The schnapps came out just after noon. We were enjoying an al fresco fika (snack) of open sandwiches, summer fruits and succulent herring 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 had welcomed me to their smallholding on the western Swedish island of Tjörn for an introduction to the country’s traditional midsummer festivities. They are part of a new project called Meet the Swedes, which offers a grassroots take on Swedish culture via home stays and family meals. It turned out to be a very good way to start my quest to understand the importance of the annual midsummer party.
“Midsummer evokes all five senses,” said Elisabeth as she washed a large tub of strawberries. She was standing next to a bucket of just-picked elderflowers, used to make cordial. “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,” she said. On the terrace outside she had tied tiny strips of blue-and-yellow fabric (the colours of the Swedish flag) to plants blooming in the sun-warmed pots.
The Swedish midsummer is like New Year’s eve and a holiday weekend rolled into one. City dwellers head for summer houses on the coast for big family gatherings awash with beer, herring and shots of the local firewater. It’s the one day when everyone goes back to the land.
I had arrived in west Sweden the previous day, driving north from Gothenburg through a bucolic landscape of grazing pasture and farmland. People were picking midsummer flowers and berries as I passed. The biggest hint of the coming festivities came when I stopped en route and saw a village fish shop with a queue of tutting locals outside. It turned out they were complaining about the price of herring being suddenly raised.
I stopped for lunch in the harbour village of Skärhamn, home to the Nordic Watercolour Museum. As I viewed an exhibition by Swedish artist Lars Lerin, I got talking about the festival to Anders Arena, manager of Vatten, the museum’s sleek restaurant. “Midsummer is a celebration to welcome the light of the longest day,” he said. “We don’t think about the fact that the days will start getting shorter again.”
After a night at Salt & Sill, the island’s floating eco-hotel, I headed northeast to Ljungskile, a forest region inland from the coast, for midsummer’s eve. I was to join the midsummer banquet at Villa Sjötorp, an early 20th-century summer house rescued from dereliction by the great-granddaughter of the original owner. The lakeside property has been reborn as a country house hotel and restaurant.
I had arrived just in time for a quick class in making my own krans, a headband of summer flowers entwined around soft birch branches traditionally worn by people looking for midsummer romance. According to Swedish folklore, if I place a krans under my pillow on midsummer night, I will dream of my future wife.
Down the road at the village green, a crowd had been gathering since mid-afternoon to watch the annual midsummer dance around the maypole. Young girls, some in the traditional dress of white blouses, red tunics and floral skirts, held their parents’ hands to dance as the accordionist played folk tunes.
A singer with a garland of wild flowers on top of bleached dreadlocks led the crowd through a series of dance routines that was bewildering to a non-Swedish speaker. I was too shy to join in, especially when people started squatting, jumping and waggling their bottoms like leaping frogs.
Back at the hotel, I asked a member of staff about the mysterious dance. “We all learnt it as children but we don’t know why we dance like frogs for midsummer,” I was told.
The evening banquet at the hotel was the traditional midsummer four-course supper enjoyed across Sweden. It includes a starter of three types of herring, served with crème fraîche and new potatoes. The main course includes cuts of beef, chicken and lamb, here served with tomato salad and a deliciously tangy smoked mayonnaise. There is a cheese course and then strawberries to finish.
As midnight approached, I went for a walk to see the lake at sunset. The only sounds on the way down were murmurs from family gatherings and the distant thrum of an acoustic sing-along at a local summer house. It was a rare moment of perfect equilibrium.
David Atkinson was a guest of Simply Sweden, simplysweden.co.uk. Midsummer in west Sweden trips cost from £1,360pp, including car rental and return flights from the UK