Expert on when to eat your semla: "It's a minefield"

It is Fat Tuesday and time for semlor!
It is Fat Tuesday and time for semlor!

As Easter approaches, the idea is to observe a 40-day fast, but you may have noticed that Swedes like to prepare for Lent with an excessive consumption of semlor – the cardamom buns filled with almond pulp and whipped cream, that can be eaten as they are or soaked in hot milk (called "hetvägg"). The semla has a long tradition and is available today in all imaginable variants. But when is it acceptable to indulge in this delicacy? Norran asked tradition expert Mattias Axelsson to set the record straight.

Skellefteå 13 februari 2024 05:00

The tradition of eating semlor is closely tied to the Christian Shrovetide, which marks the preparatory days before Lent. Shrovetide consists of Shrove Sunday (or Pork Sunday), Blue Monday (or Bun Monday), and Fat Tuesday – now also known as Semla Day.

– That's when you should eat semlor, in my opinion. Shrovetide builds up to some kind of crescendo on Fat Tuesday, says Mattias Axelsson. 

The expert emphasizes that navigating the timing of consuming semlor is a delicate matter, given the historical and cultural context surrounding these sweet treats.

As opinions vary on when to enjoy semlor, Axelsson suggests that the question of timing is akin to a "minefield", implying potential risks or controversies associated with the right moment to indulge in this traditional delicacy. Understanding the diverse perspectives on when to enjoy semlor becomes crucial to navigate the culinary landscape without encountering pitfalls.

"I recently saw a hot dog bun semla. It wasn't for me", says tradition expert Mattias Axelsson.
It is primarily the Catholic Church that observes fasting before Easter. "The more religious Sweden has been, the stricter they have adhered to the rules. But since Sweden has not been Catholic from the 1500s onwards, it hasn't been so important", says Axelsson.

– The problem is that, from the perspective of bakeries and stores, there's a desire to extend the period during which we consume semlor. However, this phenomenon is observed in connection with most holidays, and it's not surprising either, says Axelsson.

– From a sales standpoint, it's more lucrative to sell these pastries for several weeks a year rather than being limited to just one day. This has led to us seeing semlor in stores practically right after Christmas, and sometimes even before. It's a bit jarring. For me, semlor are clearly associated with Shrovetide in general and Fat Tuesday in particular.

However, starting to sell semlor early is nothing new.

– It has been happening for the past hundred years, from when semlor began to evolve into a bakery item. This expansion in sales time also correlates with an extended period during which we indulge in semlor.

Mattias Axelsson sticks to eating semlor during Shrovetide. However, Norran's reporter Wilhelm Sandelin Anton (in the picture) doesn't hold firmly to traditions.
In 1771, the. Swedish king Adolf Fredrik died of a stroke, but it is often said that he died from consuming too many semlor. After his death, the poet Johan Gabriel Oxenstierna wanted semlor, or "hetvägg", to be banned and "exiled from Sweden, having committed regicide". All according to the Nordic Museum's website.

The historically prolonged consumption of semlor has also given rise to strong opinions throughout the ages.

– There are examples from the 30s, 50s, and 70s of letters to the editor where people lament that the semla season starts too early. They express concern about the decline of traditions.

More or less creative variations of semlor can be found today. How about a hot dog bun semla, or a one filled with Nutella or vanilla?

At the same time, Mattias Axelsson notes that traditions are constantly evolving.

– In recent times, there's been a myriad of different semla variations. It starts somewhere with the semla wrap, and then came the Nutella semla, hot dog bun semla, and hamburger semla...

He believes this is linked to today's social media thinking.

– If you have a quirky semla today, you can get massive exposure through social media. There's an interest in finding things that get 'likes,' and for that, you need something unique.

Mattias Axelsson believes that the semla wrap is here to stay. "There will probably be a few suspicious variations of semlor in the future, but then it will subside", he predicts.

What do you think about the future?

– I believe we've seen a "peak" of the absurd variations. I think the market is saturated. I can imagine that a few new variants will still exist in 30 years – those that people genuinely appreciate. The semla wrap might be one of them. However, most of them, we will look back on with a good laugh.

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