It is Sunday 12 November and I’m sitting on the lounge soaking up the warm sun lapping my face as it makes its way through the window. Outside its 22°C and I’m wondering about the oddity of this weather only a month and few days away from Christmas. Not that I’m complaining but as much as I like the sun’s warmth and the light it emits, I long for the cosiness surrounding the colder months.
As in recent years, this autumn was pretty mild in Malta. It is almost a cooler version of summer. It could be that distant memories start to fade, but I find that seasons have almost completely vanished with each passing year. Thank you global warming! Perhaps that is one reason why lately my festive mood is so slow to creep in. And then Christmas suddenly comes and goes.
Ironically, as I meditated with the warm sun still washing my face, a thought crossed my mind: what if this year I stoke my Christmas spirit early enough by visiting Scandinavia – the land of ice and snow, of warm-huddle-fires and reindeer? After all, most of our Christmas habits originate from Nordic traditions.
Soon enough the little spark snowballed into something actionable. I hit my laptop and started searching for novel ways to experience Scandinavia and among the reams of proposals, I came across a food and photography retreat taught by Sif Orellana and organised by Kajsa Jeppson. It instantly tickled my fancy. Aptly titled ‘A Scandinavian Christmas Tale’ the idea of attending the retreat ticked all the right boxes; it provided a smooth introduction to Sweden and its food to a first-timer visitor, it fitted my busy agenda and came just in time to rev up my Christmas spirit-o-meter. Add to this the numerous failed past attempts to attend a food photography workshop and you’ll understand why I couldn’t possibly let this one pass. The stars seemed to align in my favour!
With a jam packed 3-day retreat, I decided to arrive in Gothenburg a day earlier giving me time to explore the city. Gothenburg’s small size makes it easier to navigate the streets. Trams rumble like clockwork, past ornate houses boasting cosy coffee houses. There are a lot of them too. Indeed, the speciality café scene has become one of the city’s strongholds and feeds Sweden’s quasi national pastime of fika – or coffee break – the first Swedish word I learned upon my arrival. Perhaps it’s down to the time in the late 18th century when coffee was outlawed turning it into a desirable beverage but Swedes really love their coffee. Fika is about sharing a drink as it is about food, typically a sweet bun. I had mine at Café Husaren situated in the middle of the old and charming Haga neighbourhood which perhaps serves the largest cinnamon buns in the city. Yet the cosy café with its 19th century glass roof and stucco work offered more than fika. It offered a much-needed respite from the freezing temperatures which now started to get the best of me.
Downtown, the Christmas spirit was alive thanks to the light snow which covered the trees lining Kungsparken and the magical festive decorations adorning the street as locals bustled quietly about their duties. Ah, silence that feeling which is so alien to someone coming from the Mediterranean. It is indeed striking to observe the stillness and tranquillity which a sizeable crowd of Swedes is capable of mustering so well that you could almost hear a pin drop. Back home, on the other hand, standing in a similar-sized crowd would sound as if everyone around you is equipped with a megaphone.
I spent the rest of the afternoon walking around Gothenburg’s marvellous shopping streets, observing the dreamy Christmas decorations in store windows, punctuated by the occasional pit stop to warm up from the bitingly cold temperatures. For one particular stop, it was more the scent of spices wafting from a shop which attracted me in, rather than the urge for shelter. Inside stood a young lady busy kneading a dark brown dough. I stood by watching as, like magic, she rolled the dough in a thin sheet. Then she pressed different mould shapes in the pastry and slid the hearts, stars, snowflakes, the works in a baking tray. I was still mesmerised by the display when another young lady approached me from the side holding a tray laden with the baked biscuits. She explained that the cookies are what Swedes call pepparkakor or gingersnaps as she invited me to help myself. Although Swedes bake them all year round, no Christmas is complete without pepparkakor. The traditional Christmas thin, crisp biscuits are heavy on spices – cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and ginger – with the goat shape becoming predominant, being the holiday’s symbol. Interestingly, the cookies are also used to decorate Christmas trees – the most widespread symbol of the festive season. Indeed, the Christmas tree originated from a pre-Christianity northern European tradition of bringing evergreen branches indoors in the middle of winter and was popularised in 17th century Germany.
