Swedish Decompression: Making a hash of it


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September 21st 2019
Published: September 21st 2019
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A couple of years ago, I was marooned in icy Dundee in Scotland to attend an induction course at the University. Stuck in the Apex hotel down by a deserted and frigid Marina, the days quickly assumed a pattern. Each January morning, I would head down breakfast and load up on the haggis as part of a cooked breakfast. I began to enjoy the toothsome, morerish, over-seasoned peppery/saltiness of the dish. I delved again and again into the silver tray and loaded up. Although made from occult and arcane organs your average vet hasn’t seen in his working lifetime, a strange addiction began to take hold. Cold turkey was harsh and unremitting; comprising a six month struggle with chronic, bilious dyspepsia.

Swedish cooking has a near identical dish. Polsa. This is haggis liberated and unfettered by any sausage casing. A kind of freedom haggis. It is a hash of weird meats with the same oatmeal binding, although less highly seasoned. It is also a dish of the north and is consequently uncompromising; it is the sort of thing that would make Jamie Oliver’s tongue drop off. Traditionally, it is served with pickled beetroot, (which does a wonderful job of taking the edge off), fried potatoes and has a fried egg on top. I was told this is not the food you wouldt find in restaurants (certainly not Stockholm). Therefore it would have to be bought in a tin can.

I have to confess that on opening the can, the dog food smell was a little off putting. Once warmed through, the meaty melange so resembled its Celtic culinary cousin. There is no doubt, however that anyone would find it hard to rhapsodise about this unpreposessing stodge.

This hash of humbles has become the but of a long 200-odd page joke. It’s proved to be the inspiration for the novel by Swedish writer Torgny Allgren simply entitled “hash” in English.

It is largely an allegorical novel about writing and the creative process. It is infused with magic realistic touches and has a shaggy dog story feel to the novel’s proceedings.

It’s set in 1947, in a remote northern village beset by rampant TB. Robert Maser, a travelling garment salesman who may or may not be the fugitive Nazi Martin Bormann and the local school teacher, Lars, seek diversion. The record of their exploits is penned by a hugely unreliable witness, an overly inventive 107 year old retired newspaper reporter with a previously prohibited track record of making things up

Lars and Robert are served their first experience of hash by their landlady (with benefits). Blown away by the taste, they are informed that other equally remote villages offer different or even superior hash. The ultimate was Ellen’s hash in the village of Lillsjoliden.

Using a trusty steed; a German diamond motorcycle, The two protagonists are thus sent on a grail quest in search of the hash of all hash’s.

The Swedes have an amazing sense of the absurd. The theme of Swedish humour that runs through relates to elevating something so humble to mythic proportions and the intrinsic absurdity of doing this. One protagonist states “With Swedish hash everything is possible. It is beyond ordered and civilised society. If life has been empty and meaningless and you encounter hash, you have today to yourself; there is after all some foundation or core or center in the immeasurable infinity of existence. We do not have to give up”.

At the end of the book, Ellen turns out to be a Dickensian grotesque living in a hovel and about to embark on a three day hash cooking marathon. Naturally it doesn’t end well for both hash obsessives

After reading the book, I doubt, I will ever look at the cacophony of cheap meats in the same way again.

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