The original version of this article was published on February 2, 2018.
Every year on a Tuesday that lies on the seventh week before Easter, is where the so-called “Fat Tuesday” or “Semmeldagen” (the day of the Semla) falls. This is the national day of Swedens most beloved pastry, the semla.
The tradition is centuries old but the day keeps getting more popular, and creative variations of the semla keep popping up every year. With its two-layer bun made of wheat and cardamom, stuffed with almond paste under a cover of thick layered whipped cream, its no wonder that an estimated six million Semlor are sold in one single day, during Fat Tuesday.
Where did the Semla and the concept Fat Tuesday originate from?
Let’s go back to the 14th century: a 40-day fast of utmost importance to the Swedes at this time would be held right before Easter. In order to survive without eating properly for a long period of time, a new law was instituted stating that an obligatory feast, where one could eat as much food as they could possibly handle, would have to take place three days prior to the 40-day fast. The Swedish Church, who at that time had the power to impose laws, named aptly named the law ” The law of the fast”
Each of the three days would have their own theme, and name – Pork Sunday, Bun Monday and Pancake Tuesday, or Stone Cake day, which would later evolve into Fat Tuesday (Semmeldagen).
It should also be noted that the cream and the little lid, cut out of the bun and placed on top, was not added until after World War II. Along with the changes also came the name we use today, semla, which actually means bun in Latin.
It wasn’t all about eating
The three days leading up to the fast were not only for eating but for all kinds of shenanigans, like costume dress ups and games like – jumping sack, catching rings or the infamous, “beat the cat out of the barrel”. The participants would place a cat in a barrel, and then take turns to beat on the barrel with a stick or a sword till it broke. The participant who dealt the breaking, in turn saving the cat, would be named the cat-king. This game still exists today in the southern parts of Sweden and in Denmark. Thankfully, they’ve replaced the living cat.
Rooted in tradition
Gustav Vasa also had a hand in the laws surrounding the semla. Before Vasa became king, Sweden was not only Catholic, but the Semla was only allowed to be eaten on Fat Tuesday. After Gustav Vasa took the throne, he bid farewell to the pope and the Catholic church, and decided, to the entire populations’ delight, that the semla could now be consumed between December and February.
What is a “hot wall”?
The alternative way of eating a semla, a hot wall, originates from the medieval times and is served with a semla in a bowl served with hot milk. Till this day, some people still prefer their semla served “hot wall- style”.
The semla today
This year, semmeldagen falls on March 5th. In Sweden, the pastry is only made for two months out of the year (unless you’re cheating), and during these months an estimated 40 million semlor are sold. For a small population of just 10 million people, that is a obscene amount of semlor.
A race for the most unique semla
It is no longer just a bun filled with almond paste and whipped cream. The semla is made in all different kinds of variations. The competition for who could create the most unique semla started in 2015, and in 2017 the semla wrap broke all records.
Depending on which bakery you go to, you can try some of the new takes on the traditional semla such as, Taco Semla, Princess Semla, Wiener Semla, Semla Wrap, Nutella Semla, Doughnut semla and the worlds most luxurious semla. The most common ones are still the traditional one.
You’ve probably figured by the end of this article, that the semla is a, if not the most, loved pastry to Swedish people. So much so that King Adolf Fredrik (1710-1711) supposedly died after eating too many of them during Fat Tuesday. According to rumors, he ate more than 14 semlor in one sitting. Pretty okay way to go out, don’t you think?
Curious about how to make a semla? Look no further! Leading up to Semmeldagen, we will be publishing recipes for three different types of semla: the traditional one, the easy one and the adventurous one.
And for all you crazy semla lovers out there, willing to take your obsession a step further – there’s now a soda and a new liquor with the taste of semla. More information about them can be found here —semla liquor and semla soda.
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