Bra gjort Stockholm!
Kate is a proud member of the e5 baking team and a shameless scandophile. She recently went on an expedition to Stockholm, to get behind the scenes at a couple of the city’s best-loved bakeries. Below she gives us the ins and outs of what she learned!…
I’ve visited my family in Stockholm every year since I was a child, so have slowly become accustomed to those flavours which at first seemed so foreign; menthol cardamom, sour rye, bitter orange peel, blackened crusts. I’ve grown to love the bread there more than anywhere else, and I’m sure that these early encounters heavily influenced my choice of career. This month I finally got around to visiting the city in a working capacity, to get a feel for bageri life.
Wanting to learn more about sweet dough I headed to NK, the most famous department store in the capital. My uncle tells me that for him as a child, ‘going to town’ was synonymous with a trip to NK. It is a majestic building, containing an impressive food court in the basement. I was to join the on-site baking team, hidden away behind children’s wear on the fourth floor. It’s is a massive operation, with freezers twice the size of my bedroom and more ovens than I’d ever seen in one place. They have equipment I never knew existed, and yet everything is still shaped by hand on the vast wooden table. There’s a balance struck here between lightening-paced efficiency and professionalism, and the charm and dignity of the artisanal.
Over the course of the week I attempted to get to grips with their trademark bun-shaping technique; a complex procedure which involves looping a strip of laminated dough around itself in such a way as to resemble a neat ball of wool. Keeping your left thumb still and using two fingers to rotate whilst winding with the other hand, you must aim for a solid construction that weighs precisely eighty five grams. If I make this process sound involved and fiddly, that’s because it is. Or at least for a beginner like myself: timing one of their bakers revealed she raced through at a rate of 3 seconds per bun. To preserve any professional credibility, I will not disclose exactly how many of my buns burst/ unravelled/ withered before they came out of the oven. Luckily the head baker Oskar was a die-hard Arsenal fan, so I just casually divulged that I went to school with Theo Walcott. As it turns out, Oskar had named his first son after him. Standing at that wooden table, shaping cardamom buns whilst Abba all too regularly flitted across the radio, I felt like I was in a living parody of Swedishness. And this was before we started talking gender equality and childcare.
The second bakery I went to was Valhalla, a compact, neighbourhood bageri, piled to the roof with stacked up sheets of hard bread, rye and raisin rolls, and huge, dark levain. The owner Mattias apparently aims for a ‘Pippi Longstocking’ style of presentation, which means no surface left bare. They’ve applied some serious analysis to every aspect of their output, not least the art of bun-baking, and are one of the only places in Stockholm to bake them fresh throughout the day. I spent a couple of dough sifts here shaping croissant and twisting baguettes, and an entire afternoon rolling a thousand chocolate balls (a mixture of raw oats, cocoa powder, butter and sugar) in desiccated coconut. These are ubiquitous in Swedish cafes but their appeal holds some mystery for me. “Do you have these in England?” the head baker Stefan asked, about seven hundred balls in. Waining slightly, and starting to resent these enigmas as my back began to ache, I replied in the negative. “Woah…that’s crazy.” he said, shaking his head uncomprehendingly.
The highlight of my fortnight began at quarter past midnight the following morning (if you can call it that). I baked through the early hours with Alex, a wide-eyed young Swede with a strong antipodean accent thanks to working in Australia, and a friend of his from the south, Tobias, who’d been baking in a wood-fired oven since the age of 11. Serious credentials then. We mixed and shaped, baked and packed til daylight came and customers began queuing up at 7am. The bread that stays with me was their signature levain, made with white sourdough and a little yeast, and cut into two kilo strips(no shaping involved), before being baked super hot and dark for a loaf which has the organic beauty of a gnarled old tree trunk. The crust is thin and chewy, the crumb soft and aerated.
The tradition that the Stockholm bakers are working within is so strong, it’s hard not to feel a little in awe, perhaps even envious. They are able to draw inspiration from a vast variety of regional and seasonal breads; from 100% rye sourdough to heavily-yeasted white, brittle knäckebröd to soft bullar. Dense kavring, spiced vörtbröd, black-domed Gotlands limpa, scalded bread from Skåne, fruited St Erik’s loaf: these are breads familiar to every Swedish household. Even the most basic supermarket hard bread comes in two shades, for those who prefer a darker bake. The word ‘integrity’ came to mind as I contemplated the display at Valhalla, and this I’m in no doubt this is the product of a pervasive baking tradition. It could be considered conservative, for sure, but there is so much to recommend it. Everything is imbued with a level of coherence and focus, not to mention confidence that comes from knowing exactly what you’re about, and executing it exceptionally. The customer buys into this tradition as well, demanding certain things whilst not expecting unlimited choice. This relationship ensures the preservation of a baking culture central to Swedish identity. Bra gjort Stockholm!