* An edited version of this story first appeared in the Weekend FT on June 28. Here’s my full version.
The schnapps came out just after noon.
We were tucking into an alfresco fika (snack) of open sandwiches, summer fruits and particularly succulent herrings when, in celebration of midsummer, Bengt decided a shot of Aquavit was called for.
“Brings out the flavour of the herring,” he winked.
Bengt and Elisabeth Svartholm [pictured above] had welcomed me to their smallholding on the West Swedish island of Tjorn for an introduction to Sweden’s traditional midsummer festivities.
They started welcoming visitors as part of a new project, Meet the Swedes, which offers a grass-roots take on Swedish culture via homestays and family meals. To understand the importance of the annual midsummer party to Swedes, it seemed a good place to start.
“Midsummer evokes all five senses,” explained Elisabeth, washing a large tub of strawberries in the kitchen, a bucket of newly picked elderflowers to make cordial by her freshly painted toes.
“I still remember as a girl running in the fields with no shoes to pick flowers for garlands and the smell of cut grass in the barn for animal feed.”
On the terrace outside, she has tied tiny strips of blue and yellow fabric (the colours of the Swedish flag) to plants blooming in the sun-warmed pots.
Swedes take midsummer very seriously — think New Year’s Eve and a public-holiday weekend all rolled into one.
They down tools and head for their summer houses on the coast for a family gathering lubricated by beer, herring and shots of the local firewater. Whether you’re a builder or a banker, it’s the one day of the year that everyone casts aside their daily routine and goes back to the land.
I had arrived in West Sweden the previous day, driving some 90 minutes north from Gothenburg through a bucolic landscape of grazing pasture and produce-yielding farmland.
People were picking midsummer flowers and berries as I passed. The biggest hint to the gathering momentum of festivities, however, was the burgeoning queues at village fish shops and the rising crescendo of tutting locals as the herring prices headed north as if making a break for the Norwegian border.
I stopped for lunch and a look around the galleries at the Nordic Watercolour Museum in the harbour village of Skarhamn. It was there I found restaurant manager Anders Arena perusing a new exhibition of works by the Swedish artist Lars Lerin.
He appeared particularly drawn to Inland Sea, a watercolour collage of birch leaves, wild flowers and seashells. “Midsummer is a celebration to welcome the light of the longest day,” says Anders, stroking his lustrous sandy beard thoughtfully.
“We don’t think about the fact the days will start getting shorter again.”
On midsummer’s eve I headed northeast to forested Ljungskile to join the midsummer banquet at Villa Sjotorp, a romantic, early 20th-century summerhouse rescued from dereliction by the great-granddaughter of the original owner.
The lakeside property has been recently reborn as a country-house hotel and restaurant. I arrived just in time for a quick class in making my own krans, a headband of summer flowers entwined around soft birch branches.
According to Swedish folklore, I had to place the krans under my pillow that night to dream of my future wife.
Down the road on the village green, a crowd of local families and a few curious bystanders had started gathering from mid afternoon to watch the annual midsummer dance around the maypole.
The spectacle appears to blend elements of ancient German and British folklore but, while the phallic maypole and spiritual embracing of warming rays both feature, the event is a strictly Morris Dancing free zone.
Children, some in traditional dresses, clutch their parents’ hands while local teenagers, resplendent in their chicest summer garb, exchanged flirtatious glances as the accordion player struck up a rousing chorus of folk tunes.
A singer, a garland of wild flowers blooming atop her bleached mane of dreadlocks, lead the crowd through a series of line-dancing style routines. To a non-Swedish speaker such as myself, it was rather bewildering – a bit like gate crashing a church fete and finding the entire congregation squatting on the ground in a frog dance.
“Ah, the frog dance,” laughed the staff back at the hotel knowingly. “We all learnt it as children but, to this day, we don’t know why we dance like frogs for midsummer.”
Dance routines and head decorations completed, we then got down to the serious business that evening of celebrating with traditional food and drink.
The four-course supper included a starter of three types of herring, served with crème fraîche and new potatoes, mains of cuts of beef, chicken and lamb with tomato salad and a deliciously tangy smoked mayonnaise. There was cheese and strawberries to finish.
On a post-prandial walk around the village about 11pm, I found the sense of contented tranquillity across West Sweden was almost tangible.
The only sounds on my way down to the sunset-illuminated lake were murmurs of conversation from al-fresco family gatherings and the distant thrum of an acoustic sing-along at a local summerhouse. It was a rare moment of perfect equilibrium in our spin-cycle modern lives.
Back at the smallholding, meanwhile, Bent and I had been putting the world to rights over pastries and coffee when he emerged from the kitchen with a new bottle of Aquavit and a glint in his eye. Children from the nearby village were gathering flowers in the fields and the tantalising aroma of fried fish drifted by on the summer breeze.
But how will Sweden reconcile itself the next morning, I asked, to the fact that the days are getting shorter again and, after the hedonistic carpe diem of midsummer, winter will be just a few short months away.
Bengt pondered a moment and answered with a final flourish of his trademark dry-laconic humour.
“I will be laying on the sofa,” he deadpanned, “groaning and eating take-away pizza.”
* Click here for the link to the FT-published piece, Sweden’s Midsummer Madness.