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FOOD & DRINK

Swedish foodie secrets: How to find Sweden’s best semla

Semlor are traditional Swedish cardamom buns filled with whipped cream and almond paste. But what should you look for in a good semla, and what should you avoid?

Swedish foodie secrets: How to find Sweden's best semla
Not sure what to look for in a good semla? We've done the work so you don't have to. Photo: Susanne Walström/imagebank.sweden.se

Semlor are traditionally eaten on Shrove Tuesday or Fettisdagen, as the last festive food before Lent, a traditional fasting period leading up to Easter. Fettisdagen falls on March 1st this year, so now is the time to indulge in one of the season’s best treats.

They are known as fastlagsbullar in southern Sweden, and – despite their origins – are now commonly available in bakeries from the end of the Christmas season to the start of Easter, rather than just on Shrove Tuesday.

A good semla is no more than the sum of its parts – the holy trinity of cardamom bun, whipped cream and almond paste. The ideal semla will take all of these individual parts into account, with each bite a perfect mix of cream, bun, and almond.

We asked semla-lovers on Twitter and in Malmö foodie group Malmöfoodisar on Facebook to tell us what you should look for in the ideal semla – here’s what they said.

A semla cross-section. There’s a layer of almond paste hiding somewhere under all that cream. Photo: Becky Waterton/The Local

The bun: ‘Absolutely not too dry’

Most of the people who got in touch were in agreement – a semla bun needs to have a noticeable cardamom flavour, without taking over. Rhiannon on Twitter said that “roughly ground cardamom in the bread” was important, with “a nice dusting of icing sugar on top of the bun”.

Joakim on Facebook said that, in his opinion the bun should be a “rather soft wheat bun with a light cardamom touch (the cardamom shouldn’t take over)”.

Charlotta, from the same Facebook group, said that the bun should be “fluffy with a noticeable cardamom flavour”, stating that she also enjoys “more historical semlor you can find further north where the inside of the bun is partly removed and mixed with the almond paste”.

Linnéa said on Facebook that the bun should be “soft and smooth, and absolutely not too dry”.

A semla from St. Jakobs bakery in Malmö. Nice crunchy almond paste and a good sized lid. Too much cream for me so my husband got the other half. Photo: Becky Waterton/The Local

The cream: ‘High quality’

Semla cream should be “high quality whipped cream”, Rhiannon told us on Twitter, although on Facebook, people were split as to whether cream should include vanilla or not. My prefers her semlor to have “whipped cream with a bit of vanilla”, whereas Maria said that there should be “no jävla vanilla!” using a Swedish expletive that can be best translated into English as “bloody” or “damn”.

Cecilia said that there should be “enough fluffy cream so there’s a bit in every bite”, and Charlotta told us that the cream should be “quite lightly whipped (hand-whipped, if possible), absolutely not sweetened”.

Joakim likes the cream in his semla to be “lightly whipped with nothing extra added, so the better the cream the better the flavour”.

Linnéa told us that her ideal semla had “lots of cream (vegan if possible)” – although semlor can be heavy on the dairy, vegans can also enjoy the Lenten treat if the cream is oat- or soya-based.

Some vegan semlor can be as good as – or even better than – normal cream-based semlor, which dairy company Arla awkwardly found out when a vegan semla was voted into first place in their semla competition last year. Unfortunately for the bakery in question, Arla ended up cancelling the competition, which the company’s press officer told newspaper Dagens Nyheter was due to a “lack of engagement from bakers around the country”.

The company told the newspaper that, instead of handing out a prize, they would “buy one hundred semla from each of the top one hundred entries” and donate them to care homes – with one caveat: “we’re only going to buy semlor made with cream and butter”.

Definitely a semla for cream lovers! From Hedh Escalante in Malmö. This one was bought reduced at the end of the day but was still delicious. Photo: Becky Waterton/The Local

The almond paste: ‘Chunky in texture’

The third component of a semla, the almond paste or mandelmassa can fall into two categories: smooth or chunky with pieces of almond. Rhiannon and Sebastian on Twitter both said that they preferred their almond paste “chunky”, with Sebastian saying that mandelmassa that is too smooth is a no-go, as “you’ll just be reminded of cheap peanut butter”.

Cecilia prefers a semla with “a generous amount of almond paste made from well-roasted almonds so that the paste is dark brown, with bits of almond in”.

Joakim likes a “nice soft almond paste” in his semla, saying that “it shouldn’t be a hard lump”, whereas Maria prefers “soft and chewy” almond paste in hers.

Renee said that a semla offering “something other than mandelmassa” is appreciated by those with a nut allergy, adding that her partner “insists on putting in Calvados for the mandelmassa eaters” which, although not traditional is “the real trick”.

From top left: a choux semla, traditional semla and chocolate semla. All from Mat- och Chokladstudion, Malmö. Photo from 2021. Photo: Becky Waterton/The Local

The top: ‘Wimpy little triangular lids’

Mikael prefers a lid he can use as a spoon to “scoop up the cream”, which he says rules out the “wimpy little triangular lids” many bakers go for. He also said that a small triangular lid can give a semla the “wrong balance”, leaving it “with too much bun on the bottom”.

