Saturday, Nov 26, 2022

Our Man In Europe: In Search Of The Perfect Café

For me, food is an afterthought in my travels. Or so I had thought.

A cafe at Stortorget square in Gamla Stan, the 'old town' of Stockholm
A cafe at Stortorget square in Gamla Stan, the 'old town' of Stockholm / Shuttestock

These past weeks I have spent in conflict – a conflict that I now realise is as old as the time man first started travelling. Can one disentangle food from travel – not only keep it at the very periphery of a sojourn, but remove it completely from the equation as well?
I thought I had resolved the struggle, at least for myself. I am not a foodie, I reasoned.

I can travel to new places without the thought of trying out new dishes constituting the core of these travels. Moreover, weren’t my parents the ones who packed home-cooked food religiously, ahead of every road or train journey that we took as a family? In fact, we avoided every food hawker who tempted us with savoury delights while digging into our tiffins during our journeys.

For me, food is an afterthought in my travels. Or so I had thought. Hadn’t I once travelled to Rome for the sole purpose of tasting espresso at Sant’Eustachio il Caffè, a hole-in-the-wall establishment famed around the world for the perfect crema of its espressos? And what about the time when I travelled to Seattle to drink at the Bulletproof Café to try their Tibetan tea-inspired creation – the butter coffee?

Discovering new coffee shops, I realise, has unwittingly been on my agenda when I travel to new places. Rather, let’s expand that to cafés and bakeries, for I search good buns as fervently as I seek robust coffee. Food experiences, especially with coffee and baked goods, have punctuated my travels as much as anyone else’s. With this conflict resolved, last week I took a train to Stockholm. The only purpose of this trip was to explore a café in Sweden, MR Cake, about which I had heard much. I don’t particularly love sweets or cakes. However, the
assortment of cakes and coffee at MR Cake is an exception, I was told. I was intrigued by the unique café that was founded by pastry chefs Roy Fares and Mattias Ljungberg in 2017. The story is that both of them travelled all over the world in search of the perfect café but couldn’t find one. So, they decided to build one.

MR Cake is in the Stureplan neighbourhood of Stockholm. I decided to walk there in the early morning hours in order to be the
first one to enter the café. The Stockholm air was crisp, even though the month of June was upon us. The poplar trees that lined up the Swedish capital’s streets awaited the much-delayed spring as much as the rest of us did, their branches recovering from the harsh winter that still had the city in its grip. A 15-minute walk in this weather only heightened my craving for a coffee as I entered MR Cake, located in one corner at the intersection of two streets.

I stepped inside this ‘perfect café’ right into a vast open space decorated with warm lights. I was one of the first persons to place an order that day, with the early morning rush yet to descend on the café. Besides coffee, I was searching for a custard-filled doughnut that was apparently the stuff of legends. “Sorry, we only make them over the weekends,” informed the attendant. “But,” he added, noticing my disappointment, “you can try our salted caramel cake, which is equally popular.” I nodded yes and waited for it to be served. Just then, I noticed Roy Fares at the cashier desk. The founder himself was overseeing the café. I reached out and asked how the pandemic years had been for the establishment.

“Frankly, we have just been trying to survive,” Fares said. “We are trying to bring the business back on its feet. We opened another café in Gothenburg and, right now, the focus is on ensuring that we delight our customers.” Roy Fares happens to be one of Sweden’s most popular pastry chefs and has made several appearances on TV cooking shows. He first gained recognition when he won a pastry competition in Sweden in 2010.

But, why would scaling up be a challenge for a high-quality café such as Mr. Cake, I wondered aloud. “The roadblock is finding good pastry chefs,” Fares said. I would have imagined that many more would have taken to the occupation of baking since cooking shows have exploded on TV, but that was a flawed assumption.

My cake and coffee arrived. I found a seat in a corner from where I could sit quietly and observe the other patrons. Fares remained anchored in the serving area, guiding the staff. As I sipped my coffee, I realised that travelling is about gathering experiences – and food is one such experience tied intricately with exploring new destinations.

Travelling need not be about food alone; however, separating the two would limit the experiences one can gather. With that thought crystallised, it was time for me to dig into the cake!