed, being nursed by the Beloved, with lashings of Gustaf Bong’s finest to keep me going.

I had a fat, new biography of William Burroughs to occupy me when she was at work. I didn’t know, or had forgotten, that he had been to Sweden; Malmö, to be precise, which was in those days, according to Burroughs, “one of the great centres for the distribution and disbursement of anti-Semitic propaganda”.

As for the country and its neighbours as a whole, Burroughs was not impressed. “Scandinavia exceeds my most ghastly imaginations,” he wrote to Allen Ginsberg, which is quite something from the man who dreamed up the talking arsehole and much worse, but I suspect some of his disdain may have been down to the draconian licensing laws in operation, which were even worse than they are today. You were only allowed two drinks of an evening – which had to be served with food (typically a couple of curling sandwiches, for legality’s sake) – and whenever you entered a restaurant (there were no bars), a doorman would smell your breath to see if you’d been drinking already.

It occurred to me that this might have been the origin of the flying Jacob: a dish that was so patently disgusting that no one in full possession of their faculties would be able to eat it; a satirical dish, anti-cuisine. And yet, for some reason, the Swedes took to their hearts this concoction that even William Burroughs could never have summoned from his darkest fantasies. I take my hat off to them. A nation that can eat a flying Jacob is capable of anything.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Space Issue

HEINZ BAUMANN/GALLERY STOCK
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With the BBC Food’s collection under threat, here's how to make the most of online recipes

Do a bit of digging, trust your instincts – and always read the comments.

I don’t think John Humphrys is much of a chef. Recently, as his Today co-presenter Mishal Husain was discussing the implications of the BBC’s decision to axe its Food website (since commuted to transportation to the Good Food platform, run by its commercial arm), sharp-eared listeners heard the Humph claim that fewer recipes on the web could only be a good thing. “It would make it easier!” he bellowed in the background. “We wouldn’t have to choose between so many!”

Husain also seemed puzzled as to why anyone would need more than one recipe for spaghetti bolognese – but, as any keen cook knows, you can never have too many different takes on a dish. Just as you wouldn’t want to get all your news from a single source, it would be a sad thing to eat the same bolognese for the rest of your life. Sometimes only a molto autentico version, as laid down by a fierce Italian donna, rich with tradition and chopped liver, will do – and sometimes, though you would never admit it in a national magazine, you crave the comfort of your mum’s spag bol with grated cheddar.

The world wouldn’t starve without BBC Food’s collection but, given that an online search for “spaghetti bolognese recipe” turns up about a million results, it would have been sad to have lost one of the internet’s more trustworthy sources of information. As someone who spends a large part of each week researching and testing recipes, I can assure you that genuinely reliable ones are rarer than decent chips after closing time. But although it is certainly the only place you’ll find the Most Haunted host Yvette Fielding’s kedgeree alongside Heston Blumenthal’s snail porridge, the BBC website is not the only one that is worth your time.

The good thing about newspaper, magazine and other commercial platforms is that most still have just enough budget to ensure that their recipes will have been made at least twice – once by the writer and once for the accompanying photographs – though sadly the days when everyone employed an independent recipe tester are long gone. Such sites also often have sufficient traffic to generate a useful volume of comments. I never make a recipe without scrolling down to see what other people have said about it. Get past the “Can’t wait to make this!” brigade; ignore the annoying people who swap baked beans for lentils and then complain, “This is nothing like dhal”; and there’s usually some sensible advice in there, too.

But what about when you leave the safety of the big boys and venture into the no man’s land of the personal blog? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff and find a recipe that actually works? You can often tell how much work a writer has put in by the level of detail they go into: if they have indicated how many people it serves, or where to find unusual ingredients, suggested possible tweaks and credited their original sources, they have probably made the dish more than once. The photography is another handy clue. You don’t have to be Annie Leibovitz to provide a good idea of what the finished dish ought to look like.

Do a bit of digging as part of your prep. If you like the look of the rest of the site, the author’s tastes will probably chime with your own. And always, always, wherever the recipe is from, read it all the way through, even before you order the shopping. There is nothing more annoying than getting halfway through and then realising that you need a hand blender to finish the dish, just as the first guest arrives.

Above all, trust your instincts. If the cooking time seems far too short, or the salt content ridiculously high, it probably is, so keep an eye on that oven, check that casserole, keep tasting that sauce. As someone who once published a magic mince pie recipe without any sugar, I’m living proof that, occasionally, even the very best of us make mistakes. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad