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LIVING IN SWEDEN

Why do Swedes care so much about butter knives?

Have you ever wondered what's behind the Swedish fondness for the wooden butter knife?

Why do Swedes care so much about butter knives?
What is it about the 'smörkniv' that so captures the Swedish imagination? Photo: Leif R Jansson/TT

Almost every Swedish households will have several of these in their cutlery drawer, and if you go to a souvenir shop you’re bound to see plenty of them, perhaps with an elk or Viking decoration carved into the handle.

Dairy in general, including butter, plays a big part in the Swedish diet – although it only became really accessible to the majority after the Second World War – so the knife is often used to spread butter or Bregott (an oil-based spread) on crisp bread (knäckebröd) or open sandwiches (smörgåsar).

The Swedish butter knife (smörkniv) doesn’t have a blade but is rounded for ease of spreading. So what is it that makes them such a beloved symbol of Swedish culture?

When I asked about the butter knife on Twitter, it was clear a lot of people have strong opinions. Some said that the use of wood rather than metal made it distinctly Swedish, and that it did the job better than other materials.

People from nearby countries, namely Finland, Norway and Estonia, jumped in to say they also have wooden butter knives – and that one reason they’re so close to people’s hearts is that it’s a typical early woodwork or handicraft project in schools. 

Others agreed with me that the Swedes can’t claim the butter knife as unique.

But maybe it’s not the shape or material of the knife that makes it so Swedish, but rather the way it’s used. The Local columnist Richard Orange argued that the Swedishness of the butter knife is the way one knife is used by everyone at the table (and that people who keep it on their plate are committing a huge faux pas). In that way, it shows the value placed on collectivism in Sweden.

Either way, it’s not the only dairy utensil that there’s a Nordic complex over.

Swedes can be equally protective of their cheese cutters (osthyvel), a tool for getting thin, even slices of cheese, and woe betide the person who uses them incorrectly, leaving a “ski slope” (skidbacke) in the cheese. Watch the video below to see what I’m talking about:

Member comments

  1. Let’s hear what you think! Is there something special about the Swedish smörkniv, or maybe another seemingly mundane item that sums up Sweden to you?

  2. Aren’t many things found in Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England, probably including wooden butter knives, of Swedish origin, delivered or left behind by harbor raiders and inland invaders, I.e. “Vikings”?

  3. This article was great! Butter knives can be found in all cultures, but I think the Scandinavians have made the butter knife an essential kitchen utensil. So much so that they can not think of using anything else with which to spread their butter. As an immigrant to Sweden, I was fascinated with this and so I started to make butter knives, but with my own design and style. I make mine in porcelain and decorate them with various fun designs under different names for each range because butter knives do not have to be boring 🙂

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FOOD & DRINK

Five sweet treats you should be able to identify if you live in Sweden

Do you know your biskvi from your bakelse? Your chokladboll from your kanelbulle? Here's a guide guaranteed to get your mouth watering.

Five sweet treats you should be able to identify if you live in Sweden

Kanelbulle

The most famous of all Swedish cakes outside Sweden, the classic kanelbulle (cinnamon bun) is the symbol of Sweden abroad, no doubt helped by the fact that Swedish furniture giants IKEA stock frozen buns in their food stores for customers to bake off at home.

Forget American tear-apart cinnamon rolls baked in a pan and slathered with cream cheese frosting: a classic Swedish cinnamon bun is baked individually using a yeasted dough spread with cinnamon sugar and butter. The dough is then rolled up, sliced into strips which are then stretched out and knotted into buns, baked, glazed with sugar syrup and sprinkled with pearl sugar.

Home-made varieties skip the stretching and knotting step, rolling the cinnamon-sprinkled dough into a spiral instead which, although less traditional, tastes just as good.

Kanelbullar in Sweden often include a small amount of Sweden’s favourite spice: cardamom. If you’re a fan of cardamom, try ordering the kanelbulle‘s even more Swedish cousin, the kardemummabulle or cardamom bun, which skips the cinnamon entirely and goes all-out on cardamom instead.

Sweden celebrates cinnamon bun day (kanelbullens dag) on October 4th.

Photo: Lieselotte van der Meijs/imagebank.sweden.se

Chokladboll

A great option if you want a smaller cake for your fika, the chokladboll or ‘chocolate ball’ is a perfect accompaniment to coffee – some recipes even call for mixing cold coffee into the batter.

They aren’t baked and are relatively easy to make, meaning they are a popular choice for parents (or grandparents) wanting to involve children in the cake-making process.

Chokladbollar are a simple mix of sugar, oats, melted butter and cocoa powder, with the optional addition of vanilla or coffee, or occasionally rum extract. They are rolled into balls which are then rolled in desiccated coconut (or occasionally pearl sugar), and placed in the fridge to become more solid.

Some bakeries or cafés also offer dadelbollar or rawbollar/råbollar (date or raw balls), a vegan alternative made from dried dates and nuts blended together with cocoa powder.

Chocolate ball day (chokladbollens dag) falls on May 11th.

Photo: Magnus Carlsson/imagebank.sweden.se

Prinsesstårta

The lime-green prinsesstårta or ‘princess cake’ may look like a modern invention with it’s brightly-coloured marzipan covering, but it has been around since the beginning of the 1900s, and is named after three Swedish princesses, Margareta, Märta and Astrid, who were supposedly especially fond of the cake.

The cake consists of a sponge bottom spread with jam, crème pâtissière and a dome of whipped cream, covered in green marzipan and some sort of decoration, often a marzipan rose.

Prinsesstårtor can also be served in individual portions, small slices of a log which are then referred to as a prinsessbakelse.

Although the cakes are popular all year round, in the Swedish region of Småland, prinsesstårta is eaten on the first Thursday in March, due to this being the unofficial national day of the Småland region (as the phrase första torsdagen i mars is pronounced fössta tossdan i mass in the Småland dialect).

Since 2004, the Association of Swedish Bakers and Confectioners has designated the last week of September as prinsesstårtans vecka (Princess cake day).

Photo: Sinikka Halme, Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0.

Budapestbakelse

Belonging to the more traditional cakes, a Budapestbakelse or “Budapest slice” is a type of rulltårta or “roll cake” similar to a Swiss roll, consisting of a light and crispy cake made from whipped egg whites, sugar and hazelnut, filled with whipped cream and fruit, often chopped conserved peaches, nectarines or mandarines, and rolled into a log.

The log is then sliced into individual portions and drizzled with chocolate, then often topped with whipped cream and a slice of fruit. 

Despite its name, the Budapest slice has nothing to do with the city of Budapest – it was supposedly invented by baker Ingvar Strid in 1926 and received the name due to Strid’s love for the Hungarian capital.

Of course, the Budapestbakelse also has its own day – May 1st.

Kanelbullar (left), chokladbollar (centre) and biskvier (right). Photo: Tuukka Ervasti/imagebank.sweden.se

Biskvi

Another smaller cake, a biskvi (pronounced like the French biscuit), consists of an almond biscuit base, covered in buttercream (usually chocolate flavoured), and dark chocolate.

Different variants of biskvier exist, such as a Sarah Bernhardt, named after the French actress of the same name, which has chocolate truffle instead of buttercream.

You might also spot biskvier with white chocolate, often with a hallon (raspberry) or citron (lemon) filling, or even saffransbiskvier around Christmastime.

Chokladbiskviens dag is celebrated on November 11th.

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