From Semla to Swedish Tapas: a Scandinavian Winter’s Tale

7 February, 2014

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Reindeer souvas at Udda, Sundsvall

Scandinavian culture has invaded England – generating hype for closer relationships to nature, smoking, pickling and a fair dose of Nordic knitwear. We have taken to their food in particular, with Swedish food sales having risen by almost 30% in the last five years and Norway and Denmark also reporting a notable rise in exports to the UK.

tempering spatula PIXTempering chocolate at Chocolates of Sweden 

Having visited the trendy Fika on Brick Lane for their traditional Swedish Christmas dinner in December, and later, marking Scandinavian cuisine as one-to-watch on our list of food trends for 2014, the Fork Talk team thought it prime time to visit Sweden, be it during their darkest winter days.

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Fresh semla, a national treasure

We arrive in Stockholm, the cultural hub of Sweden, within which the same levels of diversity live that are found in any capital city. From the cobbled streets of the Old Town in the central island where tourists find their stomping ground, to the southern district of Sofo in Södermalm, where the city’s trends and cosmopolitan character comes to life.

But our journey takes us on to another city, Sundsvall, four hours north of the country’s bustling capital and all the way to the middle north, where the pace is slightly slower or perhaps frozen; with its -20 degree Celsius temperatures and constant snow blizzards.

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Swedish tapas and berry crème brûlée at Udda

It is a mountain region, and it is beautiful, but it is also cold and dark – with the daily dose of light being capped at four hours. But their cuisine attacks that which is cold or depressing; while also embracing the particular natural delights that this season gives.

Although a relatively fit nation, with a gusto for the outdoors and for adventure, the Swedes love their baked goods, particularly sweet ones, and this time of year brings one of the most-loved sweets of all to the high street: semla.

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Treats being made and finished semla at Bakgården bakery

Traditionally eaten on “Fat Tuesday”, or, as we call it, Shrove Tuesday, semla is a large rounded bun made from wheat dough, almond paste and freshly whipped cream that nowadays is greedily eaten from Christmas until Easter.

Semla are found in almost every bakery, and there is much interest from both the bakeries and the public in the newspaper stories that claim they have found the best. 

kanelbulle 2 PIXTraditional kanelbulle at Bakgården

A favourite was a small bakery called Bakgården just outside of town, owned by local Mikael Malmberg, who has been baking since 1976. The semla isn’t just standout there, but also the kandelbulle (cinnamon rolls) that, before Christmas, are very popular with saffron. It seems the Swedish calendar is punctuated with pastries and baked goods – something we could get very used to indeed.

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Udda’s stark interior and classic Swedish menu with a twist

Later, we are recommended to visit Udda Bar in the centre of town; with shabby chic, industrialised interiors and a constant buzz even from early evening, it did not seem a far cry from the at-the-time distant Shoreditch.

hot dog PIXHomemade sausage hot dog at Udda

“Udda” means different, just like the concept itself – Swedish tapas. ‘Here, especially in Sweden and England as well, you have your own dish, it’s so….boring’, says André Berglund, one of Udda’s owners. So each dish (purposefully served on a shabby-looking plate to place the emphasis on the food) is made for sharing and celebrates traditional Swedish cuisine, such as lightly smoked reindeer souvas, homemade lamb sausage hot dogs (a super-trend in Sweden) and bleak roe. In their menu you will also spot the trend for cooking with cheaper cuts of meat – as chefs see it as a challenge and it suits the economically cautious sentiment of the times.

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Bleak roe at Udda: a national dish

At this time of year, the Swedes like to warm up with a stiff drink. Currently the trend is for strong, old school, heavy-spirited cocktails, such as a Negroni (a Fork Talk favourite), and on playing with ice – huge round ice balls are popular, as is chipping ice off of an ice block. Chilli-infused spirits, syrups or bitters are also popular – anything for that added bit of heat.

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Chilli-infused vodka and various bitters

Last year, Jeremy Baker of ESCP Europe business school sited austerity in the UK as the main factor for our national interest in Scandinavia, ‘people are looking for authenticity and along come the Scandinavians to help us out, with a whole range of foods, designs and products which are nice, simple, very attractive, warm and happy.’

This may be true, and I think that, coming from a country that thinks patriotism is undignified, we are also secretly envious of their national pride and love of tradition. Wishing that we, too, could have the right to two obligatory fikas (coffee breaks) a day as well as lunch, whip up a freshly foraged lingonberry jam that goes with everything and jump on our skis at the first sign of snowfall.

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A take on traditional: saffron and buckthorn truffles at Chocolates of Sweden


Fork Talk Recommends – Swedish Restaurants in London:

Scandinavian Kitchen: 61 Great Titchfield St, W1

Nordic Bakery: 14 Golden Sq, W1

Fika: 161a Brick La, E1

Madsen: 20 Old Brompton Rd, SW7

Curious Yellow Kafe: 77 Pitfield Street Hoxton N1 6BT


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