Yesterday the Swedish people celebrated a very unusual thing: the fat Tuesday. (yes, you read it right). And if that was not enough, yesterday it was also Semmeldagen, the official Semla day, the traditional Swedish almond and whipped cream pastry.
What does that mean? That everybody had a great excuse to step out of diet and eat a lot of pastries and sweets. At least that’s what I got from seeing filled bakery bags everywhere yesterday.
If you feel that you have lost an opportunity to eat sugar like there is no tomorrow, there is nothing I can do, but explain a little more of this super swede day.
Come with me!
The Fat Tuesday
As you might know, I am Brazilian. And this time of the year is super special in Brazil since it’s carnival time, which means amazing costumes, street parties, endless days at the beach, chaos, and nudity. It is a 5-day thing, from Friday to Ash Wednesday. But apparently, in other places, the day before the Ash Wednesday is celebrated.
And the names people call it are everywhere. New Orleans? Mardi Gras. UK? Pancake Day. Iceland? Bursting Day (Sprengidagur, if you can pronounce Icelandic). And then you have the list of countries that celebrate the Fat Tuesday, each of them having selected a particular kind of cake, dish, pastry, or alcohol. Sweden is among those, not with alcohol but with semla.
Ok, but why would they do that? If you are not from a country with Christian tradition, you might not know, but Easter is almost here, which means that the Lent, the 40 day period on which Christians are supposed to reflect and prayer. As good human beings, what all people (Swedish included) do if you are supposed to spend 40 days of calmness? Indulge, of course.
So here you go: the Fat Tuesday is a self-indulgence and gluttony free pass. No wonder that people are into it. And here in Sweden, it’s a semlor feist.
I have to admit. Until writing this, I had no idea why on Earth people would have a Semla day. I mean, they are good, but not that good (sorry, swedes). But hey, a country can have its perks right?
So I sat down to write and turned to this book. And this, my friend, is the history of the semla bun.
Back in the day, there was no semla. People in the Swedish Kingdom would eat what they called hetvägg, which is probably a result of decades mispronunciation the german Heisse Wecken, meaning warm wedges or bun. What I mean by back in the day? Well, the oldest record of hetvägg dates from the mid-17th century. Served with milk, this was a special recipe, served only in the Fat Tuesday, a once in a year thing.
Time goes by and the swedes became less and less religious, leaving some traditions behind. One of them was the whole fat-Tuesday-only thing regarding hetvägg. Something like 200 years ago, bakeries in Stockholm started offering something super similar but calling it semla. By the way, also borrowed from German, since semmel means bun.
At the start, semla was marketed as something different from the super traditional hetvägg. It was a treat for the city bourgeoisie, which they could taste the whole year. Through the years, the name semla replaced the old hetvägg, and the recipe changed, to adapt to more industrialized processes. For example, if the old hetvägg had its core scooped, mixed with almonds and put back in, the modern semla is based on whipped cream and almond paste.
Nevertheless, the close association with the Fat Tuesday persists, and people nowadays refer to it as the Semmeldagen. Just look at this graph from Google Search!
The King that Died Eating Semla
Semla is not the healthiest food. It’s basically a sugar bomb. And the recipe does have at least one kill on its record. In the February 12th, 1771, the Swedish King Adolf Frederick actually died after eating 14 semlor, his favorite dessert. Of course, you need to consider the fact that the 14 buns were served just after he had eaten a meal with lobster, caviar, whole herrings, and meat. Anyway, here is the lesson: never eat semlor after a feast.
The Flirting Buns
As I mentioned, the hetvägg used to be quite special back in the day. There was even a romantic tradition around them, at least in Southern Sweden. During the lent, the boys would give the girls the little buns. If interested, on Easter the girls would give the boys eggs a couple of weeks. And since we are talking of 17th century, most of the cases this meant some marital bands were being formed there.
As I did in the Princess Cake post, I would invite you all now to cook your own semla. And if you do, please invite me. Since I am a modern guy, I am ok with eating Semla whatever occasion.
Hope you liked the post and the semla!