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Cold smörgåsbord hors d'œuvre Smörgåsbord (anglicised as "smorgasbord") is a Swedish term meaning an abundant buffet meal set with several hot and cold dishes, from appetizers to desserts, laid out together on the table.

Following a special order consisting of several servings, the diners serve themselves, taking their pick of the variety of food. The word smörgåsbord literally means "sandwich table" or "bread and butter table".

In picture on right: fish and herring hors d'œuvre at a smörgåsbord table.

Smörgåsbord buffet is known and served throughout the Nordic countries, enriched with local delicacies in each country. This type of buffet is known as koldt bord in Denmark, seisova pöytä, noutopöytä or voileipäpöytä in Finland, koldtbord in Norway, and kalt borð or hlaðborð in Iceland. Also the famous Russian appetizer buffet, zakuska table, has several characteristics similar to smörgåsbord.

In its most lavish form, smörgåsbord may be seen served at breakfast, brunch, lunch or dinner time in restaurants, hotels or the largest of the passenger ferries crossing between Finland and Sweden and the other Nordic countries, the Baltic countries and Russia.

On a smaller scale, it is a popular way of serving guests at home, whether at a small, intimate gathering or a large, formal party. The occasion can be anything from a light late night snack served to friends after a night out to an elaborate wedding banquet.

History of smörgåsbord

Smörgåsbord has its origin in the 18th century Swedish upper class tradition of serving spirits and small appetizers for the gentlemen before the meal. The beverages and snacks were placed on a separate small table which hence was called brännvinsbord  —  "table of spirits". The guests enjoyed the snacks and drinks while standing.

The drinks on brännvinsbord consisted of several differently flavoured clear spirits or aquavits. There had to be at least two or three different varieties, flavoured either with caraway, anise, wormwood, lemon, etc. Also today in the Nordic countries it is a custom to have a shot of vodka or aquavit at the start of festive meals.

The snacks consisted of bread, butter, sharp cheese, sprats pickled in spiced marinade and pretzels or small rusks spiced with anise seed, fennel seed and/or bitter orange peel.

As the number of appetizers on the brännvinsbord grew, they were transferred onto dinner table, forming a large buffet served as proper meal. Thus the separate brännvinsbord disappeared from homes. In the late 19th century it re-emerged as the smörgåsbord buffet, served to travellers in railway station and hotel restaurants, from where it spread to become widely known among the public.

Source for the above: Nordiska museet: "Från brännvinsbord till smörgåsbord"

Nowadays in Finland, smörgåsbord buffet may be served at any occasion, from house warming, cocktail and garden parties to graduation, confirmation, birthday and engagement parties, at christenings, anniversaries, weddings and funerals, or as Midsummer, Easter or Christmas dinner.

Smörgåsbord table setting

Since the diners pick up the food themselves going round the smörgåsbord table, the table setting has to be planned in a way that allows them to proceed effortlessly in an even flow, not blocking each other's way and without any "bottlenecks" forming around the table.

The table itself is usually placed in the middle of the room, with enough free space around it. Like any dinner table, it may be decorated with flower arrangements or garlands, fruit bowls, candles, etc, provided that there is enough room on the table surface.

Smörgåsbord starting point Smörgåsbord has a starting point, from which the collecting of food will be started by the diners. For a large group of diners there may be two starting points, so that they can go around the table simultaneously from two directions.

In picture on right: collecting point for plates and cutlery at a smörgåsbord.

The starting points can be placed in the centre of the longer sides or at the both ends of the table. In this case also the plates, cutlery and dishes have to be divided so that the same foods and things can be accessed on both sides. If there is only one starting point, the table may also be placed one side against the wall.

Dinner plates will be set at the starting point on the table (see the picture below).
Next in the line are the various dishes, set following their proper serving order, from savoury to sweet. (See the proper etiquette explained below.)
The cutlery and drinking glasses are set at the end, so that the diners will not have to carry them while picking up the food. The cutlery, glasses and napkins may also be set on a separate table, as well as the beverages and dessert dishes, if there is enough room.

Separate plates must be provided for savoury dishes and desserts. Because of their strong taste, also herring dishes require plates of their own, separated from the other savoury dishes.

The host or hostess must see that the serving platters are refilled from time to time and the used dishes removed.

