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MIDSUMMER

Midsummer: Why do Swedes like to pretend they’re little frogs?

One of the most bizarre yet commonly observed Midsummer traditions in Sweden is the frog dance around the maypole. The dance, which everyone living in Sweden sees all ages do each summer, has become a staple of Swedish culture.

Dancing around the Maypole is one of the biggest Midsummer traditions. Photo: Henrik Holmberg / TT

The song describes little frogs who are apparently amusing to look at, due to their lack of ears and tails, and is accompanied with dance moves to represent ears and tails. The song then mimics croaking and the dancers skip like frogs around the pole.

Maybe you saw Swedish actor Peter Stormare sing the song to Tom Cruise in the American action movie Minority Report, made by Steven Spielberg in 2002. Or maybe you have seen Swedish celebrities demonstrate the dance, such as Alicia Vikander in the clip below. Maybe you’ve simply been bewildered when the frog dance broke out at a Swedish Midsummer party.

Here’s how the song goes:

Små Grodorna lyrics

Små grodorna, små grodorna är lustiga att se.

Little frogs, little frogs, are funny to look at.

Små grodorna, små grodorna är lustiga att se.

Little frogs, little frogs, are funny to look at.

Ej öron, ej öron, ej svansar hava de.

No ears, no ears, no tails have they.

Ej öron, ej öron, ej svansar hava de.

No ears, no ears, no tails have they.

Kou ack ack ack, kou ack ack ack,

kou ack ack ack ack kaa.

Kou ack ack ack, kou ack ack ack,

kou ack ack ack ack kaa.

Where does it come from?

Despite being a pinnacle in Swedish culture, the song actually originates from France.

It borrows from the French military march La Chanson de l’Oignon (The Song of the Onion), which was sung by the Napoleon army. The onion was an important source of food for the French army, and the chorus, used for croaking in the Swedish version, goes “Au pas, camarade, au pas, camarade, au pas, au pas, au pas” (In step, comrade) in the French original.

As for how frogs became involved in the song, it is commonly believed to be due to a parody version sung by the English, who at the time were bitter enemies of France. The English referred disparagingly to the French as “frogs” or “frog-eaters” and rewrote the lyrics to “Au pas, grenouille” (In step, frog). 

How this song made its way into Swedish traditions is not known, but the first recorded instance of the “Little Frogs” was in woodwork and culture classes given at Nääs castle in the end of the 1800s. These courses were given to teachers where they could learn songs and traditions to pass onto school children. 

The song is also sung in Norway as “Små Rumpetroll” and in Denmark as “Små Frøer”. But it is relatively young in terms of Swedish children’s ballads. Some the other Midsummer classics, such as “Räven Raskar Över Isen” (The Fox Hurries Across the Ice) can be traced back to the middle ages, according to Mats Nilsson, professor of ethnology at Gothenburg University.

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MIDSUMMER

The essential dishes for Swedish Midsummer

Midsummer is the most Swedish of Swedish holidays, widely considered to be the real National Day to celebrate all things Swedish. So, what are the essentials for a Midsummer celebration?

Traditional Midsummer fare is served buffet-style, similar to the food served at Christmas or Easter, with a focus on summer crops such as new potatoes, radishes and strawberries, rather than winter vegetables like cabbage and kale. 

Midsummer is always celebrated on the Friday closest to the summer solstice, which falls on June 24th this year. It’s not technically a public holiday so you may be in work, but lots of employers will give their staff a half or full day off anyway.

Here’s what you’re likely to see at a Midsummer celebration, as well as how you can make it yourself.

Matjes-style herring served with crispbread, boiled new potatoes with dill, cheese and diced onions. Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT

Herring

It wouldn’t be a proper Swedish celebration without pickled herring or sill. In many families, one member of the family (often a grandmother) is tasked with preparing sill for the Midsummer meal weeks in advance.

