Gravlax and Christmas


The Danish Christmas season would not be complete without many Christmas Lunches. Christmas Lunch is the ubiquitous term for a multi-coursed feast punctuated by multiple toasts with schnaps, beer and wine.  The season for these festive lunches spans the weeks of advent to several days following Christmas day.  “Lunch” is actually a misnomer, since these smorgasbords can take place either during the day or evening.

A traditional Danish Christmas Lunch begins with a fish course, followed by meat, cheese and dessert. To me, the fish course sums up the beauty of nordic cuisine: Fresh, minimalist and refined. Herring, fjord shrimp and salmon are served open-faced on various breads (smørrebrød) with garnishes. There are many herring preparations: marinated with dill, folded in curried cream, spiced with wine and cloves. Every family has their own recipe which they think is best.  Fjord shrimp are another Nordic delicacy: tiny shrimp the size of a fingernail, painstakingly peeled and artfully arranged in a towering piles on soft white french bread, and crowned with a dollop of creme fraiche and a squeeze of lemon.

My favorite fish is gravlax. It’s preparation and presentation are the essence of Nordic cuisine in simplicity and taste.Salmon is cured over days until it is meltingly soft with a clean taste of the sea. It’s edges are flecked with pepper and dill and tinged with salt, adding a restrained flavor that doesn’t overpower the fish.

Gravlax Platter

Every Christmas I make my own Gravlax which we enjoy on Christmas day or New Years Eve.  It’s very easy to prepare.  Pay attention to the quality of the fish:  It must be very fresh with a good consistency, not too mushy and preferably an Atlantic fish, such as Loch Duart Salmon.   To serve, fold a slice of Gravlax on toasted brioche bread.  Squeeze a few drops of fresh lemon juice and smear a spoonful of Honey Dill Mustard  on the fish.  Garnish with a dill sprigs.


Gravlax (gravlaks in Danish and Norwegian or gravad lax in Swedish) literally means salmon in a grave or hole.  During the middle ages fisherman would salt salmon and let it ferment by burying it in a hole above high-tide line. Nowadays (unelss you wish to connect with your inner-viking) it’s not necessary to bury salmon in sand, but, rather in salt and sugar and let it sit in the refrigerator.  The salmon will cure over several days, during which the salt and sugar will turn into liquid, creating a brine.

Serves a party

One side of salmon, about 3 lbs. (1.5 kg.), with skin, pin bones removed
1 tablespoon white peppercorns
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
10 oz. (350 g.) sea salt
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1 cup fresh dill sprigs
1/4 cup Akavit or vodka

Finely grind peppercorns with a mortar and pestle.  Mix pepper, salt, and sugars together in a medium bowl.   Rub fish all over with salt mixture.  Line a long baking pan or dish with plastic wrap.  Place half the dill sprigs over plastic wrap.  Arrange salmon, skin-side down on dill.  Sprinkle Akavit over salmon. Top with remaining dill.  Cover with additional plastic wrap, sealing the fish.  Place a heavy pan or tray on fish.  Weigh down pan with cans or bottles.  Refrigerate for 3 days.

To serve, remove fish from refrigerate.  Remove plastic wrap.  Pour off collected juices and wipe off excess brine and dill.  Slice diagonally from one corner of the salmon towards the center of the fillet. Serve with french bread or toasted brioche.  Garnish with fresh dill sprigs and honey dill mustard.

Honey Dill Mustard

1/4 cup honey mustard
3 tablespoons cider vinegar
1/2 cup grapeseed oil
1/4 cup chopped dill sprigs
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt

Whisk mustard and vinegar together in a small bowl.  Slowly whisk in oil to emulsify.  Stir in dill, pepper and salt.

4 thoughts on “Gravlax and Christmas

  1. Pingback: e
  2. Hi Linda,
    I was going to try the Gravlax recipe. Do you think it would work with fresh, local salmon?

  3. Hi Caroline,
    I used fresh salmon purchased from the Tokyo Fish Market in Berkeley. They actually recommended that I use farmed Atlantic salmon, which I did. It came out very well.

Comments are closed.