Everywhere I turn I’m hit with the same pungent smell and it’s getting distracting. I doubt the passing locals even notice the warm, sweet and spiced aroma permeating the air, but this strong sugary scent is intoxicating, tempting me to hunt down its source like a carrot beckoning a donkey. If Stockholm could be distilled into a single fragrance it’d surely be baked cinnamon.
Visitors to the city cannot escape kanelbulle — the ubiquitous spiced cinnamon buns sprinkled with pearl sugar that are so popular in Sweden there’s even a National Cinnamon Bun Day held every year on 4 October. According to the Swedish Bakers & Confectioners Association, a mammoth seven million are bought every day — in a country of only nine million people.
“Many Swedes have memories from a mother, grandmother, neighbour or father that made kanelbulle at home,” says Birgit Nilsson Bergström of Sweden’s Hembakningsrådet (Home Baking Council). “So the bun, served with a glass of cold milk or hot coffee, stands for caring, generosity, a feeling of homeliness. And who doesn’t like the taste of sugar and cinnamon?”
The modern kanelbulle is thought to date back to the 1920s, following the end of the First World War when restrictions on goods such as sugar, egg, cinnamon and butter were lifted, and sweet buns and pastries began to reappear in cafes and bakeries.
But it wasn’t until the 1950s that the kanelbulles’ popularity really took off as the average Swedish household suddenly found itself able to splurge on its once costly ingredients, resulting in working-class housewives baking new and creative versions of the classic cinnamon bun recipe.
Giving in to temptation, I follow my nose to the almost planet-sized buns of Saturnus, a French-style café in Stockholm’s well-heeled Östermalm neighbourhood. Here the kanelbulle has been supersized to around 400g — three times the size of a normal cinnamon bun.
It’s late Saturday morning and Café Saturnus is heaving with couples, families and Friday-night over-indulgers desperate for fika, the very Swedish act of taking coffee and cake. Fika is both a noun and a verb, which goes some way to explaining how important a ritual it is here.
During a typical weekend, Saturnus sells over 250 kanelbulle to tourists as well as locals — and even junior members of Sweden’s royal family — keen to tuck into its delicately sweet and spiced behemoths.
“The previous owner also did big kanelbulle, although ours have grown a bit more over the years,” says owner Tina Pispas. “If you catch them while they’re warm, you can usually eat one yourself, but people often share. And if they can’t finish it, they take it with them.”
Tina’s right. I barely make a dent after 10 solid minutes of chewing, but still I can’t give up on the sticky, fluffy mass. I temporarily admit defeat and wrap up the remains to fuel me for the long day ahead — or at least until the next fika.