Fika like a Swede
Fika, the delightful custom of enjoying a coffee and a treat with friends, is as Swedish as Abba. Surely it’s just a coffee break? Not quite. It’s much more than that.
Somewhat simpler and more spontaneous than the Brits’ afternoon tea tradition, Swedish people of all ages and genders are partial to the custom, enjoying it casually at work with colleagues or opting for a more elaborate outing with friends at the weekend. “Let’s do fika,” is one of the most uplifting messages you can receive from a long-lost friend. And the social aspect is as important as the delicious pairing of steaming coffee and sugary pastry – Swedish cinnamon buns being arguably the most popular fika accompaniment.
So ingrained in the Swedish psyche is the custom that some companies add a clause to contracts stating that employees are entitled to fika breaks. A clever move, since a spot of fika can be therapeutic, promoting wellbeing and productivity.
Fika, which is so well-established that it’s used as both a noun and a verb, can be had indoors or in nature. And thanks to Sweden’s unique right of public access, you’re free to fika almost anywhere. A fika out in the woods or in a nearby park is a popular pastime on a sunny day.
So, when did this ritual first surface? The word itself is believed to be a reversal of the syllables in the word kaffi, the old spelling of coffee. Originally, it was the coffee itself, which was introduced in Sweden in the 18th century, that was considered the actual fika. Over the years, however, the accompanying baked treats – often called fikabröd (fika bread) – became just as important, along with the social aspect of the custom. The arrival of patisseries in Sweden in the 19th century cemented the tradition as a coffee-and-cake-custom enjoyed with friends.
Sweden’s top-notch patisserie tradition of today
Swedes are considered to have a sweet tooth, and this has probably contributed to the country’s flourishing patisserie culture. Anyone who’s ventured into a Swedish café can attest to the fact that the quality is incredibly high. A lot of passion and skill go into each slice of cake.
Even if you were to replicate the Swedish fika custom in another country, you’d struggle to relive the experience since the quality and variety of cakes and buns found in Swedish cafés are unsurpassed, if we may be so boastful.
So where to begin when presented with a brimming smorgasbord of Swedish baked goods? These four fika classics are a good start:
Swedish fika classics – from princess cake to cinnamon rolls
Sweden’s national cake – if there were such a thing officially – is the princess cake (prinsesstårta). This globe-shaped layer cake is a well-balanced affair, consisting of a light-as-air sponge cake base topped with vanilla pastry cream and lashings of fluffy whipped cream. This mound of gorgeousness is enrobed in green marzipan, often with a pink marzipan rose as the crowning glory. Most modern incarnations include a thin layer of raspberry jam, though the original Swedish princess cake recipe from 1948, found in Prinsessornas Nya Kokbok (The Princesses’ New Cookbook), does not.
Summertime, the princess cake gets tough competition from the equally delicious strawberry cake (jordgubbstårta). This symbol of Swedish summer is often made at home, layering sponge cake, vanilla cream and strawberry jam (or mashed fresh strawberries and a pinch of sugar) and then covering the whole thing with whipped cream. On top, a generous cluster of fresh strawberries.
One for the chocaholic, the kladdkaka is another Swedish classic. Kladdkaka, which translates to “sticky cake,” is in a gooey class of its own (it beats a brownie any day). The richness of the chocolate is perfectly balanced with whipped cream and/or a handful of fresh berries.
Last but not least, the cinnamon bun (kanelbulle) has a definite place in the fika hall of fame. Fragrant and sweet, it’s satisfyingly filling due to its soft, bready nature. You won’t have to look hard for it in Sweden – this national classic is served up in most cafés and bakeries. Just follow that heavenly smell, a tell-tale sign that a fresh tray of cinnamon rolls is about to join you and your friends for fika.