“I hope everyone likes fish!” laughs Kajsa Humphreys, carrying a plate of home-cured gravlax and pickled herring potato salad outside. She places the dish carefully onto the table, where it joins a collection of other seafood dishes.
It’s a clear June afternoon with just the slightest chill in the air and, in this neat backyard in eastern Sydney, celebrations for Svensk Midsommar (Swedish Midsummer) are kicking off joyfully. The freshly adorned maypole (a symbol of fertility) takes pride of place in the backyard, surrounded by children who have grabbed each other’s hands and begun to skip around it. Floral headbands are already askew as the children cackle wildly and tumble onto the grass.
“This is our favourite holiday,” smiles Kajsa. Like other countries in Northern Europe, Swedish Midsummer marks the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. Originally a pagan festival, this ancient harvest celebration dates back to pre-Christian times.
“Let me know if you need to borrow something warmer,” the host calls out. Kajsa’s guests have largely ignored dress conventions dictated by the calendar and, instead, wear white, pastels and florals – just as they would in Sweden. Her Tasmanian-born husband, John, is dressed impeccably in a blazer from iconic Swedish brand Tiger of Sweden.
The pair met in 2000, just weeks after Kajsa arrived in Australia on a six-month university exchange program. They’re now married and parents to six-year-old Alva and three-year-old Fred. “For the first few years, I had a lot of Swedish friends here, but over time, most of them have gone back to Europe,” says Kajsa. “Often I’m visiting home in June, but now that the kids are getting older, we really make an effort to celebrate Midsummer properly, wherever we are.”
Today, before the feasting begins, Kajsa takes her daughter’s hand and encourages her to lead her friends in the traditional (and very amusing) song and dance called Små Grodorna (The Little Frogs). The action only slows down when Alva spies John carrying a dish, and the word soon spreads that lunch is served.
“It’s not Midsummer food, but the kids would be devastated if we had a Swedish party and didn’t serve meatballs,” says John. The children sit down and tuck in at a table near their parents, who linger over Jansson’s frestelse (Jansson’s temptation), Gubbröra (Old man’s mix) and other traditional Swedish dishes. Strawberry cream cake and cinnamon scrolls follow. “If we were in Sweden, there’d be bowls of strawberries everywhere,” says Hanna, Kajsa’s friend and fellow-Swede. “Luckily, pickled herring is never out of season!”
The sun begins to set and a small bonfire is lit. The children toast marshmallows and the adults enjoy shots of home-infused aquavit and lingonberry schnapps. No-one needs any encouragement to launch into
Helan Går, which is Sweden’s most famous snapssång or drinking song.
“I do still miss the midsummers of my childhood, which the whole family spent in our summer house, a little red cottage in the county of Värmland,” says Kajsa. “But a day like this, with blue skies and great friends, really helps to make up for it!”
“It may look time-consuming, but there’s actually not a lot of cooking involved with this kind of Swedish food; it’s nearly all preparation of cold ingredients,” explains Kajsa, surveying her packed smörgåsbord (literally a ‘table of sandwiches’). “I grew up helping my mum make these dishes and most of our recipes are inspired by Bonniers Kokbok,” she adds, holding up a well-loved copy. “I’d compare it to Stephanie Alexander’s The Cook’s Companion. We all get one for our 18th or 21st birthday in Sweden; I don’t know anyone who doesn’t own a copy.”
Photography Tony Amos