Maria said that “it’s not necessary to cut the lid into a triangle”, and that there should be “lagom icing sugar on top”. Lagom, in case you didn’t know, is the Swedish term for “just enough”.

Cecilia likes the lid of her semla to be well dusted with icing sugar, saying that is should be “really sweet”.

Milk or no milk?

Some old-school semla eaters may be intrigued by the concept of hetvägg – a semla served in a bowl of warm milk. Thomas told us that he prefers his semla to have a “high mandelmassa to cream ratio”, served “with warm milk”.

Sebastian, on the other hand, was not a fan, telling us “for God’s sake, skip the milk thing. It’s vile”.

Charlotte said that hetvägg is good if you have “a dry semla or haven’t managed to eat it in time”, describing it as “like a bread and butter pudding using up something which has gone stale”.

No semlor were harmed in the making of this article. Except this one from Gateau, which I accidentally dropped. Photo: Becky Waterton/The Local

‘Try to eat as many as you can’

Sofi on Twitter’s best semla tip was “if it’s your first ever semla, have a home-baked one or one you get from a really good bakery. The ones you get from a supermarket may remind you of the good stuff, but if this is where you start, you’ll never learn to enjoy it”.

John on Facebook had extremely good advice: he said that you should “try to eat as many as you can. Then eventually you’ll find the one you like the best.” 

Joakim said that “most important of all is that the semla is eaten very shortly after it is made”, stating that “a semla which has been stored in a fridge has already suffered the biggest sin, with the question of whether it can even be called a semla any more”.

Semla influencers

If this article hasn’t given you enough semla tips for this semla season, our commenters also gave us their tips for the best semla influencers who have taken upon themselves the noble task of testing semlor so you don’t have to.

These semla influencers include two Instagram accounts: @gemigsemla (Give me semla), who has previously reviewed Gothenburg’s semlor in 2020 and Malmö’s semlor in 2021. The second semla influencer we were recommended was @not.so.fine.dining, who reviews all sorts of food in Malmö, but reviewed the city’s traditional semlor in 2020, and non-traditional or “dumsemlor” in 2021

Unfortunately, we did not get any tips for semla influencers in Stockholm – let us know if you know of someone we’ve missed!

Finally, Malmö foodie group Malmöfoodisar gave us their semla tips for this article – have a look at their sister groups for Stockholm and Gothenburg if you’re looking for the best Swedish foodie tips in other cities!

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SWEDISH TRADITIONS

OPINION: Seven things that make Sweden magnificently different

As we gather for Midsummer, Sweden’s unofficial national day, here are seven things we should celebrate about the country that mark it out from the rest, says David Crouch.

OPINION: Seven things that make Sweden magnificently different

With Sweden preparing to abandon its final vestiges of neutrality to become a Nato member, many are asking whether the country is losing the features that have helped to make it distinctively different as a nation. As we gather for Midsummer – Sweden’s unofficial national day – here are seven things we should celebrate about our home that mark the country out from the rest:

1. Midsummer itself

Imagine having a national holiday that has all the cultural significance of Christmas in Europe or Eid in the Muslim world, but which takes place outside when the sun never sets. That, in a nutshell, is Midsummer – all the anticipation, ornament and tradition of a big religious festival, but without the religion and on a day that goes on and on forever. The whole country moves outdoors and mingles with family, friends and neighbours. It’s like an annual street-party with added singing, dancing, garlands and games. 

Like many Swedish festivals, Midsummer has Christian roots, originating in celebrations to mark the birthday of St John the Baptist (June 24). But that date handily coincides with the summer solstice and a moment when nature is at its best. Christianity fought it out with paganism, and paganism won. The roots of Midsummer traditions are centuries old, but now the only worship that takes place is veneration of the season and exaltation at being alive. This, in theory at least, makes Midsummer a very inclusive festival that reaches over boundaries of creed, colour, age, class or political outlook.

Photo: Anna Hållams/imagebank.sweden.se

So when you raise a glass of aquavit or skewer a chunk of pickled herring this Friday, you are doing more than enjoying the moment – you are celebrating an aspect of life that is quintessentially Swedish.

2. Support for working families 

When I describe to people back home in Britain the Swedish system of support for families with small children, they go green with envy. I am sure you know the stats already, but it’s worth writing them down, printing them out, nailing them to a piece of wood and making a small shrine in the corner of your living room. Then you should light a candle at the shrine every time you drop off your child at the well-funded kindergarten at 7am, or use one of the 120 days a year you get paid to be at home with the child when it is sick, or whenever you take one of the 480 days paid parental leave you get with each offspring. 

It is usually assumed that this is all a residue of Sweden’s leftist past, but that is only one side of the picture. It is true that Olof Palme, the country’s emblematic left-wing leader, talked in the 1970s about the need to “provide children with a stimulating and diversified environment” outside the home and strengthen “women’s ambitions to achieve equality in working life”. But in fact it was centre-right governments in the mid 70s and early 90s who really watered the seeds that Palme had sown. Sweden’s liberals saw gender inequality as inefficient and a brake on the economy. So the system of early years childcare and parental leave is actually a great Swedish national achievement.

