For coffee lovers, Scandinavia is a bit of a mecca. In the heart of winter, there’s nothing better than stepping into a warm cafe, brimming with people and their stacks of winter layers next to them, the windows steaming up as friends meet over coffee. In fact, in Sweden, coffee is such an important part of local culture, that there’s even a specific word for coffee break: fika. A verb and a noun, it indicates that time of day that you take a break from everything else to enjoy a strong cup of coffee accompanied by a delicious baked good. If there ever was a reason to travel to Sweden, this is it.
If there’s one thing that distinguishes fika in Sweden in the first months of the year it’s semlor. Cafes and bakeries are filled with the classic baked good, a flour bun filled with almond paste and topped with whipped cream and powdered sugar.
Historically, the fettisbulle, or semla, was made for fettisdagen, Fat Tuesday, a rich treat before taking on the fasting that comes with Lent. In the modern day world, however, it’s perfectly acceptable to eat a semla anytime between the New Year and Easter.
Want to know where the best places in Sweden are to score a semla? Start by consulting semlamannen, a food blogger who eats one semla a day between the first of the year and Fat Tuesday. For those with a Stockholm visit in the near future, score one of the classic pastries at Vetekatten.
If you are up for it, you can also make your own. Here’s my personal recipe, adapted from an old Swedish classic.
Classic Swedish Semlor Ingredients
100 grams butter (7 tablespoons)
1 1/4 cups milk
2 tablespoons active dry yeast
4 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup sugar
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
3 teaspoons powdered cardamom (the best is to get whole cardamom and grind it – that way you have small cardamom chunks)
2 cups blanched almonds + ¼ cup sugar blended in food processor
Inside of buns
½ – 1 cup milk
1. Melt butter in a saucepan and add the milk. Heat until the liquid is warm to the touch.
2. In a bowl beat the egg and add in yeast, salt, sugar and milk mixture. Mix until yeast is well dissolved. Combine baking powder, cardamom and flour and mix thoroughly. Cover the bowl and let rise for 30 minutes.
3. Place dough on lightly floured surface and knead until smooth. Form into round balls and place on greased pan. Cover with tea towel and let rise until double the size.
4. Brush the balls with a beaten egg. Bake for 8-10 minutes at 450F. Let the buns cool.
5. Cut off a circular “lid” off of each bun and set aside. Scoop out inside of bun with a spoon or fork. Mix in a bowl with almond paste and add enough milk to make a smooth mixture. Fill buns with mixture and top with whipping cream. Place lid on top of whipping cream and garnish with powdered sugar.
Visiting New Orleans during Mardi Gras has never been for the faint of heart. But with the city set to host the Super Bowl just nine days before Fat Tuesday, locals believe that this year’s “Super Gras” celebration might be the city’s biggest party ever. New Orleans has spent $1.3 billion on infrastructure improvements in the run up to the Super Bowl according to CNN, and USA Today estimates that the city will see a $1 billion spike in economic activity as a result of the Super Bowl and Mardi Gras.
The pre-Lent partying culminates on Fat Tuesday, which falls on February 12 this year, but there are dozens of parades, organized by carnival krewes, balls and parties in the weeks leading up to Ash Wednesday. We spoke to Laura Martone, a New Orleans native and author of the recently released “Moon Handbook to New Orleans,” to get a flavor of what New Orleans is like during Mardi Gras.
For some, Mardi Gras is synonymous with debauchery – beads, flashing and binge drinking, among other things. Has all of that been going on for decades?
I’m 36 and all of that has been happening since I was a little kid. My mom tells me that it used to be more family friendly. People throw beads down to women and men who are flashing. I have never done that. My dignity is worth more than some plastic beads. But a lot of the parades are more family friendly and you don’t see much flashing at those events.
I assume 99% of the women who are flashing are tourists?
Probably. The thing that used to fascinate me as a kid was seeing the cops taking pictures of the women flashing. No one was getting ticketed for indecent exposure because the cops were too busy taking pictures.
The cops don’t still take photos of women flashing, do they?
I don’t know. I wouldn’t put it past them.
You live in the French Quarter. Do New Orleans natives dread Mardi Gras because the city is invaded by tourists?
