Why Buildings Are Red in Sweden and more!

A little red cottage by the edge of the forest.

A little red cottage by the edge of the forest.

Hell on earth, falukorv and little red cottages

Ever travelled through the Swedish countryside? Or at least seen it on TV? Did you notice that the majority of all buildings – homes, barns, boathouses, every shed – are red?

Red cottages with white corners and other white trimmings are as iconic for Sweden as Dalecarlian horses, a Swedish signature mentioned in many songs: “den röda lilla stugan invid grinden” ( ~ the little red cottage by the wicket).

The history of the red paint goes back to approximately 850 AD. That’s when they started mining in Stora Kopparberget (= the Great Copper Mountain) in today’s city of Falun. Over time, the mine developed to a major industrial center, at times delivering two thirds of all copper used in Europe.

In 1347 AD, a Letter of Privileges was issued by king Magnus Eriksson for the foundation of Stora Kopparbergs Bergslag. Today, having extended its operations to several other industrial sectors under the name Stora Enso, this company is considered to be the oldest company in the world still in business.


The ore in Stora Kopparberget contains not only copper, but also sulfur, iron and several other minerals. The methods for extraction were rather primitive and very destructive to the environment. Visitors to the area described the place as a hell on earth, covered by thick black smoke, stinking of pungent sulfur. The air in the nearby city of Falun was so thick of soot and sulfur that people ran into each other, not being able to see more than a few feet. The mine itself was a narrow hole in the ground more than 1,000 ft deep, and there was no vegetation around it for several miles in any direction.

Hell on earth, abandoned in 1992.

Hell on earth, abandoned in 1992.

The great scientist Carl von Linné (a.k.a. Carolus Linnaeus) visited the mine in 1734 AD and described it with horror as the hell on earth. He climbed down in the hole on the sinuous and flaccid ladders to find ”twelve hundred black demons working in the caverns, surrounded by darkness, soot and smoke”. The workers died young, coughing, with noseblood, headache, and skin like leather. And the security arrangements were poor: many died in accidents in the darkness. One of the supervisors wrote ”Där går mången till arbetet frisk och röder, Men blir upwindad lytt, förlamad, lem-löös, döder” ( ~ “Many a man goes to work being healthy and red, But is hoisted up maimed, lame, limb-lose and dead.”

The tools used to quarry the rock and copper ore was sledgehammers, chisels and wrecking bars. But before the workers could use these tools, they had to make the rock crack, creating small fissures and become brittle: this was achieved by lighting a fire against the rock wall, keeping it burning for many hours, and finally pour cold water on the rock. This procedure smothered the clime with black sulfurous smoke and a haze of foul-smelling steam. And once the ore had been hoisted to the ground level, it had to be further roasted for several months (!) to get rid of the sulfur content, before it could be refined to copper. Huge amounts of wood was needed; it is estimated that in the middle of the 17th century, more than 3,000,000 cubic feet of wood was burned each year. In 1687 AD, the mine collapsed and created the giant hole that can be seen today.

The smoke from the open fires contained not only sulfur dioxide but also arsenic, lead, and mercury. The consequences were scary: all vegetation around Falun died, wildlife fleed and fish died. In short, Stora Kopparberget was a major ecological disaster. The mine was finally closed down in 1992, and since 2001 it has been defined as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Today, the mine is open for visitors with guided tours in the underground. (With greatly improved security.)

Now, what has this to do with falukorv and little red cottages? By the way, what is falukorv? Wikipedia defines it like this:

Looks like falukorv but may not be labeled as such.

Looks like falukorv but may not be labeled as such.

Genuine falukorv.

Genuine falukorv.

Falukorv is a large Swedish sausage made of a grated mixture of pork and beef or veal with potato starch flour and mild spices. …
In the EU, restrictions apply to what may be labeled ‘Falukorv’ since 2001.”

In plain language, falukorv is one of the most common dishes found on Swedish tables; sliced and fried, baked with cheese and onions, grilled, chopped and mixed with fried potatoes and herbs,… The size of a typical falukorv is about 1 kg.

