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The semla – more than just a bun

Winter-time visitors to Sweden may be shocked to see the window displays of bakeries or cafés overflowing with just one thing – the semla. 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: Susanne Walström/

The semla – more than just a bun

Winter-time visitors to Sweden may be shocked to see the window displays of bakeries or cafés overflowing with just one thing – the semla. What is it with the Swedes and this cream-filled bun, which some gulp down with litre upon litre of coffee? Find out.

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.

Creating the next big buzz

Over the years bakeries have challenged the traditional semla, hoping to create the next big buzz. The semmelwrap took the Swedes by storm in 2015. Instead of the original semla bun, the dough is rolled out flat, filled with almond paste and whipped cream, then folded and eaten as a wrap.

When the 2015 semla season was over, the hype around semmelwrap subsided. But since then, bakeries have tried to come up with the next big semla innovation. There have been everything from Nutella-filled and fried versions to semlas of different shapes.

One favourite was the 2017 hybrid creation named princess semla, where the semla meets the princess cake. It totally shocked the Swedes. How could anyone come up with the idea of mixing the two most lovable Swedish pastries of all time?

The sensations of 2019 inlude the raw food semla (see video clip below), the semla shake (?) and the semla porridge (?!).

Check out the raw food semla – the sensation of 2019.

Check out the raw food semla – the sensation of 2019.

Serious semla tasting

One serious semla 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.

Semmelmannen usually eats 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.’

This is what fika is all about: coffee, something sweet and a chat.

Photo: Emelie Asplund/

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 – that’s about a bathtub full of coffee! Fortunately, a study from 2017 on over half a million people in ten European countries showed that coffee drinkers have lower mortality rates linked to cardiovascular diseases, primarily stroke, than non-coffee drinkers. Also, a 2010 research project by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States showed 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. Do fika breaks make Sweden more productive, one wonders? In any case, it seems that fika – and indeed semla – are here to stay.

Last updated: 25 February 2019

Rob Hincks

Rob Hincks

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


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