24 Feb 2009

The king and the semla

If you would happen to stop by in Sweden on the time of, let's say, the 24th of February, you may find what appears to be extremely serious evidence pointing to the fact that the Swedes' favourite pastime is to clog their veins with a mediocre-looking pastry called semla.

The semla (bastardized from Latin: simila=wheat flour) of today is basically a wheat bun cut in a big and a small piece, with a layer of almond mush and a huge pile of whipped cream in-between. The top would typically be sprinkled with powdered sugar.
Although today this pastry can be obtained in shops almost all year around, traditionally it is supposed to be baked and eaten on this very day - "The Fat Tuesday"!

See, in the days when Sweden was still a Catholic country, the Fat Tuesday preceded Ash Wednesday, the kick-start of Lent. Accordingly, the fat Tuesday was the last chance to stuff yourself with everything that would become no-no or go bad during the next forty days, and for some reason or another, the semla became so popular that it even survived the reformation in the 16th century and continued to appear on every man's table on the Fat Tuesday (as well as other days).

The habit of making the semla with a whipped cream filling is but a century old, but the almond mush appeared in the 18th century, when it was also customary to eat the semla in a bowl with hot milk (some people still do it. I tried it once and if I never do it again, it'll be too soon).
And as you soon will discover, a royal semla soaking in a milky bath even became of historic importance on February 12, 1771.

Poor Adolf Fredrik (born 1710; crowned king of Sweden 1751) would never go to history as one of the greatest monarchs that ruled this country. In fact, most people, I believe, think of him as "that king who died from eating too many semlas". Which isn't perfectly true, but I'll come to that.

Adolf Fredrik was king in a time when monarchy had little to no power at all in Sweden. The country was in reality ruled by political parties with agendas of their own, and even if Adolf Fredrik had had any greater ambitions (which he didn't), he would still have been under the thumb of his wife Lovisa Ulrika, the sister of Frederick the Great.

Her ambitions, on the other hand, included an attempted coup d'état in order to regain power to the king/queen in 1756.

The scheme failed miserably. Lovisa Ulrika got busted for embezzling the crown jewels and if that wasn't bad enough, one of the followers of the royal couple got drunk and revealed the plot to the authorities.

Mayhem and destruction followed with beheadings and deportations and the king got an ultimatum: "Say you're sorry and you're out of here!"

The king had to say he was sorry and remained king, disillusionated and reduced to a sock puppet (when he refused to sign particular documents that required his signature, a stamp with the king's name that made his presence even less necessary was made).
The famous name stamp

But, in the end, the quiet life as a family man and hobbyist didn't suit Adolf Fredrik badly. He was a timid and modest man to his nature, and quite happily spent his days lathing snuffboxes and enjoying the delights of the table.

And here's where the accursed semla finally comes into the picture!

That February night in 1771, Adolf Fredrik had in the best of health and spirits stuffed his face with sauerkraut, meat with turnips, lobster, caviar, smoked herring - all drowned with several bottles of champagne - and as a finishing touch, a semla with warm milk.

We can't possibly blame the semla for what happened a few moments later but rather the king's diet as a whole, but the indisputable fact is that the king, still at the table, was stricken with a fatal stroke and after not much longer quite dead.

No, not quite an heroic death, or as the contemporary poet J G Oxenstierna rather snarkily put it: "It is not to expire in the most glorious way but to die the death of a clergyman".

(But if you ask me, I don't think that kicking the bucket after enjoying a good meal with your friends necessarily has to be an unpleasant way to die. On the contrary...)

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