The mild flavor allows you to add any spice you like – it’s a versatile base for everyday’s dinner. Falukorv means “sausage from Falun” (sausage translates to “korv” in Swedish). But why is it named after Falun?


The ore quarried at Stora Kopparberget had to be hoisted 1,000 ft to reach ground level: this was accomplished by oxen walking in large treadmills. The oxen were of course exposed to the same hazardous smoke as the workers and had to be killed – i.e. slaughtered ­– ever so often. And the meat was used to make large sausages, that had to be “exported” to other parts of the country… the number of slaughtered oxen and the amounts of produced falukorv were bigger than what could be consumed in the vicinity.

And what about the little red cottages?

A second reason for the time-consuming roasting of the ore (besides getting rid of the sulfur) was to oxidize and thus get rid of the content of iron, which created a cinder of red iron ocher or hematite, called rödmull ( ~ red soil). This was regarded as garbage and was piled up beside the mine. A few hundred years ago, someone noticed that a wooden pole that had been sitting for years in the mound of rödmull showed no sign of rot or decay. This was the start for the production of Falu Röd (Falun’s Red), the paint that soon was on almost every house in the country, since it was cheap and could be mixed on site, boiling rödmull and linseed oil with rye flour and water. (However, since it was rather cheap, people of wealth preferred to paint their houses with more expensive white or yellow…)

The deep red color of Falu Röd is still popular in Sweden and Finland, also imitated in other kinds of modern paint, even if the original still has a large market share. But today you don’t mix it yourself – you buy it in large buckets like any other paint. And it is no longer cheap…

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More horsing around

Thank God for the food!

A tasty and wholesome serving of lasagne, possibly made with horse meat.

A tasty and wholesome serving of lasagne, possibly made with horse meat.

This pious exclamation comes from reverend Nils Lidskog of St. Clara parish in Stockholm’s downtown. He has just been told that the church is about to receive 5 tons of lasagne.

Remember the European horse meat scandal a few weeks ago? The content of beef in frozen and canned food from several providers was found to be fraudulent – DNA analysis showed that the beef was in fact horse meat. Tons of food had to be removed from stores all over Europe, only to be disposed of.

One of the distributors that encountered this problem is Axfood, a major grocery wholesaler in Sweden.

In practise, the problem consisted of 5,000 kg frozen lasagne that couldn’t be sold. The lasagne was produced in Luxembourg, but the producer – who claims to be in good faith, having bought what they believed was prime beef – does not want to have the lot sent back. So what to do? Someone recalled having seen food being handed out to homeless people near the church of St. Clara.

Axfood contacted Livsmedelsverket – the Swedish equivalent to FDA (without the drug part) – and asked if giving away the whole lot to people in need could be permitted. The answer was positive: Livsmedelsverket had no objections against the idea, provided that the outer packaging (with the false list of ingredients) was removed, and every item must be provided with a correct list of ingredients.

(Meat from horses is in fact an excellent nutrient with even better nutritional value than beef. The sparse presence of horse meat in human food is believed to be entirely habitual, originating from ecclesiatical interdiction and superstition.)


People queueing for food outside St. Clara church, in Stockholm’s downtown. Picture from

People queueing for food outside St. Clara church, in Stockholm’s downtown.
Picture from

At Axfood, people are now cutting off the outer wrapping from some 15,000 packages of frozen lasagne, replacing it with a new list of ingredients. The lasagne will then be delivered in small lots to St. Clara church, starting with the first shipment on March 22.

Reverend Lidskog is grateful for the contribution to the charity work, which among other things means that food is handed out to more than a hundred people every day.

Note: Yes, we have homeless people in Sweden. During the last decade, the number has increased by almost 100%. The number of homeless people in Sweden (pop. 9,600,000) today is estimated to be 34,000.

The city of Stockholm (pop. 1,400,000) estimates the number of homeless people in the city to about 2,900, thereof less than 500 that sleep in open air, shelters, subway stations or doorways.

In addition to these figures, there is an unknown number of hidden homeless people, often migrants from other countries in EU who haven’t been able to find a job, sleeping on friends’ couches. These usually do not fit the common perception of what a homeless person looks like, since they are healthy and able-bodied, having no mental or drug-related problems.



