STOCKHOLM — Occasionally you see a plate of food so beautiful, it's almost difficult to take the first bite. Imagine 20 such plates on the same table. This is what you're up against at Rosendals Tradgard, an expansive and unique bakery-cafe-and-garden here. As you approach it, the aromas hit you, then once inside, on an impossibly long table, you see morning buns, pastries, savories, sandwiches, cakes, tarts, and everything in between. As gorgeous as this veritable smorgasbord is, the sheer attractiveness of it all — like Scandinavia itself — is a bit intimidating.
Located on Djurgarden, one of the 14 islands that make up Sweden's pristine and enchanting capital city, Rosendals Tradgard is a place with history. First sold to soon-to-be crowned King Karl XIV Johan in 1817, the land around the restaurant was developed by the Swedish Horticultural Society for gardening and horticultural education in the early 1860s. Today, the vast complex comprises sprawling gardens (including a rose garden and apple orchard) where fruits and vegetables are cultivated, plus a cafe, bakery, plant shop, and food shop located in greenhouses. In keeping with the spirit of the Swedish Horticultural Society, there are courses, lectures, and a variety of other cultural activities around biodynamic gardening.
The bakery opened in 1998, after Erik Olofson, formerly a carpenter, collaborated with a Finnish ovenmaker to build a wood-fired oven, now the centerpiece of the bakery. Though Olofson no longer works with Rosendals Tradgard, many of the recipes from 1998 remain, some in their original form, and some that have evolved over time.
The spot is probably most famous for its kardemummabullar, or cardamom buns, sticky-sweet little braids studded with coarsely ground cardamom seeds that look like cracked black peppercorns. Kardemummabullar are a staple of the repertoire, enjoyed either in the morning or during an afternoon "fika" (coffee break). Cardamom, which scents many Scandinavian baked goods, can be traced to medieval Viking encounters with the spice in Constantinople. The Vikings apparently developed a taste for the peppery-minty spice and brought it home. If you arrive early at Rosendals Tradgard, you'll find warm cardamom buns on a towel set on a blue-and-white ceramic platter. There's no other confection quite like them.
Another cardamom specialty is particular to Fat Tuesday before Lent (though they're eaten until Easter). Called semla, the pastry is a sweet, leavened bun flecked with cardamom, cut in half horizontally, and filled with sweet almond paste and whipped cream. In some versions, a small hole is cut in the top for filling with more whipped cream, and topped with the cut-out bun piece and some powdered sugar. It's quite different from kardemummabullar. While cardamom buns are dense and buttery, semla is lighter with a less intense spice flavor. If you're at the bakery in spring, try both.
But cardamom isn't for everyone. For those who prefer other spices, myriad choices exist. A braided cinnamon bun is not overly sweet and of a perfect consistency. There is no cloying icing, or any other adornment, just simple, skillful baking.
Other baked goods are in tune with the fresh fruits grown on the farm. "You can always tell what season [it is]," says baker Linnea Lindqvist, who has worked at Rosendals Tradgard for nearly five years. "We have a great collaboration [with the garden]," she says. When rhubarb starts popping up, she adds, it finds its way into cakes, breads, and lemonades. For things the farm doesn't grow, Rosendals sources locally and responsibly. Flour comes from small-scale producers, and butter is organic.
On the savory side, options might include fuller plates of simply cooked fresh fish served over small potatoes with dill, in gorgeous oversize white bowls. Or for something a little lighter, there are open-faced sandwiches with toppings like sliced roast beef with curry remoulade, red cabbage, and the addictive crispy onions so popular around Scandinavia. This is piled on a fresh slice of dense, flavorful, brown flaxseed bread baked in the wood oven. The breads are baked with wood, the baked goods with gas.
A stroll around the idyllic grounds after a meal is a great idea, but stop at the small shop opposite the cafe. Shelves are packed with alluring options, including jams and preserves in flavors like lingonberry-cardamom, which is equally at home on toast or venison steak. When it's finally time to leave, you pass through the garden, this time after tasting its fruits. You might note that the word Eden is embedded in Sweden.
Rosendalsterrassen 12, Stockholm, 011-46-8-545-812-70
Luke Pyenson can be reached at email@example.com.