Fika with us
Although fika is synonymous for Swedes with taking time out for a coffee, it is also more than that. If you’re with an old friend, it’s a chance to catch up. If you’re with someone new, it’s a chance to get to know each other.
While asking someone to dinner “may be interpreted as an invitation to a date,” says Swedish culture journalist Jan Gradvall, “asking someone to fika with you is a way of meeting informally, without pressures”. Making time for fika is so sacred to Swedes that it’s built into many employee contracts. Some even say that the best ideas spring from fika breaks.
Take your break outside
While the weather requires that one fika indoors most of the year, summer is the season to take it outside. Cafes bring out their outdoor seating and every seaside town, park, garden and island is flush with people sprawled on blankets or sitting at picnic tables. One such spot, Flickorna Lundgrens in southern Sweden, has practically become a national treasure. Located in an old fishing village, this romantic café was started by seven sisters in 1938. It was frequently visited by former King Gustav VI Adolf when he stayed at his nearby summerhouse, Sofiero. Today it’s a combination café/bakery/tavern, it’s still in the family, and you can still enjoy your coffee and a vanilla heart (the former King’s favorite) out in the garden under the chestnut trees.
A better brew
Coffee is traditionally at the heart of the fika. When coffee arrived in Sweden in 1685, it quickly became so popular that it upset the rest of the import business. So much so that it was banned five times in Swedish history! Who knows, perhaps the term fika, which is a play on the Swedish word for coffee, served as a kind of code for those who took part in this once illegal activity. It is said that during the bans, Swedes were forced to drink their coffee secretly, out into the woods.
Swedes are known worldwide for their coffee, which may have something do to with the fact that Gevalia been operating their direct mail business, exporting coffee and coffee makers outside of Sweden for decades. Today, however, the trend is toward small batch roasters like Stockholm’s Drop Coffee and progressive, organic and fairtrade coffee companies like Löfbergs are taking a larger share of the market.
Most Swedes will tell you that Swedish coffee tastes superior. “There are a few reasons for this,” says Philippe Barreca, Purchasing Director for another best-selling Swedish coffee, Arvid Nordquist. “Most Swedish coffee is made from 100% Arabica beans. The roasting profile for our coffee is medium and we use 65 gram coffee to 1 litre of clean water.”
The use of Arabica beans explains a lot. Arabica has half as much caffeine as Robusta, the bean most-used in North America, and caffeine is what gives coffee its bitter taste. This also explains the high cost of coffee in Scandinavia: Arabica beans are more delicate and harder to grow.
But the real secret to why coffee tastes better in Sweden? According to Barreca, it’s the water. “The water in Sweden, Finland and Norway is quite special. It’s extremely clean and gives the coffee that typical, soft taste that we like so much.”
During the 1900s, it became customary for women to gather for kafferep, a tradition like English afternoon tea. According to Swedish etiquette, a good hostess should serve seven kinds of cookies with coffee during the kafferep. (Six might look cheap and eight would be an extravagance.) A 1945 cookbook named after the tradition called Seven kinds of cakes (“Sju sorters kakor”) is still one of the best-selling books in the country. There are no specific seven, but here are a few possibilities along with recipes – all of which are perfect for dipping.
Sweden is also home to many famous pastries, including the green and pink marzipan-confection called prinsesstårta and little green marzipan and chocolate rolls named after the old-fashioned canister vacuum, dammsugare. Chokladbollar, are a popular no-bake, oat-based treat and vaniljhjärtan, heart-shaped pockets filled with vanilla cream are a favourite not only of the former king’s.
All about the buns
While every konditori (pastry shop) will offer a full range of treats to choose from, during a fika the sweet bun or “bulle” reigns supreme. There are cardamom buns, vanilla buns, pistachio-filled buns and some cafes have developed their own special recipes, like Vetekatten in Stockholm where they created a mjölnargårdsbulle containing a buttery steamed custard. Special buns like the saffron-flavored lussebullar make their appearance once a year during Advent. For semlor, a cream-stuffed bun flavored with cardamom and marzipan, one must traditionally wait until the week before Easter.
But no bun is more beloved by Swedes than the cinnamon bun. In 1999, a collective of yeast, sugar, flour and margarin producers called Sweden’s Home Baking Council announced that October 4th would henceforth be Cinnamon Bun Day (Kanelbullens dag).
Why cinnamon buns? A reporter asked the day’s founder, Kaeth Gardestedt, this question in an article in the Swedish daily paper, Dagens Nyheter. “What is the most Swedish of all the pastries?” she answered. “The cinnamon bun, of course! If you think ’cinnamon bun’ I am sure you get a special light in your eyes. Suddenly you’re a child again, and you’re coming home from school and it smells like cinnamon buns, and in the kitchen is your mom or grandma with a warm smile. The cinnamon bun is the pastry of good thoughts!”
It goes against the ethos of the Home Baking Council to recommend that you get your buns from a bakery, but most Swedes will insist they know where to get the best ones, like Konditori Brogyllen in Gothenburg and Vurma in Stockholm. For a smart use of day-old cinnamon buns, make a stop at Bageri Petrus in Stockholm, where yesterday’s buns are sliced and toasted – making them perfect for dipping in coffee.
Not a baker? IKEA sells a number of Swedish treats in their food section and freshly made cinnamon buns can be had there every day. In fact, many Swedes will take time out from their IKEA shopping trip to have a fika. No IKEA in your neighbourhood? Almondy’s almond cakes are justly popular, as are Pågen’s cinnamon rolls. Or here’s an out-of-the box solution. Just don’t forget to add the pearl sugar on top!
How to find a fik
A place to fika is often called a fik. “Fik and café are often synonymous in Sweden,” says the White Guide’s Lena Ilkjær “although fik is a bit more slang and may not be used at the fancier places.” When the White Guide, Sweden’s best-known restaurant guide, launched its guide to the Best Cafes in Sweden, their assessment was based on four areas: beverages, baked goods, service and environment/atmosphere.
“A master class cafe must get good scores in all four areas,” explains Ilkjær, “Just having good coffee and good pastries is not enough to receive master class designation. But such places will still make it into the guide. The best coffee or pastries spots are indicated by symbols in the shape of a coffee bean or a pastry. Maximum points for drink is 12 and the maximum score for pastries is 13, the rest is service and environment.”
This year’s winner went to Johan & Nyströms. At their concept boutique they are known for their knowledgeable and friendly staff – and for having what many consider to be the best cup of coffee in the country. Their method is to slow roast their beans “by hand in small batches on two vintage machines from 1956.” No matter which café wins the White Guide award, Swedes are usually faithful patrons of a particular fik. Like a favourite chair, it’s often so familiar and cozy that you never want to leave. In the summertime, an outdoor fika on a Saturday afternoon can easily turn into a long walk and even dinner. And although Swedish actor Peter Stormare shows you here how to enjoy a fika all by your lonesome, most Swedes would agree that the recipe for the perfect fika includes coffee, a cinnamon bun and a best friend.