The Secret Breakfast Lives of Swedes

To understand Swedes, you must begin at the beginning – with breakfast. For hundreds of years, porridge has been a staple of the Swedish people. In Viking times, it was the food of the masses, sometimes served at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Here, the first meal of the day is a near-sacred tradition revered for its purity of ingredients and simplicity. In addition to porridge, soured milk, crispbread and open-faced sandwiches with caviar have all been a part of the Swedish breakfast routine for centuries.

The best way to discover the virtues of a Swedish breakfast is to eat one. Here we give you a glimpse into the morning routines of people throughout Sweden. May they inspire you to create your own Swedish breakfast – or make the journey here.

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Nothing says home like soured milk

What did the first Swedes to emigrate miss the most? They wrote home asking for filmjölk. One old woman from Medelpad soaked a linen cloth in the sour milk, dried it and put it in a letter. Upon arrival, the linen cloth was freshened up and used to make new sour milk.

Filmjölk, sometimes just called “fil,” is uniquely Swedish. The earliest written record of it comes from the renowned 18th century Swedish botanist, Carl von Linné. It’s technically buttermilk – a fermented milk that tastes sour like yoghurt but is viscous enough to drink. It is still an integral part of the Swedish breakfast. In 2012, the average Swede ingested a total of 36.3 kilograms (or 80 pounds) of fil and yoghurt a year.

 “In the summertime we even had it for lunch. One summer we had an American student staying with us. He was used to burgers for lunch, so when we served him filmjölk after a morning of hard work, he was quite taken aback.”

Illustrator Hans von Corswant is known for his quirky cartoons that appear in Swedish magazines, books and advertisements. Hans grew up on a farm on the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea where he ate a simple breakfast of müsli with filmjölk every morning. “In the summertime we even had it for lunch,” recalls Hans. “One summer we had an American student staying with us. He was used to burgers for lunch, so when we served him filmjölk after a morning of hard work, he was quite taken aback.”

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Caviar spread for breakfast even makes young "Kalle" glad. Photo: Abba Seafood

Where caviar comes in a tube

Although many Swedish brands are globally recognized, few brands are as Swedish as Kalles. Swedes have been munching on some form of cod roe as far back as 1850. The creamy, slightly smoky caviar spread known as Kalles has been sold in Sweden since 1954. What may surprise non-Swedes is that you’re most likely to see this time-honoured treat at breakfast.

Yoga master Magdalena Mecweld has been getting press recently for her new book on Yin yoga. Though Magdalena restricts her weekday routine to oatmeal with jam or honey and a little milk, on weekends she splurges. She eats a soft-boiled organic egg, organic feta cheese and organic tomato on a round, flat roll called a rågkusar. She makes a second sandwich with a hardboiled egg, Grevé cheese and Kalles Kaviar. “I’m a bit addicted to Kalles,” says Magdalena, “I can’t be without it.” To this she drinks freshly squeezed orange juice and Earl Grey Tea. Oh – and don’t forget the morning paper.

A cup with every meal

Swedes and Finns drink more coffee than anyone else in the world. Swedes like their coffee strong – perhaps as an antidote to the long, dark days of winter, perhaps as a throwback to when coffee was roasted in a cast-iron pan and boiled.

There are many well-known Swedish coffee brands and lately there has been a boom of small  local coffee roasteries all over Sweden. One of the most successful is Koppi in Helsingborg. They were awarded “Best Coffee bar 2013” by White Guide Café.

Eva Wilsson is one of Sweden’s most beloved postage stamp designers. When the Swedish Post Office releases one of her stamps, collectors line up to get her autograph. Eva grew up in Nynäshamn outside of Stockholm. She admits that her breakfast hasn’t changed much over the years. “As long as I get a big mug of Zoégas coffee, I am happy.” Zoégas is from Skåne and so is her family. “It’s a regional habit,” she says, “they won’t drink anything else.” Along with her yoghurt and AXA Gold müsli (to which she might add crushed flaxseed, sesame seed or sunflower seeds from Saltå Kvarn), she eats one or two whole-grain sandwiches with Herrgårdsost.

Eva also drinks a glass of Proviva, a juice drink that contains healthy lacto-bacteria. “It’s scientifically proven to maintain a healthy stomach,” says Eva, “and it comes in twenty different flavours.”

Where berries taste better

Here a law called Allemansrätten gives every citizen the right to walk through publically- and even privately-owned land (as long as you don’t camp on people’s doorsteps). Because of this, you are free to forage almost anywhere your feet will take you.

Lingonberries, bilberries, raspberries, cranberries, buckthorn, crowberry and cloudberry are just a few of the edible berries that you’ll find here. Places where wild raspberries and wild strawberries grow are coveted secrets handed down through the generations.

Food stylist, writer and chef Ylva Bergqvist creates stunningly delicious-looking still-lifes for Sweden’s top food magazines and cookbooks. Ylva was raised in a middle class family in Gävle. When she was growing up, they ate the same breakfast every day: filmjölk with jam made of lingonberries, red currants or apples. “We always picked our own fruit and made our own jam,” says Ylva. “It helped us endure the long and dark winter.”

Fortunately, for those far away from home, products like raspberry and blueberry jam can be on your doorstep in days when you order them from the Taste of Sweden web shop.

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Sandwiches for breakfast

Even if you don’t know much about Sweden, you may have an image in your head of Pippi Longstockings making pancakes, throwing the eggs, cracking them on her head, then deftly tossing a pancake onto a plate across the room. But good luck finding a Swede who eats pancakes for breakfast. Astrid Lindgren herself, Pippi’s creator, ate an open-faced sandwich with cheese and marmalade and a cup of tea.

While most of the world eats sandwiches at lunchtime, Swedes eat them for breakfast. Like other Swedish breakfast traditions, open-faced sandwiches go way back. You could even say that they were invented in the 15th century when people used thick slabs of bread instead of plates.

”En redig frukost gör att man står sig till lunch”

Breakfast is often loaded not just nutrients, but with a sense of history and place. If you pay a visit to the ICEHOTEL in Lapland, for example, your breakfast may include reindeer and moose cold cuts wrapped in a soft rectangle of bread called “tunnbröd”, and a cup of cloudberry tea. At Fäviken, you’re likely to be served långfil, the signature ropey yogurt of Jämtland. While for busy Stockholmers, a sandwich on the go from a local coffee shop will do. If you have a bit more time, Stockholm has plenty of lovely cafés where you can enjoy a long, leisurely breakfast.

Swedes like to say that a hearty breakfast will sustain you until lunch. But as we all know, the memory of a good breakfast stays with you all day.