Barrowboy in winter

For a couple of hours in Skåne this weekend and in a gesture of spectacular personal effrontery, it snowed. Not much – perhaps 5cm – but enough to make the landscape look a little more like January than it did last week. I suspect that Skadi, the Nordic goddess of winter, was responsible for the irony of snow falling here while I was driving the 700km to Dalarna just to throw snowballs at the moon but, as I’d hoped, by the time we’d arrived at Villa Långbers the snow lay round about crisp and even, if not very deep. And it was cold.  About -17°C cold. The cloudy weather and snow that was forecast clearly hit the country further south and so, adding surprise to the delight of spectacular frozen vistas, we had some delightful days with bright sunshine and cold, clear nights.

Tällberg is an interesting place and a smallish, pretty collection of houses hung randomly on the side of a hill overlooking Lake Siljan. The town has a wealth of old buildings and, for the most part, these are maintained well so that the overall ambiance is one of historic rural ideal. This appeals greatly to visitors and tourists – as it did to us – as well as organisers of corporate events. The seven rather cosy hotels are especially busy at midsummer but in winter they cater for Swedes heading for the ski slopes. Pretty as Tällberg is, one can’t escape the feeling that the majority of the two-hundred local residents – most of the youngsters escape to Stockholm as soon as they can – are well-heeled retirees and summer-house owners.

Skiing in Sweden is not the massive industry that we know from further south in Europe and comparisons between the short days on modest hills and the high pistes of the Alps would be unfair. It is, however, less pretentious and thereby much more relaxed. We managed some cross-country along excellent forest trails during the weekend but, like many of the more strenuous aspects to my life, I lack practice and spent more time on my bum than I need to go into here. Unscathed, I searched the local forests in vain for Three-toed woodpecker but got some good record photographs of an Eagle owl. Regrettably, there was no wolf action; the howling we heard in the distance at night turned out to be the local youth dealing with the long, dark winter as only they know how.

A frozen Lake Siljan beyond a paddock
Gärdsgård - a typical Swedish fence used for keeping things out, not fencing them in

The method of building log cabins like these was exported to North America with the settlers. The system is known as 'cross-joint'. The building to the right is a härbre, which was used to store food and usually built off the ground to protect against pests and damp

Mission Control lends moral support in the search for a Three-toed woodpecker

Still no snow and the geese are getting fat

Barnacle geese arriving

Well into January and, despite an occasional crisp, cold day the warm, wet and windy weather continues. I’ve just read that it’s been the warmest Christmas and New Year in Sweden for 250 years and I think I know who to blame. When we celebrate St Martin’s Day here we eat roast goose. St Martinis the patron saint of soldiers and horses but I can’t find any reference to his ever having been to Skåne despite his penchant for travelling. He was Hungarian by birth and spent time as a Roman soldier and a monk; later he was Bishop of Tours in France and has his shrine on the road to Santiago de Compostela in Spain so quite why we make a fuss on his name day has escaped me, but there it is. Legend has it he hid in a goose pen while trying to avoid being ordained as Bishop and was discovered because the geese were cackling. The Swedes – always up for a bit of roasting and feasting – took that as a good enough reason for killing a goose on St Martin’s Eve and the celebration persists, although I suspect it may have more to do with the local Skånsk folk taking advantage of the arrival in autumn of tens of thousands of migrating geese. Whatever the reason, in honour of the saint those more traditionally-minded than me roast a goose, say ‘Skål’ and enjoy a bowl of black soup or svartsoppa. This thick, reddish-black broth is made from spiced goose blood, flavoured with fruit and is eaten with entrails of various kinds. I’m thinking it’s probably an acquired taste and not in the top ten vegetarian dishes.

St Martin’s Day is on 11 November and there is a piece of Swedish folklore attached to it. Apparently, if it snows on that day there will be no snow at Christmas but if the day falls on a Friday or Saturday – snowing or not – the winter will be harsh. Well, it didn’t snow on St Martin’s Day this year so snow wasn’t on the cards over the holidays but the day was, however, a Friday. The temperature today doesn’t even hint at a harsh winter and suggests the folklore is out of kilter. Either way, it’s been unusually mild and a little bit too damp for a London boy brought up on notions of roasting chestnuts and James Stewart running through Bedford Falls. I like snow and, despite my memories of Christmas being happy ones, in England the holidays tended to be wet and there was always a point when, with sad acceptance, I had to concede that the dull, drizzly days weren’t going to produce it. We expect some snow in Skåne during the winter – whether or not it snows forSt Martin – and I’ve lived in hope that the second half of the fable will hold true but so far, it doesn’t look like it and the long-range view is that it will stay mild.

Of course, if you’re one of those thousands of migrating geese that’s good news – hunters aside – as there is plenty of food and, more importantly, when it’s not frozen you can get at it. So the mild weather offers one way of bridging the gap between reliving the disappointment of Christmases past and digging out the car; it means I can spend a few hours with some of those geese on the flooded meadows near the blustery south coast at Ingelstorp.

Bean geese

In autumn and winter southern Sweden gets a lot of geese – the delightful and excellent restaurant at Skanors Gastgivaregard even has goose footprints painted on the road outside in celebration. Around 50000 Bean geese fill our fields and meadows and, if it remains mild, something between 11000 and 20000 White-fronted geese join them, too, although they move south quickly if it freezes. Last winter, when it did snow, only twenty-one White-fronts stayed but this year there are thousands feeding with the Bean geese. At Ingelstorp over the holidays there were geese everywhere; grazing the fields, filling the sky and enjoying the weather in noisy abandon. The numbers are immense and swelled by some of our 200000 Greylag geese and 50000 Canada geese. A few days ago the beet fields also had a few Pink-footed geese and some Barnacle geese which meant that there were six different species in one of the flocks. Occasionally a Lesser-white fronted goose joins this party and the Barnacle geese often have a Red-breasted goose with them. They are hard to pick out from the 130000 or so that fly-by on their way to the Nederlands and I know one particular chap who has tried and failed to do that more than once. The Brent geese don’t stay long even if the weather is mild so the 18000 or so migrating birds [of the 100000 that pass through] have now gone. There are one or two Egyptian geese around and they, like the lonely Bar-headed goose that keeps turning up year after year, have probably escaped from someone’s back garden.

Ingelstorp offers another local treat. Olof Victor’s is a bakery and café that uses a wood-fired stone oven to produce some of the best bread, cakes, biscuits and, especially, cinnamon buns in Sweden. Their products are seriously good and can even be found in Harrods food hall. Mild weather in Skåne might be good for the wintering geese but it’s still pretty cold even when there’s no snow so OV’s is the perfect place to get warm again. And for checking the weather forecast.

And as for me, I can feel spring in the air and am getting antsy so before I head for somewhere that has warm water and palm trees I’ll have a few days in the north of Sweden just so that I can get snow on my boots. Tallberg in Darlana, with its frozen forests and wolves beckons.