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Falling In Love with Fika: A Conversation with Teach to Taste's Margaret Hanson

Fika coffee by Margaret Hanson of Teach to Taste

Ever since winter began, we've been falling more and more in love with the Scandinavian tradition of fika. So much more than just a quick coffee break, fika is the Swedish word for a cultural ritual that spreads throughout Northern Europe. From homes and offices to schools and even sports teams, time is set aside each day to step away from your responsibilities and relax over a hot cup of coffee and a little something sweet.

Needless to say, we're all in favor of installing fika as a recognized institution in the Keweenaw. It's not much of a stretch, considering the Finnish heritage that runs deep through our little peninsula (and the fact that drinking coffee is more or less a requirement for daily life in this rugged part of the country). But what exactly makes fika any different from the midday coffee break as we know it?

To answer the question, we reached out to Margaret Hanson, founder of Teach to Taste. As the Keweenaw’s foremost food educator, a world traveler from an early age, and a descendent of Finnish/Swedish heritage, it’s hard to think of anyone better to walk us through what really makes fika special.

Fika cake by Margaret Hanson of Teach to Taste

“It’s Just a Moment”

According to Margaret, the widespread cultural recognition of fika started in the 1800s, while Sweden was going through a national prohibition period. With no bars to gather in, Swedes turned to in-home coffee klatches instead. “It would be very simple, coffee and cake,” says Margaret, “but what it really gave people was a place to meet.” During the world wars, fika even became a home for resistance. Over boiled coffee and sweet bread with butter, people would discuss the national issues at hand and make plans for fighting back, fighting with, or even escaping the country.

The post-war boom of prosperity brought a whole new level of abundance to the fika tradition. “It became Fikabröd,” says Margaret with a laugh. “There was a table full of cakes, and you had to taste each one or you’d insult the baker!” But this wonderland of sugar, whipped cream, and caffeine still had a deeper purpose at heart. “It gave people a place, a seat at the table, to share their stories, their memories, whatever they kept in their hearts."

Elaborate Fikabröd spreads might make you think of English high tea, another food ritual that comes with a whole lot of rules: a certain type of tea brewed in a very specific way, a certain variety and number of finger sandwiches and desserts, everything served in its own particular way or time, etc. While fancy fikas can certainly be found throughout Sweden, Margaret says the real fika is much more down to earth.

“A restaurant doesn’t really capture it—it’s the grandmothers, the aunts, people who all they want to do is bake for you! It’s about going to somebody’s house and spending time with them and their oldest recipes, connecting over food memories. Maybe you have a hot gossip session, or maybe you just sit together. It’s just a moment of deciding ‘I’m going to put my phone down, close the computer and not worry about any part of my day. Instead, I’m just going to listen and chat, because we only have a few minutes together.’”

Fika baking by Margaret Hanson of Teach to Taste

Making Time for Mindfulness

As a mom of three kids under seven, Margaret knows how difficult it can be to find this moment. For that matter, just about anyone in our productivity-obsessed American culture can find a reason why fika just doesn’t fit into their life.

But that’s kind of the whole point, says Margaret. What makes fika different from a quick cup of coffee in the office break room, or a lukewarm cup warmed in the microwave in between running errands and shuttling kids, is stepping away from your responsibilities and taking intentional time for you.

“You can have a fika by yourself, or with other people,” says Margaret, “just like you can have a biscuit with your coffee, or a fancy spread. It’s really about taking mindfulness time, whether it’s being very mindful of the person you’re with, or just of yourself. In Sweden, they really shun people who take fika while still on their phones, or talking about work. Anyone can have a cup of coffee, but it’s everything that goes with it—connection, and community, and savoring that cup—that makes it fika.”

For moms in particular, the practice of fika can be a surprising sanity saver. Those precious hours when the kids are occupied—at school, at sports practice, napping—become your opportunity to reconnect with yourself. “Sometimes in the morning, I get all my ‘crazy’ done—all my emails, everything—and then my treat is my 10 o’clock fika ritual. I think of it as giving myself a calm hug, where I can just take a breath.”

Still, fika shouldn't wait until you can find a babysitter. “Coffee doesn’t have to be well behaved,” laughs Margaret. “Don’t fall back on the ‘I don’t have a babysitter’ excuse to not take time for yourself. A space like Keweenaw Coffee Works encourages moms to come out on a weekday to just enjoy each other. It’s inviting, light, and kid-friendly. Fika isn’t about a flawless experience—it’s okay if you have to yell at your kids occasionally to not eat crumbs off the floor during fika. We can show our kids that it’s important to have a little celebration around food and friends.”

And speaking as both a mother and educator, Margaret can attest that these experiences can have a lifelong impact. “Our food memories help us decide what to eat, and if you can make good food memories, it really helps your health and affects your life choices by making you value what you eat and drink so much more. We are so lucky when we have fond food memories to build upon all our lives.”

Fika cake by Margaret Hanson of Teach to Taste

Focus On the Finishing Touches

So you’re ready to fika…where do you start?

The nice thing about fika is that while there’s plenty of tradition, there are no rules. The classic homestyle Scandinavian fika means light-roast coffee (like our So Suomi blend) accompanied by a sweet bun or pastry. Still, it’s perfectly fine to trade sweet for savory, if that’s your preference, or even swap out the coffee for a favorite tea.

The real defining factor for fika food is the finishing touches that make it special to you. Or, in Margaret’s words, “Make everything a celebration.”

If you typically take your coffee with cream and sugar, try finessing your fika coffee with a little extra zhuzh, like a velvety grass-fed heavy cream and a spoonful of vanilla-scented sugar. One of Margaret’s favorite finishing touches is stirring in a comforting spice like cardamom or nutmeg. “It’s about you choosing something very fabulous, and making it just the way you like it.”

If you’re preparing fika for a group, like a book club meeting or a play date with other moms and their kids, you can do it up like a true Swedish grandma, who might put out as many as seven types of cookies for fika—“not eight—that would be too much,” laughs Margaret. “That’s very Scandinavian. But of course that didn’t include the cakes, the buns, the bread, the butter…” (To which we say: Don't stop, keep going!)

A more festive occasion, say in honor of a birthday or catching up with a long-lost friend, calls (naturally) for a sumptuous Swedish-style cake, which focus more on the beauty and quality of natural ingredients than on outlandish flavors or complex cooking steps. “They decorate it with flowers, dried fruit, and in the summertime they have those beautiful berries—it’s just an explosion of color and flavor.”

With your food and drink laid out, it’s then just a matter of deciding how and where you want to enjoy your fika. If the weather is nice, take your fika out on the porch, or even down a woodland trail to your favorite spot in the trees. Bring a book, do a meditation, listen to music, or just let your gaze drift and your thoughts wander. Whether you spend ten minutes or an hour, whether you’re alone or in company, the only real requirement for fika, says Margaret, is “taking your time to make it special.” hungry yet?
Click here for a simple snack recipe (graciously provided by Margaret Hanson) that will sweeten your self-care.

All photos provided by Margaret Hanson.
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