Strolling along the narrow, cobblestoned streets of this island city, I found it easy to imagine Swedish knights in armor; ladies in flowing gowns; jesters and minstrels; and the salty air thick with the savory aroma of spit-roasted mutton.
My young daughter, Tina, and I were walking in the shadow of the massive granite walls that still encircle the oldest portion of Visby, this "city of ruins and roses" on the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea.
Although the area within the wall is now a vibrant historic district with craft shops, cafes, and cottages, each ruined medieval church reminded us of the turbulent past of this Viking stronghold and Hanseatic League city-state.
Gotland's history as a Baltic trading center is also reflected in the island's food. Take, for example, saffranspannkaka, a baked rice pudding flavored with saffron, which we saw on the menu of nearly every cafe and restaurant in Visby.
Neither rice nor saffron, the two main ingredients for this most typical of Gotland desserts, grow in Scandinavia but have long been imported from such places as Spain and Italy. The recipe itself may have been brought to the island by traveling merchants, for saffranspannkaka is similar to the saffron cream pie found in the 15th-century British advice tome, "The Babee's Book."
One of the most comfortable vantage points for sampling saffranspannkaka and soaking up Visby's medieval atmosphere is Sankt Hans Cafe.
Sitting in the cafe garden, which abuts the ruins of St. Han's and St. Peter's churches, my daughter and I sketched the weathered columns, the crumbling archway, and the clumps of yellow wildflowers growing in the cracks between the stones while nibbling on warm saffranspannkaka accompanied by salmber jam - another Gotland specialty. This jam is made from indigenous blue raspberries which tastes somewhat like blackberries.
Gotland is home to 58,000 people and at least as many sheep. Although the only sheep we spotted during our weekend in the capital were in a pen across from the airport terminal, we saw ample evidence of their existence. There were hand-knit wool sweaters and sheepskin bicycle saddle covers, concrete rams blocking cars from entering pedestrian-only streets, and the white lamb at the center of the island's flag.
And while pork dominates the dining table on the Swedish mainland, lamb takes center place in Gotland's kitchens.
The most unusual lamb dish I tasted was the crunchy but tender gldhoppa at Wrdshuset Lindgirden, one of Visby's year-round restaurants. This Gotland dish is traditionally prepared by marinating lamb ribs for a few days in a saline solution and sugar, then boiling them with leeks and peppercorns.
Removed from the bone, the meat is chopped, formed into patties, and coated with a mixture of bread crumbs and powdered mustard. Today, these patties are fried in butter, but in past times, the meat was cooked over live coals, hence the name, gldhoppa, which can be translated as "hopping embers."
Lamb was also featured on the menu of the medieval-themed Medeltidenskrogen Klematis (open July to mid-August). As Tina and I stepped down into this cellar restaurant, lit entirely by candlelight, we entered another world. Clad in a leather apron and breeches, the waiter brought us ceramic flagons of flederdrycke, an elderflower drink, which has a piquant taste somewhere between apple juice and lemonade. He also gave each of us one utensil, a buck knife, and instructed us to slice the round loaves of bread crosswise so that we could use the bottom half as a plate.
"I wonder when they're going to breathe fire," Tina whispered.
Walking past the restaurant late the previous evening, we had caught a glimpse of an eldslukare, or fire-eater, breathing out a gust of flames. We hoped to see a repeat performance at closer quarters.
Tina and I shared an "affluent medieval platter," which began with a wooden bowl filled with appetizers: sliced apple and sausage, shelled hazelnuts, chunks of cheese, smoked leg of mutton, and Tina's favorite - candied rose petals. The entree arrived in another wooden dish: spareribs, lamb cutlets, and chopped cabbage braised in honey. Although musicians serenaded us with recorder, drum, and tambourine, we kept wondering about the fire stunt. Had we missed it or were we too early? By the time we finished dinner at 10 p.m., my sleepy daughter was reluctantly resigned to missing the spectacle. Then just as we left the restaurant, a waiter stepped out saying in Swedish, "We're going to breathe fire now, and your daughter might like to see it."
We quickly reseated ourselves and waited in anticipation. The tension rose as the musicians began chanting a dirge in time to the beat of the hand-held drum.
Our waiter took a swig from a green bottle, then blew at the lit torch which he held in his other hand: A rush of red and gold flames shot upwards.
Although I had attended medieval fairs in the US, I could never quite forget that the costumed players and I were standing on the brink of the 21st century. But in that illuminating flash of roaring flame, in the cellar of a centuries-old house, embraced by Visby's mighty stone wall, on an island in the Baltic Sea, I was able to suspend my disbelief and for the briefest moment, I felt the touch of the past.
This simple rice pudding is delicately flavored and lightly colored by a generous pinch of saffron. The Spanish spice is quite expensive, but only a small amount is used.
Saffranspannkaka (Saffron Pan Cake)
1-1/4 cups water
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon butter
2/3 cup uncooked round-grained rice, such as arborio
2 cups milk
2 cups half-and-half
1 pinch saffron
1 teaspoon sugar
1/4 cup honey
1 ounce shelled almonds, finely chopped
Whipped cream, optional
In a medium saucepan, bring the water, with the salt, and butter to a boil.
Stir in the rice and bring to a boil again. Cover, reduce to simmer, and cook slowly over low heat for about 10 minutes, being careful not to burn the rice.
Add the cream, cover again, and simmer on the lowest setting for 30 to 40 minutes until the rice is soft. Do not lift cover for at least the first 15 minutes. Again, watch rice carefully during last 10 minutes, that it does not burn. Remove from heat and set aside.
Crush the saffron with 1 teaspoon of sugar. Combine this with the half-and-half and add to the warm rice.
Stir in eggs, one at a time, followed by the honey and chopped almonds.
Pour the mixture into a low and wide baking pan. Bake in a preheated oven at 350 degrees F. for 30 to 45 minutes until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.
Serve warm or cold with blackberry jam and/or whipped cream.
Serves 6 to 8.