A lot of my friends are leaving town, and when I was growing up, my mom would take me to some of the parades but even she didn’t love it. As an adult, you kind of dread the mayhem. You get so many drunken crowds; people are here to party more than for the culture. This year is the perfect storm because we have the Super Bowl and Mardi Gras at the same time. It’s total mayhem.
But, while I know plenty of people that flee the city during one of the busiest times of the year, there are many, many more that embrace the occasion. People host Mardi Gras parties, flock to as many parades as possible, and, sometimes even spring for tickets to one of the big balls. Most New Orleanians don’t need a reason to let the good times roll.
What’s it like to live in the French Quarter during Mardi Gras? Are people vomiting and peeing in the streets?
Oh yeah, but sadly you see that here throughout the year. It’s just a bit more during Mardi Gras. Sometimes I just do not want to be on Bourbon Street. I’d rather walk on Royal Street, where you can still get the French Quarter atmosphere without being inundated by hawkers and drunks. But sometimes it is fun to walk down Bourbon Street and just feel the energy. Most people are having a really good time.
Do most of the tourists just turn up around Fat Tuesday or well before then?
The big crowds come for the last weekend because that’s when all the major super krewes run. Endymion is on Saturday night and Bacchus is Sunday night, and Monday is Orpheus. Orpheus is the one started by Harry Connick, Jr. and it has a music theme. And then on Mardi Gras Day, you have a ton of parades. The major ones are Rex, which is the king of Mardi Gras, and Zulu, that’s the African-American one that’s been around since the early 1900s. They pass out coconuts and it’s a little crazy.
When does the Mardi Gras season start?
Technically, it starts on January 6, Epiphany. But the parade season is usually the two weeks before Mardi Gras Day. The dates change every year, depending on when Easter is. Usually right after Christmas, we take down our Christmas decorations and put up our Mardi Gras decorations.
What advice do you have for first-time Mardi Gras visitors?
If they’ve never been before, coming on Mardi Gras weekend is a big deal because that’s when the super krewes roll. You get the celebrity grand marshals and the big floats and endless marching bands and that kind of stuff. But for people who just want to get a taste of the season, there are parades going on all the time. On Sunday, for example, there’s the Krewe of Barkus – it’s the dog parade and it’s really crazy.
It’s tough to get a room in the French Quarter for Mardi Gras. What other neighborhoods should people look into?
I don’t always encourage people to stay in the French Quarter. The French Quarter hotels tend to be a lot pricier and it’s harder to get rooms. The two neighborhoods on either side of the French Quarter – the Central Business District (CBD) and the Faubourg Marigny – are really good. CBD has a lot of chains so those places will be more reasonably priced. Faubourg Marigny has more intimate bed-and-breakfasts and it’s a little funkier, so it’s kind of a good New Orleans experience. It’s cheaper than the French Quarter but it’s still within walking distance.
And the Garden District?
That’s another good choice and it’s accessible via the St. Charles streetcar but because of the Super Bowl, everything is in disarray because they were repairing that line. But it’s still pretty easy to get from the Garden District to the heart of the city. Uptown is also a good choice. It has a combination of chain hotels and bed-and-breakfasts.
What other tips do you have for first-time visitors?
New Orleans isn’t dangerous in the same way Rio is. But still, with the crowds and alcohol, you want to be careful. Travel in pairs. Watch out for pickpockets. People worry about the crime situation in New Orleans but just be careful where you go. The Quarter itself is relatively safe because there’s a big police presence. But right across Rampart Street, which borders one side of the quarter, you’re in Tremé, which is not very safe. Tourists wander off the beaten path when they’re drunk and that’s when they get mugged. Try to stay in places where you see plenty of people, and when in doubt about an area, just ask someone. Natives are very friendly here.
Tourists come here and they leave their inhibitions behind. People think that anything that happens here, stays here but it can be safe if you have your wits about you.
For those who want to experience Mardi Gras but are a little intimidated by the crowds and craziness in New Orleans, are there alternatives nearby?
There are parades in Metairie, which is a suburb of New Orleans, Slidell, which is another suburb that is much more family friendly. And beyond here, Lafayette has a big Mardi Gras celebration of its own. It’s about 2-1/2 to 3 hours away and it has a more Cajun vibe. And outside Louisiana, Mobile has a great Mardi Gras and it’s also pretty family friendly.