Disposable plates, cups, cutlery and other serving dishes may be used at very informal gatherings, when dining outdoors, on a picnic, at a summer cottage, etc.

Table setting chart:

1. Plates
2. Pickled and marinated herring
3. Boiled potatoes
4. Fish roe
5. Shrimps, mussels, etc
6. Salads - fresh and marinated
7. Cold fish dishes
8. Sauces for fish dishes
9. Cold meat dishes
10. Sauces for cold meat dishes
11. Hot fish dishes
12. Hot meat dishes
13. Cheeses
14. Sauce for hot dishes
15. Cutlery
16. Napkins / serviettes
17. Centrepiece, etc

Finnish coffee buffet table setting

A smörgåsbord coffee buffet, consisting only of coffee and tea and some savoury and sweet pastries, is especially popular in Finland.

Simple Finnish coffee buffet table The history of Finnish coffee drinking culture is known to date back to the 18th century, in the latter part of which the first coffee houses serving coffee, pastries and other refreshments were opened in Finland. The habit of serving coffee with cakes, biscuits/cookies and other pastry items started to evolve along with the emergence of the coffee houses, although they were frequented only by men at the time.

While men visiting coffee houses mostly enjoyed their coffee with somewhat plain and simple food items, like rusks and soft pretzels, women, on the other hand, gathered at home and treated themselves with a more abundant variety of coffee breads, like sweet fritters and simple pound cakes and almond cakes with homemade jams and fruit preserves.

First Viennese-type cafés appeared in Finland in the 1870s, and by this time the selection, ingredients and preparation methods of different coffee breads and pastries had become more diverse and sophisticated. In wealthier households it became common to offer at least "seven sorts" of biscuits/cookies, pastries and cakes when serving a coffee buffet.

One might consider the coffee buffet as the Nordic equivalent to the English afternoon tea, especially in Finland and Sweden, where serving and drinking of coffee with pastries has developed into a social ritual, being an important part of Nordic hospitality.

Today, the Finns consume the most coffee per capita in the world, with the Swedes following close behind. Everyday coffee breaks with sandwiches or pastries among family, friends or work colleagues are very popular, as is setting up a coffee buffet for parties or other social functions.

A coffee buffet table may be set similarly to a smörgåsbord buffet:

Plates for pastries will be set at the starting point on the table (see the picture below). If both savoury and sweet dishes are served, separate plates must be provided for them.
The napkins may be set next to the plates or folded between each coffee cup and saucer.
Next in the line are the various dishes.
Coffee cups and teacups are placed at the end of the table. If there is not much room, they can be placed one on top of the other.
Cream or milk and sugar, honey and artificial sweeteners are placed next to the cups, as well as the teapot, tea infuser or tea bags, lemon slices, etc.

Coffee table setting chart:
1.  Small plates
2.  Napkins / serviettes
3.  Pastries, biscuits / cookies, etc
4.  Cake, pie, etc
5.  Coffee cups, teacups, saucers and teaspoons
6.  Cream / milk
7.  Sugar / sweeteners
8.  Tea bags / infuser, lemon slices, etc
9.  Centrepiece, etc

Smörgåsbord dishes

Sweet and savoury smörgåsbord dishes A basic Finnish smörgåsbord served at home may consist of just bread and butter, cold cuts and cheese, fresh or pickled vegetables or fresh salad.

The dessert may simply be coffee and tea served along with biscuits/cookies, pastries, ice cream, etc.

Hot dishes may sometimes be omitted or there can be just one substantial dish, like a casserole, roast, a whole baked or smoked fish, etc. Hot dishes may also be replaced with open-faced sandwiches, which are very popular in the Nordic countries. They can be topped with a multitude of ingredients, like the Danish smørrebrød. If topped with cheese or various forcemeat, the sandwiches can be broiled in oven and served hot.

More elaborate smörgåsbord is of course set on special occasions and in restaurants or hotels. According to the season, different dishes and ingredients are served. The dishes may also be selected following a chosen theme.

Wine is seldom drunk at Nordic smörgåsbord, because it does not go together with pickled herring dishes and many other traditional Nordic dishes  —  hence beer would be a more appropriate alcoholic beverage to be served. Also, if the dinner is started with a schnaps, then usually only water, mineral water or beer is drunk during the rest of the meal. Nevertheless, wine is of course always available at smörgåsbords served in restaurants, hotels, etc.

