Semla A Swedish Delight

The Semla captivates with its understated elegance and rich flavours. Each bite reveals a symphony of cardamom-infused cream, almond paste, and soft, fluffy bun, evoking a delightful blend of nostalgia and satisfaction
I am writing this column sitting in a traditional Swedish cafe, Hollandia, in the city of Malmö, while digging my fork into a Semla. I am not the only one eating Semla it seems. Around me, this cafe, established in 1903 and Malmö&rsquos oldest patisserie, is crowded. The tables are occupied mostly by old women and men, chatting incessantly and who have come here, perhaps, to relive their childhood memories. Everyone seems to be relishing a bun of Semla.
Semla is a traditional Swedish pastry, mostly available in the country in the month of February. Its origin dates back to the Middle Ages, and is available leading up to the period of Lent that commemorates the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the desert. Traditionally, it is meant to be eaten on &ldquoFettisdagen,&rdquo or Fat Tuesday, which is a national holiday, and one of the most popular days of the year in Sweden. The dessert is displayed at cafes, and is obtainable for more than a month of the year.
A Semla derives its name from simila, meaning flour, and simply put, is a sugary, cream-filled burger. Well, let&rsquos describe it better. It&rsquos essentially a sweet bun made from wheat flour, sugar, butter, and milk. It has a soft and fluffy texture, and is filled with almond paste and whipped cream. On top, another bun sits, which often is dusted with powdered sugar and toasted almonds.
A Sweet Surprise
I have always been intrigued by this simple treat since I first came to Sweden. It looked unusual, simply constructed, available only for a few days, and well, seemed unappetising when put next to all the nice pastries and cakes available in Sweden. I avoided it for the longest time, till I found every cafe, and even retailers house them, with whole shelves dedicated to these sweet buns.
During my travels, I started noticing Semla in Denmark and Norway as well. I must give it a try, I decided. Though deceptively simple, when I first tasted it, I could understand the passion for this treat as it felt like eating a pastry with the mouthfeel of an ice cream. And since then, I have treated myself to Semla every year in the months when the patisseries start stocking it.
&ldquoIn the past, Semla was served as a warm soup, with the bun soaked in milk and served in a bowl,&rdquo said an old lady sitting next to me at the cafe when she saw me relishing the pastry. Today though it comes in all forms&mdashSemla cakes, Semla shakes, and even Semla ice cream. I tried the ice cream version once and though hoping to be disappointed, I wasn&rsquot. This ice cream is essentially the cream and almond paste part of the pastry, whipped into an even mixture and served cold. Some cafes experiment with new variations, including ones filled with different types of cream, such as chocolate, or jams such as strawberry or raspberry. I wondered how the old woman, clearly in her 80s, prefers her Semla. &ldquoSimple,&rdquo she said, &ldquowithout any designs.&rdquo
As I wiped the last of the Semla from my plate, I wondered what keeps a dish as simple and as popular over the years. Is it the tradition of eating Semla that has passed within families that kept it alive and thriving Or, was it its rich history and cultural significance that doesn&rsquot let it die I realised I don&rsquot know the answer. I looked around me once again&mdashwith their Semlas finished, the old friends, families, and couples, sat rested, with a satisfied smile on their faces. For once, none of us were staring at our phones or laptops, but sat there talking to our partners. As if tasting the traditional pastry has transported us to the past, free from distractions and soaking in the present. Perhaps that&rsquos what keeps us going back to traditions, and has kept Semla alive.

Related Stories

No stories found.
Outlook Traveller