A nice cup of tea – how hard can it be?

What does it take to get a plain old cup of steaming hot tea in Sweden? Paddy Kelly fights the fancy brew brigade and recalls countless grim encounters with tepid beige impostors.

A nice cup of tea - how hard can it be?

Sweden is not a country of tea-drinkers. Oh, they may think that they are, and they sure have a lot of tea around, but don’t let appearances fool you. The strengths of the average Swede are many but none of them lie in, or anywhere near, the teapot.

Now I come from a tea-drinking land. When I walk into a cafe in Ireland and ask for “tea” I get just that: black tea. In a pot. With a jug of milk. As the universe and whoever might be in charge intended.

In much the same way, I can wander into a pub in the old country and ask for a pint and have it taken for granted that it is a pint of stout that I am after and not, for example, a pint of shampoo, or soup, or paint thinner. A pint I ask for, and a pint I duly receive.

But not here, and not with tea. If you are at a loose end in Stockholm you can try the following amusing jape: go into a cafe and ask for tea. When the staff enquire as to which tea you would like, you say “normal tea”, and then watch their faces slowly contort in confusion and horror. To the Swedes, you see, tea does not come in “normal”, only in many varying degrees of “abnormal”.

That is the first problem: the selection. The average Swedish cafe prides itself on its vast acreage of tea blends: row upon row of shelving rising to the ceiling, all dedicated to obscure and mildly terrifying combinations of flowers, fruit, oils and grasses. In fact, I’m sure that most of the teas on offer have never been requested at all, and the jars are simply used to store old coins, buttons or the ashes of departed relatives. I mean, who can seriously want “rosebud, pear, rosemary and toadstool” or any other of the arcane combinations on offer?

The Swedes have also failed to grasp the concept of the teapot. Most tea is served by cramming the leaves into a little metal ball with fewer holes in it than the Swedish tax system, and then depositing this in a mug. Boiling (or more usually, warm) water is poured onto this in the hope that some of the water will trickle in and tease out the tasty tea particles inside. Just bring a good book, because this can take a while, if indeed it happens at all.

Of course, if you actually get presented with a mug or cup then you can count yourself lucky. Quite often in Sweden your tea will be served in a glass which, obviously, soon becomes too hot to lift. To overcome this the staff will often wrap a serviette around the now glowing glass before presenting it to you, instead of, say, using one of the six hundred solid coffee mugs sitting on a shelf within arm’s reach.

On one particular occasion I watched a cafe worker first pour the milk, then insert the little tea ball, and then the boiling water. I stared, aghast, as my tepid tea struggled to life only to fail miserably. Helpfully, or so I thought at the time, I pointed this out to the cafe worker, only to have him frown at me as if I had just questioned his parentage and trodden on his dog. So I drank it up, tasteless brew that it was, and did not return again.

Few people in Sweden understand that you must brew tea with boiling water, and before you add the milk. Even people who drink tea every day have often never heard of this, and if they have, still treat it like a quaint superstition. But, seriously, you can’t brew something in 60-degree water; you just make the water beige. And this is not, despite the belief of many, tea.

Now I am not a snob, but I do believe that if you offer something to be consumed, and take payment for it, then you should have some basic idea of how to serve and prepare it. That’s all I’m asking. And the old excuse “but we are not a tea-drinking country” does not really work any more, not in the heady international mix of modern Sweden.

It would be like an Irish waitress claiming that she “doesn’t really get this coffee stuff” while delivering to you raw coffee beans floating in custard, served in an old boot. It just doesn’t cut it.

But there are, thankfully, a few places in Stockholm where proper tea is served. There are several good tea shops, and many cafes and museums are starting to come up to speed too, offering actual cups, black tea leaves and, if the planets are properly aligned, even teapots.

And to further thrill the tea-lovers, there are also a few specialist cafes that offer classic English afternoon tea, complete with proper china cups, tiered cake stands and fluffy scones slathered with clotted cream and lemon curd.

So things are definitely looking up on the tea front. But I won’t get my hopes up quite yet, and will continue to carry a small emergency supply of proper tea-bags with me wherever I go in the Nordic realms.

Because when it comes to tea, you can never be too careful.

