I'm standing in my friend Kristina Sahleström's kitchen - it's a sweltering December day and I'm baking. Even the strong sea breeze here in Manly, on Sydney’s northern beaches, is no match for a preheated oven in summer.
Kristina (Kiki to friends) is making lussebullar. Also known as lussekattar, these moreish saffron buns are traditionally eaten in Sweden for Lucia Day on December 13, a celebration of light in the shortest, darkest days of winter.
In Kiki’s adopted home of Sydney, sunny December smells like the crate of mangoes on her kitchen table. Back in her birthplace of Sweden, December smells of saffron.
She lifts a small bowl of the spice to her nose and inhales. Saffron always reminds her of baking.
In the weeks leading up to Lucia, the convenience stores near her school in Stockholm would bake lussebullar each afternoon, perfectly timed so that the scent of hot saffron buns would waft into the street just as kids were leaving school.
“I’d get one every day,” says Kiki, laughing.
Lucia is named for Sicily’s St Lucia, a Catholic saint adopted by a non-Catholic country. In Sweden, she became Sankta Lucia, where her feast day merged with pagan winter rituals to mark the day of the year with the least sunlight. Traditions include singing the Lucia song and carols, and a procession where a ‘Lucia’ is chosen to wear a white dress, a bright red sash around her waist to represent the act of her martyrdom, and a crown of candles on her head for light. “In kindergarten, everyone gets to be Lucia,” says Kiki. After that, competition becomes pretty fierce.
On the morning of Lucia, children wake up early to greet their parents, and these saffron buns are eaten with coffee. Being hungover on Lucia Day is a rite of passage for many teens, because the eve of Lucia is often a night of heavy drinking. Warmth comes in many forms: spiced liquor, candlelight and saffron buns.
In the weeks leading up to Lucia ... the scent of hot saffron buns would waft into the street just as kids were leaving school.
It’s no coincidence that saffron is used to flavour these wintry buns, the brightly hued spice turning them a deep, sunny yellow. It’s not convenience, either, because the expensive, sun-loving crop doesn’t grow in Sweden. Like Sankta Lucia herself, the spice was imported. The buns are usually twisted into an ‘S’ shape, and studded in the two curves are sun-dried raisins that also speak of warmer weather.
In the depths of winter, lussebullar are sunshine in pastry form. All throughout December, they replace the cinnamon buns that are traditionally eaten with coffee in the daily Swedish ritual of fika, a coffee break.
Café Svensson on Sydney’s Goulburn Street is already serving the buns in the lead-up to Lucia. Hugely popular within the Swedish community but barely known outside of it, the cafe is connected to the Swedish Church and staffed by volunteers. It only opens once a week, on a Wednesday evening, when homesick Swedes converge to eat from a small menu of Swedish classics.
The Swedish Church in Sydney will host two Lucia celebrations, one on Wednesday December 13, and a second on Saturday 16. “Everyone is welcome,” says manager Tobias Raadenholt. Even though the celebrations take place in a church, there will be no minister present and the focus is on the carols sung by a Lucia choir. “In Sweden, we’re not very religious anymore, in fact we’re not religious at all, so Lucia is more of a cultural thing,” he says. Afterwards, many will crowd into Café Svensson next door for a saffron bun.
Back in Kiki’s kitchen, her lussebullar have risen beautifully. The toasty, buttery smell of saffron fills the house. We share them with friends after a dinner of takeaway Thai food, hair still wet from an evening swim. It seems a fitting nod to a tradition that has travelled from Sicily to Sweden and now, Sydney.
This would be a perfect fancy breakfast to have cooked on a barbecue or over an open fire. Eat it outside while drinking lots of strong black coffee or sipping summer holiday breakfast Champagne.
Saffron is said to have landed in Sweden during the 1300s, thanks to trade with Asia. Its consumption was reserved for feasts and holidays, when it appeared in sweet cakes, breads and buns. Yeasted saffron cakes are still popular in the region, particularly on December 13th, when Saint Lucia's Day is celebrated. This cake, either the whole or in part, freezes well.