What on earth is a Semla?
What’s in a Semla?
If you’re the least familiar with Sweden or a Swede, you probably already know about the importance of fika, the coffee break that’s a social institution. But do you know what a Semla - also called Fastlagsbulle, is?
It’s essentially the creamier cousin of the more regular bulle. Semlan is a round-shaped, sweet wheat bun baked with cardamom and filled with a lot of whipped cream and just a spoonful of almond paste. Today, it’s mostly eaten as fika together with coffee or tea but for some the tradition is to have it as a hetvägg (hot wall) which means that the bun is served in a bowl with hot milk and eaten with a spoon.
Traditionally, it was eaten as preparation for the annual fasting that preceded Easter. After Sweden’s Protestant Reformation in the early 1500s, most Swedes gave up fasting as a religious tradition. True to our tradition of the fika, however, we Swedes didn’t see Reformation as a reason to give up a great sweet and fatty snack, so we kept the tradition of eating the semla and instead of fasting afterwards we just have more semlor.
Semlan has its own designated day, fettisdagen (fat Tuesday), which is the Tuesday 47 days before Easter. Up until a few decades ago, enjoying these baked delights before fettisdagen was a big no-no. Nowadays, however, Swedes can enjoy semlor any time from shortly after Christmas up until Easter.
Around that time of year, newspapers in Sweden will publish comparisons of semlor from various bakeries around town, to help you pick the very best ones. Lately, some bakeries have started experimenting with innovations like the semmelwrap and other crossovers including versions of donuts, croissants or marzipan. Most Swedes like to stick to our traditions though, especially the ones involving fika of any kind, so a lot of Swedes frown upon these initiatives.
The Semla does have one rather tragic incident in its otherwise glorious past. A former Swedish king, Adolf Fredrik, loved semlas so much that he actually ate so many that he died.
On the fateful day of February 12, 1771, the Swedish king Adolf Fredrik, ate to his death. Adolf Fredrik was very fond of food, especially when there were semlas. The day before the fateful meal, the king and queen were on ball at Ulriksdal. The king went home early to be rested the next day, because then the French chef had promised to serve hot wall, i.e. Semlas with almond paste, whipped cream, cinnamon and warm milk.
The day after the ball, the queen was hungover, so Adolf Fredrik had to sit alone at dinner. He started with oysters, then it was sauerkraut, meat with turnips, lobster, caviar, bloater (hot-smoked herring) and champagne. When the king was really full he dug in to his favorite dish - the semlas. It is said that he ate semlas like never before, apparently scarfing down 14 hot walls. Immediately after the solid meal, the king gave a shout and the guard carried him to his bed, where he drew his last breath.