If you’re based in Sweden, you can buy herring in the supermarket, although most will say that homemade pickled herring is superior. Vegetarian or vegan pickled herring substitutes such as svill (made from mushrooms) and tofusill (made from tofu) are also commercially available.

If you are planning on making your own pickled herring for Midsummer, you have a few options. Either you can buy ready-salted herring fillets in the supermarket which can be pickled straight away, or you will have to buy fresh herring fillets which you salt yourself – the latter option can take up to two weeks though, so you’ll have to save that for next year if you want to try doing it yourself.

You can also make your own vegetarian options: try pickling auberginecourgette or tofu. Most recipes will take at least two days, with the herring or alternative of choice needing to marinate overnight before serving, so get planning now if you want to have it on the table for Friday.

Here are a selection of pickled herring recipes from John Duxbury’s Swedish Food website.

Herring is usually served alongside bread or crispbread, cheese and butter, referred to as an S.O.S. (sill, ost och smör), so make sure you pick up some bread and hard mature cheese such as västerbottensost if you want to recreate this dish.

Summer crops

Some early varieties of potato are ready just in time for Midsummer, making them a feature on the Midsummer table. New potatoes, färskpotatis (“fresh potatoes”) in Swedish, are delicious by themselves, so you’ll often see them just served boiled, cooled, and sprinkled with dill.

Radishes are also a popular feature on the Midsummer table as they are ready at this time of year, although it can be difficult to find Swedish radishes in the shops. They’re often served raw, perhaps with a dip of sour cream or gräddfil on the side.

Finally on the summer crops front, strawberries are the crowning glory of the Midsummer table, with pundits closely monitoring the harvest in the weeks leading up to the holiday. Strawberries and cream are a classic combination, either served as-is or in some sort of strawberry tart or cake.

Strawberries are the crowning glory of the Midsummer buffet. Photo: Carolina Romare/imagebank.sweden.se

Salmon

Most Midsummer buffets will feature at least two sorts of salmon, one is often a baked side of salmon. Along with baked salmon, you’re likely to find smoked salmon and/or gravad lax (literally “buried salmon”, preserved in salt, sugar and often dill) alongside hovmästarsås, a mustard and dill sauce which is also served at Christmas.

If you don’t eat fish, you can make a vegetarian or vegan version of gravad lax from carrots. This is usually referred to as gravad morot. Here’s a recipe (in Swedish) from the book Vegansk husmanskost by Gustav Johansson. Again, it needs to be marinated overnight, so make sure to plan this in advance.

Eggs

Although not quite as important at Midsummer as they are at Easter, eggs are another mainstay of a Midsummer buffet.

You’ll often see them served simply hardboiled and cut in half, or potentially topped with mayonnaise, prawns and cod roe, known as kaviar in Swedish. This is sold in small glass jars in the fridge section of the supermarket, and can be orange or black – and is not the same as Kalles kaviar, sold in blue tubes, which is much saltier.

To make these vegetarian, you can leave out the prawns and use a vegetarian version of kaviar made from seaweed. Look for tångkaviar, which may be in the fish section of the supermarket, or the vegetarian section, if your supermarket has one of these.

If you live outside Sweden, you may be able to source tångkaviar in the food market at your local Ikea.

For a vegan option, try sliced tofu topped with vegan mayonnaise (spiked with black salt, if you can get hold of it, which will give it an eggy flavour). Top with tångkaviar and a sprig of dill and you’re good to go.

Make sure to brush up on your snapsvisor if you want to fit in at Midsummer. Photo: Janus Langhorn/imagebank.sweden.se

Snaps

Finally, don’t forget the snaps. Midsummer is the booziest holiday of the year, with Swedes taking breaks throughout the meal to drink nubbar (small bottles of flavoured snaps or akvavit) and sing snapsvisor (drinking songs).

Make sure you eat a lot of food to soak up all that alcohol, and you’re certain to have a great Midsummer – maybe grab a couple of frozen pizzas for the next day, though, when you’re busy nursing your hangover.

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