Take a good look at the picture above. This is a plankstek, a traditional Swedish dish made with
beefsteak, mashed potatoes, mushrooms, béarnaise sauce, vegetables wrapped in bacon, and a
tomato wedge. One of the problems with the plankstek above is that in the menus from which I
ordered it was called a Jacques bräd, or Jacque’s Board. The restaurant billed itself as serving
French food, so that I assumed that Jacque’s board, served with the ingredients listed, named
after a Frenchmen, would be in fact a French-style grilled steak, served on a board. (I have seen
them in France.) A second problem was that I had never seen a plankstek before, so I was
unprepared. A third was that the dish was terrible, and tasted as ridiculous as it looks.
The potatoes were made from instant, tasteless and grainy, with flecks of raw potato thrown in.
The steak was actually two filets of an indeterminate cut, unseasoned, watery and overcooked.
The sauce was tasteless too. The tomato was mealy.
And I had such high hopes! A real French-style bistro in Uppsala! Only the week before, I had
been in Paris and eaten terrific bistro food at places like Au Petit Riche and La Rotonde and even
the staff restaurant at the University of Paris-West, Nanterre: simple, traditional food (meat and
potatoes, mainly) with humble wines that were carefully selected and entirely delicious.
I am not going to name the restaurant in question. Why pick out one restaurant for condemnation
when there are so many equally deserving of it? Why harm one person’s business instead of
another’s? But I want to call attention to a confusion. The restaurant had several dishes that were
openly French, at least in name, including a French onion soup (heated in a microwave before it
came out, with raw tasting onion bits and almost no cheese on top): a choucroute garni, made
with two big decent garlic sausages from a Stockholm butcher, a dried-out hunk of pork and
packaged sauerkraut; and a bouillabaisse which we did not try because it was made, according to
the menu, with salmon, cod and prawns, none of which are remotely similar to real bouillabaisse
fish, only to traditional Swedish ‘bouillabaisse’, which is sometimes a passable, spicy chowder,
and sometimes not so passable. Both the starters we had and the main courses were served with
genuine helpings of freshly fried garlic bread, one slice of which was smeared with burned garlic
bits: garlic bread is not the sort of think any French person, or maybe even any sane person,
would eat with French onion soup or choucroute garni, and eating it burned is absurd. It should
not have been served.
Again, as always, in my capacity as a practitioner of the human sciences, I call attention to the
strange role that tradition and incompetence can play in European food. The plankstek is well
known in Sweden. Here is another picture.
But why, in an age when I buy French cheeses from France on-line, when just about everyone in
Sweden has travelled outside the nation’s borders for a holiday more than once, and when even
Swedish TV devotes many hours every week to cooking shows, featuring excellent cuisines from
France, the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States, do Swedish restaurants (at least in
my town) keep serving the same old-fashioned, fussy and ridiculous food, complete with instant
potatoes and burned garlic? And why, at the same time, do they pretend that it is something else?
‘Ridiculous you say!’, replies the Swede, ‘Someone who comes from the country where the corn
dog was invented has no right to tell Swedes how to eat.’ And right you are, my friend. But no
American would be served a corn dog at French restaurant, not even a ‘Franco-American’ one.
I was going to say something about the Kantian notion of universal subjectivity, but never mind.
Another night this week I had an excellent restaurant meal in Uppsala, at the Villa Romana.
When the weather is warm (May - October) the Villa Romana goes outside, specialises in outdoor
drinks and lunch in a fine old square with a view of the city's cathedral, and the menu goes a bit
Swedish. But in December, in the dark, the food served was genuine Italian, though not
genuinely regionally Italian, and it was as good as, well, as my non-Italian but Italy-in-her-blood
wife Marion makes. Even almost as good as I make. So well done, Villa Romana! We had spicy
pasta dishes, mine with nicely cooked shellfish in a tomato sauce, and finished with a terrific
tiramisu. One of the highlights of dessert was that the perfectly traditional tiramisu was served
with a compote of Swedish berries.