People do crazy things to get beads at Mardi Gras but these things are made in China. Why not just buy them?
Right, you can buy them wholesale. They are dirt-cheap, so it doesn’t make that much sense to me to expose myself to get them.
It’s that time of year again, when thousands of dancers prepare to don feathers, beads, and sequins and parade down the streets to mark Carnival. And while big Carnival (or Mardi Gras, as it’s also known) celebrations such as the one in Rio de Janiero get plenty of press, there are lots of other festivals that are just as colorful and creative … and perhaps a little weird.
Wanna see men dressed up as frightening goats, watch devils prance through the streets, or have hundreds of mysteriously masked men throw fruit at you? Read on to learn about some of the world’s most interesting and bizarre Carnival celebrations – where you won’t find a sequined bikini to speak of.
The Carnival of Binche, Belgium
The Carnival of Binche, which takes place in a small town in Belgium, dates back to the 14th century. The festival is one of the oldest street carnivals in Europe and has been recognized by UNESCO for its cultural significance.
The main figures in Binche’s Carnival are known the Gilles (see photo above). These are a group of up to 1000 men who wear costumes featuring the colors of the Belgium flag, which are covered in mysterious crests, bells and tassels. The outfits are also stuffed with straw giving the men a linebacker-esque appearance. On their feet, the Gilles wear clunky wooden clogs, and on their faces, they sport peculiar wax masks, which boast curled moustaches and bulging green glasses. These masks get switched out later in the day for giant feathery hats made up of more than 350 ostrich feathers.
If you plan to be in the audience for the Carnival of Binche, watch out, because the Gilles carry baskets full of blood oranges that they throw at onlookers as they dance down the streets.
No one is entirely sure about the origins of the Gilles, but it’s believed the concept dates back to pagan times, when the Gilles would dance and stomp their wooden shoes to chase away winter. The masks are supposed to represent the equality of all people … but there’s no word on what’s behind the orange throwing!
Busójárás is a Carnival celebration held in Mohacs, Hungary, 124 miles south of the country’s capital. Like most Carnivals, this six-day festival features parades and dancing, but unlike its counterparts, the Busójárás includes folk music and men dressed as shaggy, horned animals. Known as Busos, the mask-and-fur costumes resemble large, devilish goats – locals wear them as they carry a coffin through the streets.
The origins behind the masked revelry is mixed – some say the Busos are scaring away winter (hence the coffin), but others claim they were intended to frighten away the Turks, who occupied Hungary during the 16th century.
Carnival of Oruro, Bolivia
This 2000-year-old festival takes place in a Bolivian mining town and has also been recognized by UNESCO. The festival is a mix of indigenous and Catholic rituals that include pilgrimages, dances and story telling.
Since Oruro was once an important mining town, locals made sure to honor the Virgin of the Mineshaft in their Carnival celebrations, kicking off the festivities with a religious ceremony.
The other main element of this Carnival is the Diablada – or dance of the devils – where hundreds of locals dress as demons and prance in the streets. Together with some costumed angels, they tell the story of good conquering evil, as well as the seven deadly sins.
Other characters you’ll see in this Carnival are dancers dressed as Incas, and performers representing the black slaves who were forced to work in the silver mines by Spanish conquerors.
Carnaval (or, as we like to write it, Carnival) was last week, but we’re just not done celebrating here at Gadling HQ. This video is from Carnaval 2011 in Rio de Janeiro, but we can’t stop watching it. Of course, we love tilt-shift and this video uses the technique perfectly. Though, we’d like some explanation about why it opens with someone getting rescued from the ocean by a helicopter. Well, Carnaval is crazy like that.
At Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, it was common to come across fully made-up men who had traded their Havaianas for high heels. Though some were experienced cross dressers and drag queens, others saw the holiday as an opportunity to get in touch with their more feminine sides. Costumes ranged from the elaborate (Sambadrome-style feathers, stilettos, fake lashes) to the scrappy (tiny skirt, hastily smeared lipstick).
Regardless of the intensity of their get-ups, you had to give it up to the cross dressers of Rio Carnival. I certainly couldn’t do a bloco in heels that high. The photo gallery below showcases ten of the hottest drag queen costumes that I encountered.
Check out Gadling’s full range of Rio Carnival 2012 coverage here.