The cost of childcare is capped in Sweden, so you’ll never pay more than a certain figure. Photo: Gorm Kallestad/NTB scanpix/TT

3. A melting pot 

Love it or loath it (lots of Swedes do), immigration to Sweden is a fact of life. According to this year’s numbers, just over one-third of registered inhabitants of this country have some sort of foreign background, namely they were born abroad or born here to a foreign-born parent – although this also includes those born abroad to Swedish parents. A quarter of the population has a language other than Swedish or one of Sweden’s minority languages as their mother tongue – that’s the highest proportion of any country in the world. 

The transformation from a largely monocultural society has taken place at lightning speed, during barely three decades. One in five of today’s Swedes were born abroad, putting Sweden in 6th or 7th place in the world in terms of the proportion of foreign-born people after Luxembourg, Australia, Switzerland, New Zealand and Israel. The proportion of non-white Swedes is at least 20% (30% among children and young people), which means that Sweden is in 3rd or 4th place in the western world after the USA, Australia, and possibly France.

Speaking personally, I find this hugely stimulating and exciting. Large-scale immigration comes with lots of challenges, but if Sweden can only get it right, it could be a beacon to the world. 

4. The hidden welfare state 

We all know about Sweden’s famous tax-payer funded welfare state, which is now rather frayed around the edges thanks to several decades of upheaval (with the possible exception of childcare, see above). But the country also has a set of large and powerful institutions that together constitute a “hidden” welfare state that even many Swedes are barely aware of. These are the organisations of the omställningssystemet, or transition system. 

A large majority of Swedish companies typically pay 0.3 per cent of their wage bill each year into the trygghetsfonder, or job security councils, which are run by the trade unions. TRR, one of the largest agencies, is backed by about 35,000 private sector companies with nearly 1 million employees – almost a quarter of the workforce. If you lose your job, a job security council will be there to give you counselling and training to help you get back into the workforce as quickly and painlessly as possible. 

The transition system is an important part of explaining how Sweden’s economy maintains its global competitiveness. Helping the unemployed back into work, enabling them to improve their skills or recover from the stresses of redundancy, has a strong economic rationale. It makes it much easier for companies to downsize, restructure, and even close factories altogether. This is a great Swedish invention, and one that deserves much more recognition internationally. 

A customer buying spirits at Systembolaget. Photo: Isabell Höjman/TT

5. Systembolaget 

Love it or loath it (most Swedes love it), the state alcohol monopoly is a fact of life. In a country that has privatised almost everything that can’t be nailed down – including the postal service, the trains, telephones, schools, elderly care and aviation – Systembolaget sticks out like a sore thumb. As a result, it is easier to find somewhere to play a round of golf in Sweden than a shop where you can buy a bottle of wine over the counter. 

It is paternalistic, moralistic, clumsy and exasperating. But Systembolaget is also a caring institution that represents society as a whole taking responsibility for citizens who are vulnerable to the ill-effects of a dangerous drug. If only the same principle was applied to gambling or pornography, for example, the world would be a better place. More broadly, Systembolaget is an embodiment of public service, an unfashionable but essential element of any functioning society. Hooray for Systembolaget, a great Swedish invention!

6. Gadgets and gizmos

If you have played a game on your telephone today, listened to music online, or video-called a friend, the chances are that you have used technology from a Swedish company. You can bid on a house via SMS, and credit a friend’s bank account instantly with your mobile phone. In the European Commission’s 2021 European Innovation Scoreboard, Sweden again ranked as the most innovative country in the EU, just as it has done ever since the index began in 2001.

The country has far more world-leading tech companies than it should in relation to its population. During this century, Stockholm has developed more billion-dollar tech companies, known as “unicorns”, than any other city in Europe. Successes include names such as Spotify, Skype, iZettle, Klarna, Trustly, Mojang and King. Sweden is currently in a sweet spot for innovative enterprise, creating a fertile environment for people who want to turn ideas into stuff that can actually change the world. 

7. Work-life balance 

In Sweden, 25 days holiday a year are enshrined in law. That means anything less is illegal, irrespective of your age or what you do for a living. Many jobs come with more days off than the statutory minimum. And for many employees, neither weekends, bank holidays (röda dagar), Easter, Pentecost, Midsummer, Christmas or New Year’s Eve are counted as part of your 25 days.

This is a great start for anyone seeking a healthy balance between work and home life. During their frequent days off, Swedes don’t sit around watching daytime TV. The concept of friluftsliv, or open-air life, is deeply embedded in Swedish culture and means spending time in the great outdoors for spiritual and physical wellbeing. The country boasts 25 organisations with 1.7 million members based on friluftsliv, while around a third of Swedes engage in outdoor activities at least once a week. This is closely linked to allemansrätten, the legal right of public access to anywhere in nature. 

But what about all that other crazy Swedish stuff?

I have tried to sum up those features of life in Sweden that are fundamental, structural, or so deeply engrained that one cannot imagine any major change taking place without some sort of major upheaval. But I am sure I have overlooked some things. Do please write to The Local with your suggestions for other reasons to celebrate Sweden and Swedishness here: [email protected] 

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.

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