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The semla – more than just a bun

Winter-time visitors to Sweden may be shocked to see what’s on offer in the Swedish bakeries. Pick any bakery or café, and more likely than not the window display is overflowing with just one thing – the semla. Just what is it with the Swedes and this cream-filled bun, which some gulp down with litre upon litre of coffee? Find out.

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Photo: Lola Akinmade Åkerström/imagebank.sweden.se

Rooted in tradition

The semla – a small, wheat flour bun, flavoured with cardamom and filled with almond paste and whipped cream – has become something of a carb-packed icon in Sweden. The traditions of semla are rooted in fettisdag (Shrove Tuesday, or Fat Tuesday) when the buns were eaten at a last celebratory feast before the Christian fasting period of Lent. At first, a semla was simply a bun, eaten soaked in hot milk (known as hetvägg).

The changing face of semla

At some point Swedes grew tired of the strict observance of Lent, added cream and almond paste to the mix and started eating semla every Tuesday between Shrove Tuesday and Easter.

Today, no such reservations exist and semlor (the plural of semla) usually appear in bakery windows as near after Christmas as is deemed decent – and sometimes even before. This is followed by a collective, nationwide moan about how it gets earlier every year. Shortly thereafter people begin to eat the things like the world will end tomorrow.

But, increasingly, not just any semla will do. Every year, at around the same time that the bakeries fill with semlor, the Swedish newspapers start to fill with semla taste tests. Panels of ‘experts’ dissect and inspect tables full of semlor to find the best in town.

Serious semla tasting

One such expert is semmelmannen (the semla man): an anonymous Stockholm-based blogger who has become the go-to source for semla tips in the capital of Sweden.

Since 2011, semmelmannen has eaten one semla a day from February 1 to Shrove Tuesday at a different bakery across Stockholm, remaining anonymous to retain his integrity and independence. The results are reported in almost fanatical detail; the semla is rated according to the quality of the bun, the cream, the almond paste and the overall appearance.

‘I felt the usual newspaper tests didn’t go into enough detail; plus they never tested more than eight to ten different semlor. I wanted to dig deeper, all the way down. So I started the blog’, he explains.

So what makes the perfect semla? According to Semmelmannen: ‘good raw material, a tasty almond paste, but most of all a good composition; the proportions have to be perfect.”

And as to where you find the perfect semla – Semmelmannen isn’t saying: ‘I don’t pick one favourite, because that would be unfair to some really great bakeries. I award my points – then the reader can decide.’

For those newspapers and magazines that do name a favourite (and there are plenty) the effect is nothing short of miraculous.

Agneta Brolin, head of the bakery Vettekatten in Stockholm, knows this for a fact. ‘If you’re mentioned in the press it’s the best advert you can get’, she says after being awarded Best Semla 2011, in a test by Swedish national daily paper Svenska Dagbladet.

‘After we were voted Best Semla, our sales were double what they usually are’, Brolin says.

Feel like baking? If you want to make your own semla from scratch, try this recipe.

Feel like baking? If you want to make your own semla from scratch, try this recipe.

Fika – the sacred coffee break

To the uninitiated, such reverence and hysteria over a cream bun might seem at odds with all things normal. But the annual semla hysteria is just a part of a bigger picture – a social phenomenon that is uniquely Swedish: fika.

Fika has no translation. It means to take a break with colleagues or friends, over coffee and (usually) something sweet to eat. But it means so much more than that. It is ritual, it is tradition; it is the very fabric of Swedishness. It is something, if invited, you should never say no to.

Swedes drink an average of nine kilos of coffee per person, per year – a staggering amount. In a 2011 survey of 8,000 office workers throughout the country, an overwhelming majority agreed that a fika break or two at work greatly improved their productivity. Indeed, in a 2009 research project by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States, it was discovered that people who left their desks two to three times per day to interact with colleagues showed a 10 to 15 per cent increase in productivity.

In many Swedish workplaces fika is a statutory break just like lunch ― 15 minutes for workers to down tools and congregate over coffee. But fika is not just a habit of the tax-paying masses.

‘Everyone has fika’, café Vetekatten’s Brolin says. ‘We get workers early morning and lunch, pensioners morning and afternoon and then school kids after three o’clock. The old folks drink coffee, the young cappuccino; that’s the only difference. Otherwise, everyone loves to fika.’

And with an increase in the number of people taking fika out of the home and into the ever burgeoning number of coffee shops and cafés, it seems fika, and indeed semla, are here to stay.

Last updated: 12 February 2014

Rob Hincks

Rob Hincks

Rob Hincks is a British food and travel journalist based in Stockholm.