I can’t believe you think this is butter

This week I offended a client. I didn’t mean to, I just had to tell her that I couldn’t translate any more of a particular type of text. And it wasn’t the obviously offensive – I don’t do nuclear, or anything to do with the armed forces, or asset stripping, or even intensive farming. No, it was a menu. A Swedish menu. Because the problem with Sweden, even more than its incredibly Victorian attitude to patients’ rights (i.e. you haven’t got any and should simply do what Doctor says)… is the food.

Sure, they make all the right noises, and pretend that they understand the importance of good ingredients. But – visits by the likes of Jamie Oliver notwithstanding – that’s simply not true.

And here’s the perfect illustration. In fact, here are two illustrations. First, the butter section of a supermarket in a small market town near our place in France (population of the entire municipality: 2,553). In this town there are three supermarkets, plus a variety of other food shops, including the best traiteur I’ve ever visited in my life.

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Even if you can’t make out the details, you can certainly see that there are a wide range of varieties and brands. And if you can see it close up, you’ll see organic butter, Breton butter, Normandy butter, butter from Charentes-Poitou, butter with sel de Guérande and sel de Noirmoutier, plus a range of unsalted types, including something called Buerre Devilloise, which I didn’t spot while I was there but will definitely be trying next time.

And second, the butter section of a supermarket in a largeish town near our place in Sweden (population of the entire municipality: 83,191). In this town there are a number of relatively small supermarkets, but this is one of the two biggest.

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I haven’t cheated and taken a photo of only part of the shelf – this really is it. And actually, the Milda (bottom right) isn’t even butter. It’s cooking margarine (that’s Stork, if you’re a Brit).

So in Sweden you can get the following: Salted butter. Extra salted butter (and something that’s extra salty in Sweden is really fucking salty). Unsalted butter. Organic butter (salted).

And that is it.

You can’t get organic unsalted butter.

You can’t get unpasteurised butter.

You can’t get artisan butter.

You can’t get any kind of butter from a region.

What you can get is SMÖR (which, coincidentally, is not entirely unlike the Swedish word for “lubricate”, and that’s about what you’d want to do with the butter in these monopolistic packets).

Because when you can’t even get good quality in such a basic ingredient as butter, the rest of your cuisine doesn’t have much of a chance. And in Sweden, notwithstanding the odd star chef, actual authentic contemporary cuisine is characterised by overly fussy presentation and poorly selected, badly combined ingredients. About like Britain in the 1970s, say.

For example, the dish that made me decide I really really couldn’t stand translating any more Swedish menus was as follows, at an (ostensibly) authentic Italian restaurant:

Pasta, chicken, red pepper, curry and peanuts in a cream sauce.

Now, by my reckoning, that’s at least Italian, Indian and Thai cuisines in a single dish.

Because in Sweden, “fusion cuisine” means “scrape out the contents of the dustbin and slop it all onto a plate”.

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