Why Swedes Are Trying to Preserve a Pastry That Could Break Your Teeth
Skånsk Spettkaka is a Swedish egg-based pastry that looks like housing material and has been described to taste like a cross between styrofoam and straight sugar.
"The frosting is nice. The cake itself is not. I can't understand why this is still around, but it is very pretty," says Nathalie. "It's not that disgusting, really. It's just not especially good," Sam comments from the far end of the table.
Fransisco has stopped eating and is focusing on drinking his coffee. "It wasn't any good at all. It tasted like Styrofoam."
Gabriella and her six-year-old granddaughter Clara are more positive, though. "It's quite nice, after all. I really like that it is so sweet," says Gabriella. Clara concurs and adds, "It tastes like eggs."
The subject at hand is skånsk spettkaka, a kind of cake made in the county of Skåne (Scania) in Southern Sweden. Spettkaka—pronounced "speed-eh-cow-gah" in the local dialect—is made from eggs, sugar, and potato flour, mixed into a sticky batter and squeezed onto a conical rotating mould, layer by layer. It's then baked at a high temperature. The method is said to be more or less the same as when the cake first appeared in Sweden in the 17th century, though the process has become somewhat more mechanized over time.
The end result is a conical tower that's garnished with white, green, or pink frosting and wrapped up in cellophane. Bakers and spettkaka enthusiasts recommend a fine-toothed saw for cutting it up and then serving it with vanilla ice cream, fruit compote, and coffee on the side.
Spettkaka originated in Germany in the 16th century, and became popular among Swedish nobility about a hundred years later. By the 19th century, spettkaka was a common commodity, served at holiday celebrations, weddings, and christenings. All the while, nobles went on to indulge in newer trends like drinking tea, using forks to eat, and smoking opium.
The Scanians have proved to be particularly fond of the cake. So fond, in fact, that in 1999 several bakeries came together and applied to have the name "skånsk spettkaka" to be entered into the European Union's Register of Protected Designations of Origin and Protected Geographical Indications. The application was accepted, and since the year 2000, no spettkaka can be called skånsk spettkaka unless it's made in Scania, in accordance with local baking traditions. Whatever purpose the geographical trademarking filled, it hasn't stopped some bakeries from making aberrations—they just leave out the prefix "skånsk."
Yet the delicacy from Scania is still popular enough in certain circles for the certified bakeries to make decent business. Quite a few orders are sent abroad—to the United States in particular, and occasionally as far as Australia—often to Scanians living in exile or to curious descendants of Swedish immigrants.
But there are some real concerns within the trade. "Spettkaka will persevere as long as there are spettkaka bakers, but we are becoming fewer in numbers. No one wants to get into the business. It's a lot of work, and the bakeries are warm, and there are no computers involved," says Lars-Inge Andersson, owner of Nordqvists spettkaka bakery in Eslöv.
Another problem is that few people actually seem to like spettkaka. Several bakers note that people either love it or hate it—there is no in-between—and the enthusiasts aren't gaining much in numbers. "It is possible that the tradition of eating spettkaka will die out," says Hannah Reynold, baker at Johanna Jeppssons spettkaka bakery in Malmö. "Most of our customers are over 50 years old and grew up eating spettkaka. People in their 20s have often never tasted it or just don't like it."
At least spettkaka ought to be visually appealing to a variety of people. Children are usually enthralled by its towering majesty, composed of glazed, golden meringue and white frosting, resembling a curious piece of crown jewelry, or some kind of potentially scrumptious miniature fortress. It could just as well be mistaken for a piece of morbid modern art, made from the bones and semen of unnamed donors. Maybe it is as decoration that the spettkaka will avoid turning into a dinosaur.
After all, it's durable enough. A few years ago, a newspaper ran a story about a woman who had discovered a spettkaka while cleaning out her attic. The packaging was still unbroken and the delivery note dated the cake to January, 1985. The spettkaka was sent back to the bakery in Malmö (in exchange for a new one) where it just recently turned 30 years old. "It still looks just the same as a newly baked spettkaka," says Reynold. "As long as the cake is not exposed to sunlight or humidity, it can stay the same indefinitely."