The year-round market shines especially brightly during the holidays with traditional food and decorations.
SCANDINAVIAN SPECIALTIES in Ballard is a year-round destination market for Scandinavian delicacies and gift items, but now is really the time to visit. The shelves are laden with whimsical, traditional decorations and ornaments, as well as an even wider variety of edibles than usual. “A Scandinavian Christmas is the ideal Christmas,” says owner Bjørn Ruud. After all, “They live in the snow, so their Christmas culture is pretty advanced.”
In the countdown to Christmas, the kitchen is producing huge quantities of cured meats, and Ruud also supplies fresh Christmas hams in traditional cuts: Danish loins, Norwegian belly and ribs, and Swedish baked hams. Customers come from as far away as Alberta, Canada, and California to stock up on tradition.
Sometimes, Christmas is all that’s left of a family’s traditions. Ruud grew up speaking Norwegian at home, but he says many Scandinavians who came in the earlier part of the last century were eager to assimilate and didn’t pass on their language or traditions. Scandinavia was poor, and they were glad to leave it behind. But immigrants who came in the 1960s and ’70s, during Norway’s oil boom, felt more pride for their heritage, and as a result shared more of their traditions.
Alf Sagland, a Norwegian sausage-maker, founded the shop in 1962 as the Norwegian Sausage Company. It was located in North Ballard, next to a Scandinavian bakery. At the time, there also was a handful of Scandinavian businesses on Market Street, including a gift shop, a grocery and a restaurant.
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In 1980, Sagland sold the shop to a couple called the Andersons, who changed the name to Scandinavian Specialties, and in 2000, Anne-Lise Berger and Osmund Kvithammer, Ruud’s mother and stepfather, bought it. A year later, they moved it to its current location.
Berger was born in Sandvika, Norway, just outside Oslo. She and Ruud’s father moved to Seattle when she was 28, and since then, she’s been involved in the Norwegian community through the Nordic Heritage Museum, the Sons of Norway and the Norwegian Commercial Club. “She saw the shop as a heritage business,” Ruud explains, “and really wanted to make sure that the community had this.”
Before settling back in Seattle, Ruud tried out a variety of jobs, from fishing in Alaska to trading stocks in New York City. But when Berger was ready to think about retiring, Ruud liked the idea of coming home, taking on more responsibility and being his own boss.
The shop’s kitchen still produces traditional Norwegian sausages from Sagland’s recipes (some fresh, some smoked, some cured), as well as its own pickled herring, fish cakes, nut torte and a magnificent whipped-cream-and-meringue creation humbly called The World’s Best Cake.
Groceries include a vast selection of herrings, mustards, creamed caviar and pates, cheese, lefse, jams, canned fish and meats, as well as plenty of chocolate and other sweets.
A small café serves open-faced sandwiches, including Ruud’s favorite shrimp sandwich; a variety of sweet and savory bites, including lefse neatly folded and filled with sugar, cinnamon and butter; and mini heart-shaped waffles topped with a slice of dark caramel-colored Ekte Geitost, a dense and flavorful Norwegian goat cheese.
The small size of the shop belies the breadth of Nordic items for sale: books, candles and candleholders, sweaters, jewelry, Swedish crystal, and Finnish and Norwegian dishware; specialty kitchen gadgets, including waffle irons and special irons for cookies; and tools for making lefse, including griddles, turners and rollers.
Ruud’s customers are primarily from Nordic and Northern European cultures and people he refers to as Scandiphiles, “who just esteem Nordic culture and cuisine,” a growing population thanks to Scandinavian cooking shows on PBS and the popularity of celebrity chefs and restaurants such as Noma in Copenhagen and Aquivit in New York. I visit because it’s delicious.