Paddy’s tips: I have personally managed to find real tea in Stockholm at Afternoon Tea on Dalgatan 36, Classic Tea Room on Rörstrandsgatan 25, Chaikhana on Svartmansgatan 26 in Gamla Stan (the Old Town), plus the wonderfully airy cafe at the National Museum. And much more tea information than you could ever require, about Stockholm and everywhere else, can be found at the excellent Teatropolitan Times blog.

Paddy has been shipwrecked in Sweden since 1997. His musings and ramblings can be found here.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


The three tasty treats that make spring in Sweden a forager’s dream

Although parts of Sweden are still under snow at this time of year, spring is in full swing here in Skåne in the south of Sweden. Here are The Local's top tips for what you can forage in the great outdoors this season.

The three tasty treats that make spring in Sweden a forager's dream

You might already have your go-to svampställe where you forage mushrooms in autumn, but mushrooms aren’t the only thing you can forage in Sweden. The season for fruits and berries hasn’t quite started yet, but there is a wide range of produce on offer if you know where to look.

Obviously, all of these plants grow in the wild, meaning it’s a good idea to wash them thoroughly before you use them. You should also be respectful of nature and of other would-be foragers when you’re out foraging, and make sure not to take more than your fair share to ensure there’s enough for everyone.

As with all foraged foods, only pick and eat what you know. The plants in this guide do not look similar to any poisonous plants, but it’s always better to be safe than sorry – or ask someone who knows for help.

Additionally, avoid foraging plants close to the roadside or in other areas which could be more polluted. If you haven’t tried any of these plants before, start in small doses to make sure you don’t react negatively to them.

Wild garlic plants in a park in Alnarpsparken, Skåne. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

Wild garlic

These pungent green leaves are just starting to pop up in shady wooded areas, and may even hang around as late as June in some areas. Wild garlic or ramsons, known as ramslök in Swedish, smell strongly of garlic and have wide, flat, pointed leaves which grow low to the ground.

The whole plant is edible: leaves, flowers and the bulbs underground – although try not to harvest too many bulbs or the plants won’t grow back next year.

The leaves have a very strong garlic taste which gets weaker once cooked. Common recipes for wild garlic include pesto and herb butter or herbed oil, but it can generally be used instead of traditional garlic in most recipes. If you’re cooking wild garlic, add it to the dish at the last possible moment so it still retains some flavour.

You can also preserve the flower buds and seed capsules as wild garlic capers, known as ramslökskapris in Swedish, which will then keep for up to a year.

Stinging nettles. Wear gloves when harvesting these to protect yourself from their needles. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

Stinging nettles

Brännässlor or stinging nettles need to be cooked before eating to remove their sting, although blanching them for a couple of seconds in boiling water should do the trick. For the same reason, make sure you wear good gardening gloves when you pick them so you don’t get stung.

Nettles often grow in the same conditions as wild garlic – shady woodlands, and are often regarded as weeds.

The younger leaves are best – they can get stringy and tough as they get older.

A very traditional use for brännässlor in Sweden is nässelsoppa, a bright green soup made from blanched nettles, often topped with a boiled or poached egg.

Some Swedes may also remember eating stuvade nässlor with salmon around Easter, where the nettles are cooked with cream, butter and milk. If you can’t get hold of nettles, they can be replaced with spinach for a similar result.

You can also dry nettles and use them to make tea, or use blanched nettles to make nettle pesto.

Kirskål or ground elder, another popular foraged green for this time of year.
Photo: Jessica Gow/TT

Ground elder

Ground elder is known as kirskål in Swedish, and can be used much in the same way as spinach. It also grows in shady areas, and is an invasive species, meaning that you shouldn’t be too worried about foraging too much of it (you might even find some in your garden!).

It is quite common in parks and old gardens, but can also be found in wooded areas. The stems and older leaves can be bitter, so try to focus on foraging the tender, younger leaves.

Ground elder has been cultivated in Sweden since at least 500BC, and has been historically used as a medicinal herb and as a vegetable. This is one of the reasons it can be found in old gardens near Swedish castles or country homes, as it was grown for use in cooking.

Kirskål is available from March to September, although it is best eaten earlier in the season.

As mentioned, ground elder can replace spinach in many recipes – you could also use it for pesto, in a quiche or salad, or to make ground elder soup.