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Feb 24, 2006

Swedish semla: more than just a bun

by: Rob Hincks
The true meaning of Fat Tuesday is lost on most Swedes. But that doesn’t stop them tucking into a cream bun, semla. Rob Hincks examines the national pastime that has made a religious ritual out of a coffee break, fika.

Semla with almond paste and whipped cream dates back to the 16th century. Photo: Marie-Louise Johansson /

Some time around February–March every year is the last Tuesday before Lent, the 40-day period of fasting and penitence between Ash Wednesday and Easter in the Christian calendar. In Swedish it is known as Fettisdagen, meaning Fat Tuesday, the day when all fat and other perishables are traditionally consumed before Lent.

Every day is Tuesday

Sweden, in common with many other countries, has long marked the day with a sweet dish. But semla, a wheat-flour bun filled with almond paste and whipped cream, has arguably outgrown its religious symbolism. The plump, cream-filled buns traditionally eaten on Tuesdays begin appearing in shops as early as December or January. Fat Tuesday would be more aptly named Fat January, February and March.

And it doesn’t stop there. Swedish newspapers also get in on the act, with tasting surveys aimed at finding the best semla in town. Lisa Eisenman, one of the judges on the Svenska Dagbladet (Swedish daily) panel and co-owner of the Cookbook Café at Jarlaplan, central Stockholm, says:

“I prefer semla that has a good balance between all three components: the almond paste, the cream and the bun. We also looked for well spread almond paste, moist bread, that sort of thing.

“I don’t know why semla is so important to Swedes. Some things are just very Swedish and are taken very seriously. Everyone has their own way of eating semla and a tradition around it.”

It's difficult to avoid semlor in Sweden at the beginning of the year.
It's difficult to avoid semlor in Sweden at the beginning of the year. Photo: Jenny Findahl

Coffee, the Swedish way

But semla is only the tip of a deep-rooted sweet tooth. Swedes’ three-month fervor over semla is supplemented for the rest of the year by an activity deeply ingrained in the national psyche: fika.

Fika essentially means to take a coffee break, but goes much deeper. The word is thought to derive from Swedish slang for coffee, kaffi in old Swedish, with the syllables reversed. To have fika means to meet old friends, make new ones, gossip, escape your daily routine.

Something for everyone

Where this cultural phenomenon comes from is difficult to say. Vanja Romani, co-owner of Nybergs Hembageri*, a classic old Stockhom cafe dating from 1949, says:

“It’s just something Swedes have always done. From an early age, you start to drink coffee and by the time you reach your late teens you go for fika whenever you have some spare time. Nobody questions it.”

Nybergs' Vanja Romani expects to bake more than 2,000 semlor on Fat Tuesday. Photo: Jenny Findahl
Nybergs' Vanja Romani expects to bake more than 2,000 semlor on Fat Tuesday. Photo: Jenny Findahl

Nybergs is open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and every day sees a steady procession of fika devotees. “We have customers in for fika from the moment we open. But between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. is real fika time; students, business men, mothers and babies, old people passing by, we get them all,” Romani says.

At this time of year, Nybergs bakes and sells about 250 semlor a day. On Tuesdays that number rises to about 350. On Fettisdag Romani expects to make about 2,500 semlor. There is also a roaring trade in all the other traditional fika standbys: cinnamon buns (kanelbullar), Viennese pastries, mini biscuits, marzipan pies, vanilla cream wafers, cream-filled cakes; the list is endless, and all homemade. For now anyway.

Preserving a rich tradition

US-style coffee shops are appearing in Swedish high streets at an ever increasing rate; large, homogonous chains with brand design, central supply kitchens and standardized recipes.

“Today, baking is a dying art,” Romani says. “Young people don’t want to go into a profession that means having to get out of bed at 3 a.m.. Being a baker is not considered glamorous. More and more traditional cafes are closing and the US-style chains are moving in. People like them not because of the food they offer, but because they buy into the whole design ethic.

“But there are still people who want to know that what they are eating is homemade, fresh that day. We have our own bakery in the shop, so we can satisfy that market. There are fewer traditional cafes, but the ones that are left are in a strong position.”

The true meaning of Lent may have gone the same way as Easter, but it seems fika is here to stay.

*You can find Nybergs Hembageri on Upplandsgatan 26 in Stockholm.

Rob Hincks

Rob Hincks is a British food and travel journalist based in Stockholm. He has never really taken a liking to semla, but don’t let that stop you inviting him for fika.

The author alone is responsible for the opinions expressed in this article.

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