In Finland, the choice of soft drinks besides water or mineral water may include milk, cultured buttermilk, fruit or berry juices, or the traditional non-alcoholic or low-alcohol Finnish homemade beer.

Typical dishes served at Nordic smörgåsbord

Cold fish dishes

Cold meat dishes

  • cold cuts: cooked or smoked ham and turkey, roast beef, pork roast, smoked lamb, cold-smoked reindeer roast, cooked tongue, salami, sausages, etc
  • liver pâtés, foie gras
  • meat aspic, brawn
  • meat or game pie
  • chicken salad
  • to accompany the above dishes: mustard, blackcurrant, red currant, gooseberry or rowanberry jelly, Cumberland sauce, horseradish cream, etc, bread, crispbread and butter


Hot fish dishes

Hot meat dishes

  • whole oven-baked roast or fillet (beef, pork, lamb, reindeer, turkey)
  • fried or grilled chicken, beef, pork, lamb, reindeer (steaks or chops)
  • meatballs and hamburgers (eg Wallenberg steaks)
  • meat stew, pot roast, etc
  • meat or game pie
  • wieners, frankfurters, knackwurst, etc
  • to accompany the above dishes: boiled or mashed potatoes, jacket potatoes, creamy potato gratin flavoured with garlic, cheese, etc, cooked rice, risotto or pasta, boiled or steamed vegetables (carrots, asparagus, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, green peas, etc), vegetable puree casseroles (potato, rutabaga, carrot), various sauces, mustard, bread, crispbread and butter
  • in addition to the hot dishes, also various egg dishes and soups can be served


    Fruit salad
  • fresh fruit/berry salad
  • fruit or berry flavoured quark mousse
  • ice cream, parfait or sorbet
  • fruit or berry soup with whipped cream
  • chocolate mousse
  • tarts and cream filled layer cakes flavoured and garnished with fruit, berries, chocolate, cream toffee, etc
  • pastries, petits fours, confectionery
  • cheeses with fruit, bread, crackers, rusks and crispbreads


Smörgåsbord etiquette

Smörgåsbord desserts When picking up food from smörgåsbord, the diners follow a route round the table, proceeding in clockwise manner. The route has a starting point, recognizable by the pile of dinner plates.

Starting the meal, you first pick up a plate and place some of the first dishes on it. Only take enough food that you have room for, piling up a large amount of food on your plate is considered rude and uncivilised.

In picture on left: desserts at a smörgåsbord table.

In finer restaurants, after the food or certain course is finished, the plate is left on the dinner table, from where the waiters usually remove it while the diner has gone to fetch the next serving on a new, clean plate.

However, at home buffets the same plate is used for several servings of food, with separate plates provided only for herring or strong-tasting fish dishes and desserts.

Since the Nordic smörgåsbord is set in a buffet style, especially many foreigners not familiar with smörgåsbord etiquette may somewhat erroneously think that it is a common practise to freely pick and mix all sorts of dishes on the same plate, like cold dishes with hot dishes or fish dishes with meat dishes. In fact, there is a proper serving order in which the various dishes should be consumed, especially at more formal functions, see the table below.

The Nordic smörgåsbord meal consists of several servings, which are consumed in the following order:

1. Herring dishes  —  strong tasting, sharp, vinegary, spicy and salty dishes, which may be followed by a piece of cheese to neutralise the palate. A schnaps may accompany these dishes.
Cold fish dishes (5.) may also be eaten at this point, or combined with fish roes (2.)

2. Fish roes, may be combined with shellfish (3.)

3. Shellfish  —  prawns, mussels, crayfish, oysters, etc

4. Salads (see point 6.)

5. Cold fish dishes  —  salted fish (gravlax, etc), smoked fish, fish pâtés, shellfish salads, etc

6. Cold meat dishes  —  pâtés, cold cuts, etc, vegetable pickles
Salads (4.) may also be eaten at this point

7. Hot dishes
  a) Fish dishes
b) Meat dishes

8. Dessert
  a) Cheeses
b) Sweet desserts


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