Leah Koenig / April 2012
A cafe born in Brooklyn is trying to persuade Americans to adopt Swedish coffee culture.
Coffee culture in America has an Italian accent. The beans themselves may hail from Sumatra, Costa Rica, or Madagascar, but inside the coffee shop—be it Starbucks or an independent cafe—we’ve come to expect the barista (Italian for bartender) to pour perfect cappuccinos, macchiatos, and caffè lattes. But in New York City, a new cafe called Konditori, which first opened its doors in December 2010, aims to introduce a bit of Swedish coffee culture into the mix.
The Swedish flag hangs outside each of Konditori’s four storefronts (three in Brooklyn, one in Manhattan)—a blue and yellow emblem of co-owner Per Johan’s heritage and a visual indicator of the Scandinavian country’s long-standing caffeine obsession. Swedes have made a cultural institution out of the coffee break, which they call fika. Whether enjoyed at home, in the office, or at a cafe, fika is the Swedish equivalent to England’s afternoon tea—except not bound to a specific time of day. Many Swedes partake in fika several times throughout the day, which likely accounts for the 18 pounds of coffee beans consumed per capita each year. (Americans, on average, drink about half that amount.)
As in America, many Swedish cafes have adopted Italian-style espresso, introducing drinks like kaffe latte to the fika repertoire. Traditionally, however, coffee in Sweden is served filtered and quite strong. Alternately, the beans are coarsely ground, then briefly boiled and steeped in a glass pot or teakettle for kokkaffe (boiled coffee). “A glass pot is best,” says Helene Henderson, author of The Swedish Table. “That way, you can see the grounds sink to the bottom and the clear drinkable coffee on top.” Johan contends that, current fixation on single-origin coffees notwithstanding, the art of bean blending is a critical aspect of the Swedish coffee tradition. Konditori’s Swedish Roast, for example, blends beans from across Central America in order to maximize the flavors of each variety. “We aim for balance and fullness without any burnt taste or bitterness,” Johan says. The resulting coffee, which Konditori brews in a färsk (“fresh”) press, is clean and complex with a smooth chocolaty finish. The beans make a delicious cappuccino, too.
As serious as Swedes are about their coffee, fika is never complete without freshly baked pastries—ideally, many of them. “You need a minimum of three different items to ensure that your Swedish guests will not be insulted,” writes Henderson, and in generations past it was not uncommon to find many more than that on a fika platter. At Konditori (which is the generic term in Swedish for pastry shop), the muffins and bagels typical to most New York City cafes are joined by sturdy glass jars filled with Swedish confections like kanelbulle, fluffy cinnamon buns made with natural yeast and sprinkled with grains of snowy pearl sugar. The shops also stock spicy-sweet cardamom bröd, made daily by a local Swedish baking company, and chockladbollar—a no-bake confection of cocoa, butter, sugar, coffee, and oats, formed into golf ball–sized rounds and rolled in unsweetened coconut. Johan, who says he learned to prepare chockladbollar as a child, makes the ones served at Konditori himself. “During the morning I am at the shops, but the afternoons are all about logistics and making cocoa balls,” he says.
Konditori’s menu also occasionally expands to include Swedish specials like waffles topped with gooseberry jam as well as seasonal pastries. Throughout December, Johan says, customers are sure to find Lussekatter, twisted saffron buns dotted with raisins that are typically baked on December 13 in honor of St. Lucia’s Day. And in the early spring, the shops serve semlor, airy buns filled with almond paste and whipped cream, traditionally served in preparation for Lent.
Konditoris are not the first Swedish-inspired coffee shops to set down roots in New York City. They joined a larger throng of recently opened Scandanavian eateries, including Fika—the aptly named cafe and chocolate shop founded in 2006, whose buttery house-made pastries would be welcome on any fika table. What sets Konditori apart is its owners’ dedication to fusing the best aspects of Sweden and New York. “I am Swedish, and my business partner, Ronny Kaj, was born and raised in Brooklyn, so between us we strike a balance between Sweden’s hominess and the city’s edginess,” says Johan. In other words, whether it comes to ambience, pastries, or a good cup of Swedish coffee, Konditori is all about the blend.