A mid-winter volleyball game breaks out at Golden Gardens Park on Ballard’s waterfront in Seattle on Thursday, Dec. 8. (Ian Terry / The Herald)

A mid-winter volleyball game breaks out at Golden Gardens Park on Ballard’s waterfront in Seattle on Thursday, Dec. 8. (Ian Terry / The Herald)

Scandinavian heritage endures in hip Ballard

BALLARD — It’s a sunny 20 degrees. The snow-covered Olympic Mountains shimmer across Puget Sound and a chilly breeze is blowing at Golden Gardens Park in north Seattle. Nevertheless, four young guys in shorts are playing beach volleyball.

When I saw this a week ago, it struck me as a Ballard scene. Maybe it’s because when I think of Ballardites, I remember the cold-resistant, hard-working and fun-loving people of Scandinavian descent who populated this neighborhood for generations.

Ballard was built for these Nordic folks. Too often now their old working-class homes are being torn down to make way for condos or postmodern box houses.

Ballard is different; it’s a hip neighborhood. The swanky shops and restaurants in the beautiful old brick buildings on Ballard Avenue and over on Market Street tell the story. Scandinavian cafes and stores, such as the Copper Gate and Skarbos Furniture, are long gone.

If you look carefully, though, old Ballard remains.

The fishing fleet isn’t as active as it once was, but it’s still there. (Look for Sig Hansen’s F/V Northwestern, the crab boat featured on the “Deadliest Catch” reality TV show.)

The churches and fraternal lodges founded by immigrants remain, as does the 17th of May Norwegian parade (www.17thofmay.org) and the Ballard Seafood Fest in July (seafoodfest.org). And if nothing else, you can buy good stuff from the Scandinavian Specialties store and cafe at 67th Street and 15th Avenue.

A day trip to Ballard should include a visit to Golden Gardens Park, the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, the Nordic Heritage Museum, and Larsen’s Bakery (for Danish kringle) and its next door neighbor Fresh Fish Co., at 80th Street and 24th Avenue. Also, stop in for a beer at one of several breweries or hear live music at the Tractor Tavern. In the summer, shop at the Ballard Farmers Market.

The locks are the top tourist spot in Ballard. Built 100 years ago by the Army Corps of Engineers and open daily, the locks allow vessels to move between Lake Union and Puget Sound. This is especially exciting when a big ship or huge yacht “locks through.”

Also fun to see is the fish ladder at the locks, especially from late spring to early fall. The ladder allows thousands of salmon to migrate from fresh to salt water and back again to spawn. Equally wonderful are the surrounding Carl English Gardens, a nice picnic spot to eat your fish and chips from Totem House or smoked salmon on a bagel from Portlock, both located nearby.

A centennial celebration of the Hiram Chittenden Locks is planned for July. For more information, call 206-783-7059 or visit www.ballardlocks.org.

Even if you don’t have any Scandihoovian blood in your veins, a stop at the Nordic Heritage Museum, at 3014 NW 67th St., is a must. (Allow time for the gift shop there, too.)

Currently, the museum features an exhibit of photos by Anders Beer Wilse. The self-taught Norwegian photographer lived in Seattle from 1892 to 1900. See photos of cattle grazing along Salmon Bay, Duwamish Tribe encampments and scenes from the Alaskan Gold Rush.

Nordic Heritage offers exhibits about immigration, logging and fishing industries, folk arts and the bonds between Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Iceland. Opening March 10 is “Marimekko, With Love,” about Finnish midcentury modern textile designers Armi and Viljo Ratia. More information is at nordicmuseum.org.

As of last week, my favorite spot in Ballard is the small, artisan Old Ballard Liquor Co. distillery and tasting room cafe at 4421 Shilshole Ave. NW. A map is at www.oldballardliquorco.com.

Aquavit, an herb-flavored liquor, is the main draw here, but the food is delicious. Just don’t expect meatballs with lingonberry sauce or buttered, sugared lefse.

The owner, Lexi (who goes by the one name), offers contemporary Nordic plates. The business pays homage to Ballard’s Scandinavian immigrant history and its focus is on often-neglected, traditional liquors and liqueurs, such as aquavit, Lexi said. The distillery also makes vodka and cherry bounce, and serves mixed cocktails.

“We’re all about Ballard’s mid-century values, like simplicity, honesty, hard work and humility,” she said.

Pair what you order with a tasting flight of aquavit and you have a treat. Sit at the beautiful hand-made communal table and talk with the people around you. This is old Ballard, too.

The menu includes slow-cooked yellow pea soup ($8); seasonal salads with smoked cheese and nuts ($10); potatoes and Baltic sprats, which are small fish ($10); and open-faced sandwiches ($12) such as shrimp with tomatoes, cucumber, egg and citrus-dill cream.

My colleague Ian Terry (who is half Danish) and I (a quarter Dane) were in heaven when we ordered a tasting plate of five differently prepared slices of herring ($13). We ate classic pickled herring, dill, cranberry orange, curry cream and smoked and creamed herring. We paired this with a flight of aquavit, including summer dill, spruce, licorice and traditional Danish aquavit. It all came with a generous plate of rye crispbread and house-made butter.

Also available are Nordic cheese or charcuterie plates, and Old Ballard serves a generous brunch until 2 p.m. Friday through Sunday ($18).

The best Scandinavian bread I’ve ever eaten is served at Old Ballard. Baked fresh daily by a Bothell woman, the Svea cardamom sweetbread melts in your mouth. As the menu says, “You should seriously order this. You have no idea how good it is.”

And here’s a tip: If you can respond to Lexi speaking to you in Swedish or can order or express your thanks in Swedish, Danish or Norwegian, you might get a discount on the purchase of aquavit.

Skäl, y’all.

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