I will never forget the first time I ate cardamom cake. It was the summer of 2008, and by then, it was my third visit to Sweden. My first two trips had been quite short vacations, though—this was the beginning of my first extended stay.
Simon and I had just gotten back from a road trip to Amsterdam and Bruges the night before after a grueling 12 hour drive back through the areas we had explored at a more leisurely pace the first time around. His parents called in the morning; did we have enough energy to join them at their house in the countryside? “Not really” was my first thought, followed closely by “Please don’t make me get in a car again!” but this was the beginning of my stay and I wanted to be amenable. An hour later, they picked us up: Simon’s parents, his great aunt, their nervous dog, and the two us all folded ourselves in the compact car like the proverbial sardines in a tin.
We stayed at Simon’s modest country abode. But this is not it. Vittskövle Castle, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA)
By the time we got to their summer house in Vittskövle, the landscape had been transformed. On one side of the house, farms and bales of hay; on the other, a thick forest and a castle. I didn’t speak any Swedish at this point, and I had trouble following the conversation that took place as the picnic basket was unpacked, more family members introduced themselves, and lunch was set in motion. The residual tiredness from the previous day’s drive plus the food and the foreign language lulled me into a sleepy daze. And then dessert was served.
I took a bite of the cake that I was offered and surprise shook me out of my stupor. It tasted good, but unlike anything I had had before. It was almost peppery and not nearly as sweet as I had expected—not spicy per se, but spiced in a way that was totally unexpected. It was cardamom cake.
When you arrive in Sweden, whether as a tourist, an expat, an immigrant, or in some other role, it’s easy to pick out and talk about “the big things,” the differences that create a striking contrast between your country of origin and your destination. For me, my first two visits were defined by the wonder I felt at seeing the wide open skies in central Stockholm, observing the stunning integration of old and new architecture in Sweden’s capital city, experiencing both the effectiveness of public transportation and the mind-numbing cold of winter. But in this third visit, I experienced something new—something that would come to be one of the defining tastes of my expat life in Sweden.
This memory of cardamom cake in Vittskövle came to mind this past weekend when my mother made a Swedish cardamom cake of her own—a recipe that had been handed down to her from her own mother. It was good, but it was missing that sharp, peppery edge that I remembered. I’m often impatient with the mildness of traditional Swedish cuisine, but the prevalence of cardamom in baked goods bucks that trend, occasionally resulting in a pastry that is less sweet than spicy.
I asked some Swedish foodies and friends for their thoughts on cardamom, and I heard nearly the same response from several: it makes me think of mormor. Your mormor is your mother’s mother, or your maternal grandmother. The link between cardamom and these feelings of home, of familiarity, of family is undeniable, especially when it’s featured in Sweden’s most typical baked goods: cardamom bread, cinnamon buns, and a wide variety of cookies and cakes.
Cardamom: in the pod and out. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA)
But how did such an atypically spicy flavor work its way into the Nordic cuisine? The short version: I’m not really sure. If there’s a food historian/anthropologist that wants to help me out on this, I am now extremely curious. The long version: I’ve found a lot of leads, but nothing definitive.
The explanation that I like the best is the one set forth in National Geographic’s Edible: an illustrated guide to the world’s food plants, and the Serious Eats food blog backs them up. They claim that Vikings encountered it in Turkey in what was then Constantinople and brought it back with them. The Encyclopedia of Kitchen History writes that the growth of the European spice market followed on the heels of the plague in the mid-1300s, as a combination of increased wealth from the silk routes, increased intercultural contact throughout the Mediterranean, “boredom with a bread and gruel-based diet,” “aspirations of the rising middle class,” and simple curiosity enticed the upwardly mobile middle class and the newly rich to imagine a world beyond plain old meat and potatoes. Last but not least, A Baker’s Odyssey claims that the use of cardamom has been found in Scandinavian cookbooks dating back to the 1300s, an addition to the cuisine that the authors suggest was first introduced by Crusaders but was sustained by the Hanseatic League.
No matter how cardamom got to Sweden (and Denmark, Norway, and Finland) in the first place, it’s here to stay, and its presence is ever-evolving. In the middle of writing this blog post, I got a BREAKING NEWS ALERT that there’s a new flavor of drinkable yogurt called “A Touch of Africa,” featuring pomegranate, hibiscus, and (of course) CARDAMOM. I don’t think the Vikings would have thought of that, but maybe they would have approved.
CHECK BACK TOMORROW FOR PART TWO… IN WHICH I BAKE A CAKE!