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Food

We Asked an Expert Why the Semla Is a National Obsession

Apparently, the semla is a bun that fits perfect into the Swedish fika model.

av Johannes Räihä
2016 02 09, 8:00am

Flickr user Patrik Nygren

The bizarre and inexplicable food traditions of the Swedes have probably escaped very few people by now. Snaps, fika, smörgåsbord and fermented herring – the list of odd traditions in the Scandinavian country can be made long. But there is one pastry that is possibly more peculiar than all the others – or at least the hype surrounding it.

The fatty-looking cardamom-spiced bun with whipped cream and almond paste that we call Semla even has its own day – kind of. Originally named fastlagsbulle, this baked good used to be associated with Lent and Christian traditions. Now, it's all about the bun. Apparently, once a year on Fat Tuesday, over six million semlor get consumed in a country that has a population of nine million people. Swedes have also created a semla out of pure gold. And a penis version. And a rainbow version. You get the picture.

But how did this odd and obsessive tradition emerge? Why all this love for a carb-bomb that, personally, I don't even find that tasty? We spoke to food scientist Richard Tellström at Örebro University to get some answers.

VICE: Hi Richard! Seriously – what's up with Swedes and the semla?
Richard Tellström: The popularisation of the semla is related to the Swedes' interest in dairy products as a way to a healthier lifestyle, which started somewhere in the 1930s. The health angle was supported by the Swedish state in a nationwide construction of what we call folkhemsbygget – the welfare-state. The semla with its fluffy whipped cream was introduced as an everyday luxury back then. But the semla really saw an upswing in the beginning of the 1950s after the post-war era. It started being sold on a bigger scale from the 1960s onwards, especially on Tuesdays, which paradoxically was a day for fasting at the time.

So how has the semla evolved throughout the years?
The semla already existed back in the middle ages actually, but more as a cornmeal bun with almonds, candied citrus fruits, raisins or other fine spices. The whipped cream came, as I mentioned earlier, in the 1930s. And as a postmodern twist, the semla is nowadays being prepared in different kinds of shapes and foods, such as wraps, saffron buns, smoothies and other hybrids.

Do you think the semla will survive in its present form, or will it change?
I'm sure it will survive but since we live in a postmodern time and love to take classic expressions and make them contemporary with a modern twist, I'm convinced that we'll also see this pastry evolve even more. But I must say that I'm quite surprised that it was this specific bun that went through this rapid change. I guess it's because it's a bun that fits perfect into the Swedish fika model – a social bun; something people can talk about over coffee, you know. All these new variations of the semla create great conversation pieces.

They sure do. Thanks Richard!