Reports have come in that IKEA’s meatball moratorium is coming to an end. Swedish Meatballs (DNA-tested, horse-free, made in Germany ?!) are now being distributed to IKEA’s restaurants, to be served with genuinely Swedish lingonberry jam.


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Horsing Around

Horsing around

During the last few weeks, there have been findings of horsemeat in frozen food, labeled beef, in many European countries. This has upset a lot of people, created large headlines, and forced producers to withdraw large quantities of frozen and canned food, such as meatballs, sausages, meat pies, pasta sauces, lasagne, etc. Thousands of microwave dishes have been DNA-tested to establish what kind of meat that has been used.

The red Dalecarlian horse, sometimes used as a symbol for Sweden, is a traditional toy/trinket that has been manufactured in the province Dalarna since the 17th century.

The red Dalecarlian horse, sometimes used as a symbol for Sweden, is a traditional toy/trinket that has been manufactured in the province Dalarna since the 17th century.

One of the companies that have been hit is Swedish IKEA, which has been serving “Swedish meatballs” with lingonberry jam in its inhouse restaurants in almost every country in the world. But stay calm: meatballs will be back on the menu again after a meatball moratorium to find another, horse-free, food supplier.

Horse meat labeled beef has also been found in England, France, Ireland, Poland… triggering furious outcry. A different but really big problem turned up for a food producer in Iceland. One of its main products, a meat pie, containing 30% ground beef according to the list of ingredients, caused a problem in the lab. Testing for horse DNA, they couldn’t find any substance at all of animal origin in the meat pies… The owner of the factory is still trying to figure out how the typo in the label went undetected for so long… “Meat Pie”. (?)

The main problem with the horse meat is of course not the horse meat itself – most reputable chefs mean that fillet of horse tastes better than fillet of beef, and has a higher nutritional value – the real problem is that you can’t trust the label. This is a serious problem that needs serious attention, justifying the ongoing investigations.

(A questionable side effect of this is that thousands of tons of perfectly good food are withdrawn and incinerated because the label is wrong.)

Now there are of course people who refuse to eat horse for various reasons. Some are horse owners, attached to their big pet/companion. Others have less clear reasons, such as considering horses to be in the same league as dogs and cats – you just don’t eat dogs. Or horses. You eat cows, pigs, chicken and turkey.


Horses were important in the old Norse religion and mythology, which didn’t prevent them from being sacrificed and finally eaten during the big midwinter feast.   This carving on an ”image stone” in Gotland depicts Sleipner, Oden’s big grey eight-legged horse who was faster than the wind.

Horses were important in the old Norse religion and mythology, which didn’t prevent them from being sacrificed and finally eaten during the big midwinter feast.
This carving on an ”image stone” in Gotland depicts Sleipner, Oden’s grey eight-legged horse who was faster than the wind.

But why not horses? The reason goes back to 732 AD, and the name of the reason was Gregorius II, occupation: pope. Christianity was fighting its way up in Europe, and one problem on its way was that people in northern Europe, including Sweden, didn’t want to forsake their great pagan feasts, with an abundance of beer and huge steaks. Horse steaks, that is. The pope realized that he couldn’t forbid beer – if he did, he would have to forbid wine as well, and the people in Italy would make sure that his days in the Vatican were ended very soon. But he could ban horse steaks, since they weren’t so common in Italy anyway. So he did.

Appointing the missionary Bonifacius to archbishop of Mainz (Germany), the pope Gregorius II also instructed the new archbishop to forbid eating of horsemeat. The Catholic ban on horsemeat persisted some 800 years, until Martin Luther et al broke free from the Catholic Church. However, since people weren’t used to cook horse, it was regarded with suspicion and never became a big success. And the demand has been continuingly low until today, even if horsemeat has been available, at least in some butcheries.

