Bread for the future, based in the past

In a recent episode of Welcome to Sweden, when the protagonist’s American mother is caught trying to smuggle a giant loaf of bread home in her suitcase, she pleads, “I have to have that bread. That is the greatest bread I’ve ever had in my life.”

Walk down any main street in Sweden today and you, too, will be seduced by the yeasty aroma of freshly baked bread wafting through the air. Exactly why has Sweden become Europe’s new bread capital? Martin Lundell, president of the Swedish Association of bakers and confectioners, says it has to do with lower restaurant taxes, recent renovations and…um… semmelwraps.

Never heard of a semmelwrap? Invented in January by baker Mattias Ljungberg, owner of Tössebageriet in Stockholm, it’s a cross between the classic Lenten cream-filled cardamom bun and a modern sandwich wrap. Now with it’s own Wikipedia page, the confection temporarily ousted sourdough as the most-talked about baked good in Sweden this year. At one point Ljungberg said he was selling 1,000 wraps a day and, according to Sweden’s daily paper Dagens Nyheter, had to hire extra staff to handle the demand. Soon bakeries all over the country were featuring their own take on Ljungberg’s creation.

Maybe the semmelwrap will turn out to be more than a one-hit-wonder, or perhaps it is thanks to lower taxes that classic cafés like Vetekatten have been able to renovate and freshen up their brand. Nevertheless, Swedish employment statistics show that the industry is growing so fast that bakers will soon be in short supply.

Before the semmelwrap came sourdough

When Sébastien Boudet started Petit France in 2008 his buttery croissants and elegant macaroons quickly became the talk of the town. Boudet, whose father was a baker, left his native France for love in Sweden with dreams of changing his new homeland’s café scene.

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And that’s more or less what happened. Now, eight years later, Boudet has long since sold his shop (though it still maintains a strong local following) and with his passion for sourdough, he has become one of Swedish television’s best known baking celebrities. And the café owners? One web site, Surdegskartan.se, maintains a map of 212 bakeries, spanning the country from Malmö to Luleå – and that only accounts for those working with sourdough!

Though Boudet may have become the public face of the Swedish sourdough craze, he was likely part of a greater Zeitgeist, as a handful of other beloved sourdough bakeries were founded at the same time. In Gothenburg, husband and wife team Robin and Christiane Edberg started Cum pane and two young women, Fanny Ivarsson and Martina Alvarsson, opened Alvar och Ivar, today Fanny runs the bakery together with her husband Benny Käck.

“Cum Pane is latin for the one you share bread with friend, partner.”

Cum pane, now has a second location, in Olskrogen where you can watch bread being baked “on an open stage.” This way, say Robin and Christiane, visitors can “easily understand the craft, knowledge, raw materials and effort in every loaf.” Cum pane uses ancient grains like spelt and emmer, rye and barley and only organic ingredients, most of which are local. In fact, all of their flour comes from Limabacka Kvarn where it is ground using stone mills.

This philosophy is echoed by many bakeries in Sweden today, even chains like Fabrique, whose scrumptious rendition of the cardamom bun will have you packing those in your suitcase.

“Once you’ve eaten real bread, you can’t go back,” says Charlotta Zetterström, who started Fabrique together with her husband David (also in 2008). The couple met while working as bakers at Gateau, another formidable establishment, and hatched a plan that would give birth to the old concept of the corner bakery. “We longed for the bread of an older era – bread made by hand, just down the street,” Zetterström says. This is still a point of pride for them, even as they open a thirteenth store, with locations in London and on Gotland.

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Bread of the Vikings

While sourdough and semmelwraps may be 21st century trends, the Swedish love of bread dates back to the third century. On the islands of Birka and Helgö in Lake Mälaren, archeologists have unearthed the remains of small charred buns made from grains – not unlike skorpor.

Another revolution in Swedish breadmaking came about in the middle ages, when tunnbröd och knäckebröd (crispbread) were developed. Tunnbröd is still hugely popular in Sweden, as demonstrated by the semmelwrap.

Tunnbröd is the primary product of Polarbröd, the country’s third largest bread company. Soft, flat and perforated with tiny holes, Swedes use it today to make popular wrapped sandwiches like tunnbrödsrulle, stuffed with mashed potatoes and a hot dog. Or they roll it up with reindeer meat for the perfect cross-country skiing snack (renklämma). Polarbröd is a fifth-generation family business in Norrland, and while their main business is steeped in tradition, sisters Karin Bodin and Anna Borgeryd have taken on modern challenges – like fueling all their ovens with their own windpower.

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Keeping the old ways alive

In addition to reviving ancient grains and grandmother’s bread recipes, a handful of chefs are also resurrecting age-old baking techniques. One example is Green Rabbit Rågbrödsbageriet, which after only one year in business was named 2015 Best Bakery by the White Guide. The latest effort of Michelin-star restaurateurs Martin Berg and Mathias Dahlgren, Green Rabbit is doing more than a few things differently.

“Everyone is doing levain,” says Berg, referring to the way that sourdough is made, using a live starter, “which means they are using the same yeast and added sweeteners.”

But, Martin explains, there is another, older way of making bread, in which you don’t need to feed the yeast to keep it alive; it lives in the old wooden bread molds. “You just stir the ingredients together and let them sit overnight in the molds,” he explains, “and this changes the flavor.”

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Green Rabbit also has the distinction of using rye flour in all of their breads – with results that are rich in flavor and not only the dense, brown loaves of kavring like you’d expect. “Rye is good for the stomach, and keeps you full longer,” explains Chef Martin Berg. Perhaps the most Swedish of cereals, rye was used in Sweden before wheat. They also source their flour from small growers like Warbro Kvarn and Gutekorn whose fields are test sites for ancient grains, and they get deliveries of new milled flour once a week. “This means the bread will inevitably taste different from batch to batch,” says Berg.

Home baked

While there seems to be no end to the Swedish appetite for good bakeries, Swedes are also becoming more active bakers. Over a third of Swedes have baking as a hobby, and the number of adults under 30 who enjoy baking has also increased in the last few years.

This is thanks in part to established chefs like Jan Hedh, who’s written a number of cookbooks on the subject and teaches courses at Restaurangakademin in Stockholm, and a handful of bloggers that make it look easy.

Caroline Lindo is one of the many Swedes who has turned her hobby into a profession. A former microbiologist, Lindo now runs Brödlabbet in Stora Raby outside Lund, an organic, stone-oven, sourdough bakery, where she also offers courses to beginners.

For those who can’t attend class in person, there’s always YouTube. In this clip from The Mind of a Chef, Chef Magnus Nilsson together with his mother and his aunt, demonstrate how their ancestors made traditional Swedish flatbread in their native Jämtland. It will have you packaging your suitcase – and leaving plenty of extra room for bread.

Video from Mind of a Chef, a PBS series.