#AdventCalendar: How saffron made its way to Sweden and became a key part of Lucia Day

Each day of December up until Christmas Eve, The Local is sharing the story behind a surprising Swedish fact as part of our own Advent calendar.

#AdventCalendar: How saffron made its way to Sweden and became a key part of Lucia Day
Saffron is a beloved part of this Swedish winter tradition, but how did that happen? Photo: Gorm Kallestad / NTB scanpix

In Sweden, most holiday days are associated with a specific type of pastry or dessert, and on December 13th when Swedes celebrate Lucia Day, it's the saffron bun or lussekatt that's centre stage.

Saffron is one of the world's most expensive spices, with the cost by weight sometimes higher than that of gold.

Like many of the spices closely associated with Christmas, such as ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg, saffron isn't a native ingredient to Sweden. It's been used as a spice and medicine for thousands of years, but the first recorded mention of saffron in Sweden comes from the early 1300s, suggesting the spice first made its way here through trade carried out during the time of the Hanseatic League.

Although the spice is mostly imported, there are a few places where saffron is grown in Sweden, including in Gotland and Skåne.

According to food historian Richard Tellström at Stockholm University, the spices became to be closely associated with the holiday season simply because of their rarity. In years gone by, these spices were hard to get hold of, so they'd be used sparingly and reserved for special times of year.

“You only have spices on holidays. And since Christmas is the most important holiday we have, Christmas food is more richly seasoned with spices. As people got more money and economic resources, the spice levels increased,” he explained to the TT news agency.

In the early days, it would only be upper class households that could use spices like saffron, but they slowly spread throughout society as ordinary people imitated the traditions of the wealthy. From the 1800s onwards, many more families had access to the previously exclusive ingredients, and the saffron bun spread.

It only became a part of the advent festivities around a hundred years ago, first in eastern Sweden before spreading across the country.

These days, saffron is a firm part of the Lucia tradition, so much so that in recent years there have been peculiar new recipes such as saffron flavoured herring, liqueurs and even kebabs. But none of these experiments has yet had the staying power of the lussekatt.

Each day until Christmas Eve, The Local is looking at the story behind one surprising fact about Sweden, as agreed by our readers. Find the rest of our Advent Calendar HERE and sign up below to get an email notification when there's a new article.


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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.