Everything in balance: the rise of Nordic baking

Everything in balance: the rise of Nordic baking

by Great British Chefs 8 November 2019

We often think of baking as a symphony of butter, sugar and cream, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Nordic baking has gained mighty popularity in Britain thanks to it’s balanced, minimalist approach – but why is that? We delve into the traditions and history that have defined Nordic baking technique.

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Great British Chefs is a team of passionate food lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest food stories, news and reviews as well as access to some of Britain’s greatest chefs. Our posts cover everything we are excited about from the latest openings and hottest food trends to brilliant new producers and exclusive chef interviews.

Over the last decade or two, we’ve rather fallen for Nordic minimalism. The form and function of the furniture, the normcore aesthetic of the fashion; once it was modish and cool – now it’s just a normal part of life. Everyone has been to IKEA at least once in their life, right?

The story is the same when it comes to food, and baking particularly. Baking is one area where we still value our own traditions – bread, pies, pasties and puddings all have time-honoured roots, but are easily available to us all. That said, we’ve come to greatly admire the simplicity of Nordic baking, which stands in vast contrast to the butter and sugar-laden French style that has influenced much of central Europe. Look at the things that have entered our baking lexicon over the last decade and you’ll find many of them have their roots north of our little island, not south. Cinnamon buns (kanelbulle) hail from Sweden, as do semla and saffron buns. Soft, custard-filled Skoleboller are a Norwegian speciality, whilst crispbreads and rye breads – both big sellers in the UK these days – developed independently all over the Nordic region.

Climate has had a huge influence on the functional nature of Nordic baking practices. The Nordic region includes Scandinavia (which technically refers to the three kingdoms of Norway, Sweden and Denmark) as well as Finland, Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands. This is a part of the world where people deal with borderline-arctic climates for much of the year and, as a result, traditionally needed food that would keep well and provide sufficient calories. The answer lay in ancient and hardy grains – predominantly rye, which grows well in the cold, but also wheat, oats and barley. By growing whichever grains they could and milling them into flour, people had a food source that would keep through the inhospitable winter and was also nutrient-rich and calorie-dense.

Rye was the most easily grown grain across the Nordics, which meant it fast became a staple. Only in the far south – southern Sweden and Denmark – was the climate warm enough for people to think about growing wheat; that made the grain a valuable commodity and people would grow wheat to sell, whilst growing rye to feed themselves. Evidence of rye being grown in the Nordics stretches back to the early Iron Age (around 500AD). Barley is nearly as old, whilst wheat and oats appeared later. Look at baking techniques on a deeper level across the Nordic region and you can see the extensive influence of the climate. Soft, leavened breads were most common in the south, where temperatures often allowed for the cultivation of wild yeast cultures. As you move further north into the Swedish midlands, Norway and Finland, crispbreads become far more common, as do flatbreads, either baked on hot stones or later in wood-fired ovens. As Magnus Nilsson explains in The Nordic Baking Book, bread gets flatter and denser as you go further north, due to the scarcity of wheat. Barley and rye don’t have the same gluten content as wheat, so they don’t create the same structure when baked. Eventually when you reach northern Scandinavia, Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands, all the traditional breads are flatbreads and crispbreads.

The practice of baking rye breads (leavened using wild yeast cultures) and crispbreads remains popular to this day. One upon a time these crispbreads would have been baked on superheated stones, before the advent of more traditional wood-fired ovens. Even today, many crispbreads retain the traditional donut shape; originally the hole in the middle allowed the crispbreads to be stacked on sticks and stored in the roof space where they would stay dry for many months – these days that storage method isn't as necessary! A much wider variety of grains is cultivated nowadays but many still prefer the rich, nutty flavour of rye bread over other equivalents. Rye crispbreads accompany almost every meal, ready to be laden with all manner of toppings.

Baking was important as a means to survive in the Nordic region, and it became an important part of Nordic culture as a result. If you have been to Sweden you will doubtless have enjoyed fika – the custom of adjourning for a coffee and a piece of cake during the working day. It might seem like a simple coffee break but fika is far more significant than that. The food and drink is only one part of fika; the concept of taking a break from your day and enjoying the companionship of someone else is just as important. It speaks to the balanced, functional nature of life and food in Nordic countries – because the act of baking came from a place of practicality, there's a balance in the enjoyment of baking today.

This is a concept summed up by another Swedish word that we have come to appreciate in Britain. Translated roughly, the word lagom means ‘everything in balance’, and that is perhaps what we have come to enjoy about Nordic baking practices the most. Luxuries like butter, sugar and cream are used in moderation, not in excess – balanced with just the right amount of spice to give the finished product a clean flavour. Compare this with old English baking recipes – many of these include the use of mixed spice (a combination of cinnamon, coriander seed, caraway, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, allspice and mace). It’s a mixture that we associate with Christmas, but it’s the antithesis of lagom. A Swedish cinnamon bun only contains one spice – cinnamon. When you bite into the soft, pillowy dough of your cinnamon bun you aren’t overwhelmed by other flavours, you just get cinnamon (and perhaps a tiny accent of vanilla). The same is true of other classic Scandinavian sweet pastries like cardamom and saffron buns – cinnamon, cardamom and saffron were spices discovered by the Vikings long ago, hence why they are still used today.

Nothing is used for the sake of it, and everything has a place. Perhaps that’s why people in the Nordics make time to enjoy their baking, and why, slowly but surely, we are doing the same.