The big day finally arrived. Since this was the first time I participated in a food photography workshop and had read a ton of reviews, I was excited to finally experience the instructive part of my visit. We were welcomed by Sif and Kajsa who immediately made us feel comfortable even if for most the other participants were strangers. We came from practically all over the world and being the only male among ten ladies was slightly intimidating at first but the group was extremely warm and open which helped to instantly bond and make the whole experience fun.
Apart from being an award-winning cookbook writer, publisher and photographer, Sif regularly runs food photography workshops. The introductory session was both a rundown of her incredible success story which was inspirational in itself and a brief of the core “assignment” the group was expected to carry out by the end of the retreat. We had to work as a team to prepare a special edition on Christmas in Scandinavia for a fictitious magazine. This was such a cool idea and something which had a practical element which I found useful. Sif encouraged each of us to choose a particular angle of the theme from the start. In this way, we could channel our mind’s “eye” to focus on those things which are relevant to each participant’s chosen story.
Most of the classes were held in Kajsa’s studio in Spinneriet – a charming former spinning factory converted in the most inspiring work space for artists and designers as well as small shops. It was the ideal setting to capture the magical Nordic light seeping through the large windows running along the studio. The group wandered around shooting props and furnishings and capturing the unique festive atmosphere helped by the slow flickering movements of the lit candles spread all over the room. Indeed, candles are an important ingredient of Scandinavian life, helping to fray the darkness that characterises the days around winter solstice. They are a main feature in Christmas decorations.
Our lesson spilled over to lunch which was served at Lilla Spinneriet restaurant on the same ex-factory grounds. This was such a unique experience since we were allowed to decorate our long table with green boughs, fresh fruit and other props. The curated menu, which I was told changes periodically, was available only in Swedish but Anna from the group patiently translated every ingredient in English! I stopped her as soon as I heard her mutter the word venison. I knew instantly what my choice would be. Venison is rarely available in Malta and I know from past experience how delectable the meat is. And flavoursome it surely was. The dish was a perfect balance between the rich and earthy taste of the meat and the tarty and sour lingonberry condiment. The creamy mashed potatoes sealed the deal! As soon as lunch was served, the group went into a frenzy; from mounting chairs for a top view shot to standing by the window for a plate-in-hand photo, it was a fantastic opportunity to capture the gorgeous and nicely styled food. The patrons were a little less amused!
The afternoon session started with a pleasant surprise by Kajsa. We assisted to a display of traditional Swedish Christmas carols by her four colleagues dressed in a white robe and holding candles. The ritual which is widespread in Scandinavia around 13 December is a celebration of St. Lucia – which means light – who died as a martyr saving persecuted Christians. It is unclear how the Italian saint entered Scandinavian tradition but it is intriguing to learn that a Southern symbol is an important part of Nordic Christmas tradition. Closely associated with this celebration are Lussekatts or saffron-flavoured buns dotted with raisins. The special bun is similar to a normal wheat pastry but is flavoured with saffron which represents light. The result is a very inviting yellowish colour…and a wholesome bun!
The buns also served as a perfect subject for a session on food styling. Sif went into the detail of, and shared awesome tips and tricks on, ways to set up a scene using the “hero” as the centre of attraction but also using props to tell a visual story in a “personal voice”. We were then allowed time to put our styling skills to practice using lussekatts as our subject.
During the workshop, we also had time for excursions which allowed us to capture the soul of Gothenburg on camera while enjoying more soulful brews and pastries at Da Matteo voted as Sweden’s best coffee house. Despite being exhausted after each day of hard work, the group would still meet around a table for dinner and engage in fascinating and endless chats about food photography, exchange insights and share ideas and dreams.
Sharing these moments with great and kind people who are just as passionate about food and photography as I am perhaps remains the most favourite experience. The trip to Gothenburg was indeed transformative not only for poking my festive spirit. I had signed up for the workshop hoping to hone my visual storytelling techniques, but I left with so much more. As soon as the group painfully exchanged the goodbyes, my head was buzzing with millions of ideas, my heart warmed by a fabulous journey and another one that is about to begin. It was the best Christmas gift I could give to myself!
You can follow guest writer Ivan Ebejer on Instagram where he does food styling with food that he prepares at home.