There are two things I love that I know are bad for me when in abundance. Ok, you got me, there are more than just two things; but in this particular case, I’m talking coffee and cake. Being the self-confessed caffeine-and-carb-phile that I am, the one thing that really caught my attention when I first visited Stockholm was the sheer volume of ‘konditori’ (small, boutique coffee shops) that existed on every turn, in every part of the city. I observed Stockholmers young and old spending a part of their afternoons partaking in this very social phenomenon called ‘fika’.
Fika is a coffee break, literally translating as ‘to take coffee’. It was derived from a 19th century Swedish back-slang, reversing the word ‘kaffi’ – as to why, I’m not sure, but I was surprised to learn that Stockholm has one of the most concentrated coffee drinking populations in the world, Sweden being a top ten country for coffee consumption. Fika is accompanied by eating pastry or cake, ‘fikabröd’. The Stockholmers claim ‘Kanelbullar’, the light, flaky cinnamon rolls, are native to the city, but Swedes from other part of the country would beg to differ.
Whilst cafe culture is a very pan-European thing, taking a hot-beverage and sweet treat in the afternoon is an everyday occurrence for Stockholmers; I’d go as far to say that it’s even an obsession. I must say that at first I found this strange. Surely it’s the Spanish and other southern European cultures that are known for their long siestas and almost religious coffee breaks? But up here, in Scandinavia? The idea of communal break, especially one that is so leisurely and habitual just boggled the mind.
I even found that fika has become part of the urban vocabulary. I had heard of ‘fikarast’ (a quick non-time-specific coffee break) or ‘fikapaus’ (an even quicker espresso-style break, usually an excuse to go out for a minute); but now I also know what a ‘fikadate’ (surely you understand that one) is, and my personal favorite, the ‘fikablok’ (translated as “you’re nice, but why don’t we just be friends and have coffee”).
Also, it doesn’t seem to matter where you do it. Unlike the snobbery of English high-tea, it seems you can take fika anywhere. From a fancy artisan bakery to a hole-in-the-wall takeout to have on a park bench.
I write this having just come back from a fika session with a friend in a fifties inspired caramel specialist store in Södermalm called Pärlans Konfektyr. Not your traditional coffee shop by any means, but a special place in its own way. I just loved the aesthetic.
Having spent some time in Stockholm, I found myself being drawn into this pastime. Truth is, I happen to like Stockholmers – a lot. There’s something really genuine and friendly about the people of this city. And it’s no wonder that, as a culture, they place importance on taking a mental break from work and spending it with friends. This is what fika is about, more than just the actual coffee and pastry, it’s the act of sharing the moment with friends, family or co-workers. I’m overcome by this sense of community and it’s a quality that makes traveling here such a pleasure. It’s amazing what a cinnamon roll and a flat white can do for society.