One funny thing though is the fact that in Sweden, after the last few weeks’ horsemeat scandal, the demand for tenderloin and steaks from horse has grown. I would say for good reasons: there’s no better meat than fillet of horse…

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How Pepparkakor Makes My Christmas Swedish

pepparkakorI grew up the daughter of a Swedish immigrant to the US and for us, Christmasjul – was the most important celebration of the year. In the days before email and Facebook and Google hangouts, when Sweden was so very far away that my mom called home only once a year, on julafton (Christmas Eve), Christmas was my mom’s best chance to share with my sister and me what she could of her childhood in Sweden.

These days I have my own household and kids, and I want to make sure that I pass on the same traditions that my mom passed on to me. I start at the beginning of December with my julbaket – my Christmas baking. As far as my kids are concerned, cookies are the most important jul tradition- right up there with the presents! The most significant cookies, traditionally speaking, and as measured by quantity, weight and volume, are pepparkakor – the famous Swedish ginger cookies.

Many celebrations center around special foods, but historically, at least, when Sweden was not as rich as it is now, and when there weren’t supermarkets stocked throughout the winter with a variety of foods, planning the julbordet (the Christmas table or buffet) must have implied a certain calculation, a reckoning of the sacrifices that might become necessary during the lean months ahead. Behind the display of Christmas bounty there lay the fervent hope that domesticated animals would survive the winter on the hay that (hopefully) filled your barn, and that your family could survive on the food stored in your cellar. It must have been a sometimes nerve-wrecking balance to strike: the mandate to mark the solstice (and/or the birth of Christ) today, versus the ongoing goal of survival!

But at this moment in time it’s all about pepparkakor! The dough starts innocently enough in a big heavy pot on the stove, filled with water, sugar, spices, lots of butter and some brandy. Here you can see it all melted together into a beautiful, silky brown liquid that makes the house smell delicious. Stir it and when it is cool add the flour, little by little. Then I let the dough sit out in a bowl, or maybe wrapped in plastic, until the following weekend. Don’t worry, the spices will preserve it; it won’t spoil!

When it’s time to bake, get started by preheating the oven, greasing cookie sheets, and getting out the rolling pins and cookie cutters. My mom always makes her pepparkakor heart-shaped, so that’s what I do, too. To me it wouldn’t seem right to make them any other shape, but there’s no law against it, so you can be as creative as you like. (Also like my mom, I make my smörkakor star-shaped; I’ll bake them when it gets closer to Christmas. I also bake bonnkakor, skärgårdskakor and havreflarn, but I do not roll them out and cut them into shapes.)finished pepparkakor

Pepparkakor are prettiest, and taste the best, if you can roll them out nearly paper-thin. Probably because I only make them once a year, it usually takes me a few sheets worth to get it right. Then I really start to roll! My recipe makes enough dough for 3 or 4 straight hours of baking, and by the end of that time I have three large tins full of cookies and two very sore feet!

I sometimes ask myself, why do this? It takes several hours of prime December weekend time; there are always other things going on and certainly other things that need to be done around the house. I wouldn’t have to bake all these cookies…would I?

Well, the truth is I do have to. I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility, and pride, in carrying on this tradition, and in demonstrating to my children and to myself, in a very tangible way, that, even though we live in the suburban US, where plastic Santas and Black Friday stampedes reign, we stand a bit apart. In our hearts we hold the dark northern sky, the moonlight on the snow, tomten with his sleigh, the julbord by candlelight. The truth is, I will probably still be baking these cookies when I am so old that I can barely stand!

This year we added something new to the big pepparkakor bake. My husband got our Swedish friend Lars to join us via a Google hangout. He gave us the shocking news that, nowadays, real Swedes actually buy their pepparkakor dough at the grocery store! We were horrified! But it’s okay for them, because they don’t have to make any special effort to be Swedish. They are Swedish 100% of the time, no matter what they do.

For me, though, the julbaket is more than just baking. Even more than a Google hangout, participating in this traditional activity shrinks the distance between me and the faraway land of Sweden. All of the effort, the stirring, the kneading, the rolling – even the heat from the oven and my aching feet – add up to time spent with my mother and my mormor and all the women who came before them, planning and preparing a special meal for their families. They accept me into their company, so that I, too, for a few hours at least, am a real Swede!

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