For Swedes, “midsommar” is a day in the middle of the year to eat well and get very drunk. June 24th, or the following weekend, means the crack and slurp of crayfish, the burn of iced snaps. To paint a picture: Around tables laid copiously with food, people will bustle – chatting, eating and drinking until they break into raucous, very Swedish, song. There’ll be bowls of lovely new potatoes, plain and boiled or in potato salads and salads of beets and lightly pickled cucumber. There’ll be jugs of elderflower cordial, buckets that clink with ice and bottles of weak, supermarket beer. And then the serious booze from Systembolaget (the state-run “alcohol retail monopoly” which, according to its website, “exists for one reason: to minimize alcohol-related problems by selling alcohol in a responsible way”. Ho ho!). You hope to find Janssons frestelse, le vrai gratin dauphinois du nord – waxy potatoes cut into matchsticks and baked with cream and spiced and cured anchovies. There’ll be slightly sweet inlagd sill to pile on crispbread with sour cream and pretty little fronds of dill. There’ll be old codgers thrilling from the stink of putrid surströmming, assembling hors d’oeuvres on soft or hard tunnbröd, variously with bits of onion, potato, chive and, again and again the taste of the Baltic, sour cream and dill. These do the job of carrying a serious pungency (though really it’s one much more of the nose than the mouth). And, last but not least, there’ll be the main event: platters, or vast cauldrons, of crayfish, usually cold, and snaps and lots of it.
I have felt for a while that we lack something like a Swedish midsommar: a summer festival somewhere between Easter and Hallowe’en, or Bonfire Night, Thanksgiving if you’re American, even Christmas. I mean, I think, one where a ritual of food and drink makes the day, and people say: “Happy Midsummer!” A summer party – there are lots of those scattered through the summers of my childhood – isn’t quite the same thing. We’d have marquees, barbecue things on half-oil drums, make too many banoffi pies in a way which approached custom – but it always felt more just a really good party than a festival of collective indulgence and celebration.
At Cambridge, there has been May Week. It’s a time that extends several weeks from the end of May – May Week Was in June – when the university comes together to celebrate liberation from the library and the exam hall. All over people are popping bottles of Cava and eating punnets of half-price Elsanta strawberries from Marks and Spencer. And this May Week, my final one, sitting with a few others on the banks of the river, has felt quite lovely. But I’m glad it’s over. The alcohol and the picnics – blowout picnics where great whacks of bread expand inside you with a slurry of pâté and fatty sausage – begin to take their toll. Consumption has been relentless – so much food and one, two, three bottles every day. I might feel awful the next morning and think, No, I’m not doing it again – but there’ll be a drinks reception or a garden party. Someone thrusts a cooling glass of half-decent sparkling wine in your hand which, hair of the dog, whets the appetite and away we go again. New fetishes for ice-cold manzanilla and Campari and soda do not help things. My liver, my flabby stomach, my aching head have begged me to stop.
That’s really the problem with these things you take part in just because you do, just because it’s traditional. They become, after the initial euphoria, dreadfully punishing. As I often do, I was flicking through Elizabeth David’s collections of essays a few days ago and came across a few of the things she wrote on Christmas. (Jill Norman collected them along with a folder of unpublished recipes in the posthumous Elizabeth David’s Christmas. It’s a book worth owning.) Her attitude to Christmas is no less acerbic than to most of the other things – there are a lot of them – she deemed the masses to have made distasteful through excessive enthusiasm.
If I had my way – and I shan’t – my Christmas day eating and drinking would consist of an omelette and cold ham and a nice bottle of wine at lunch time, and a smoked salmon sandwich with a glass of champagne on a tray in bed in the evening. This lovely selfish anti-gorging, un-Christmas dream of hospitality, either given or taken, must be shared by thousands of women who know it’s all Lombard Street to a China orange that they’ll spend both Christmas Eve and Christmas morning peeling, chopping, mixing, boiling, roasting, steaming.
‘Untraditional Christmas Food’ (Vogue, Dec 1959), in Is There a Nutmeg in the House? (London, 2001), p.171
Her un-Christmas dream rings polemical; not so much a serious proposition for Christmas eating, but in defiance of its communal good spiritedness determining what you must buy, cook and eat. Read her Christmas book further and we find odes to crystal consommés, to winter soups, enthusiasms for hams, carefully cooked poultry, cold goose, various nut and fruit-rich stuffings – all the stuff of Christmas, “untraditional” and traditional. But the phrase “this lovely selfish anti-gorging” distils Elizabeth David’s attitude to food and drink, I think, into an admirable phrase. Festivals like Christmas, Easter, Midsummer and their enthusiastic gorging and boozing are quite necessary, but largely to satisfy a weakness for carnival and ritual, the assurance of annual motion and of repetition. We could do with a bit of that at our midsummers; I would like a few sweet, rusty-shelled crustacea and a measure or three of vodka. But too much enforced, traditional gorging – viz. May Week – makes you realise how good it is to eat and drink sensibly, that is, not quite meanly, but impressionistically, judging by caprice.
I like white wines with all cheese dishes, and especially when the cheese in question is Gruyère. No doubt this is only a passing phase, because as a wine drinker and not a wine expert one’s tastes are constantly changing. But one of the main points about the enjoyment of food and wine seems to me to lie in having what you want when you want it and in the particular combination you fancy.
An Omelette and a Glass of Wine (London, 1986), p.52