‘Sweden is the perfect country for me – and for lots of people’

'Sweden is the perfect country for me – and for lots of people'
Bradley Peter on Hela Sverige Bakar. Photo: Anette Lindmark
"Whenever I'm feeling terrible about myself, I remind myself that I've moved to a foreign country, been on a TV baking competition in front of thousands of people, and done it all in Swedish. How many people can say that?!" laughs Bradley Peter.

Less than two years after he moved to Sweden from his native South Africa for his work in cancer research, the 27-year-old is one of the contestants on Hela Sverige Bakar, one of the most popular shows on Swedish TV and currently showing on TV4.

In the show, 12 amateur bakers battle to be crowned Sweden's best. The researcher can't reveal who wins, but says he approached the competition in the same way he approached the move abroad. He says the key in both cases was to “just be yourself, don't take things too seriously, and try to give out a positive vibe!”

Baking was one of the things that helped him integrate into his new country and workplace.

Though his work was done in English and many of his colleagues were international, he says Swedish fika culture was a good way to make friends. “In South Africa, we bake, but it's not part of the culture like here, where fika runs through every Swede's blood, so I thought I could use cake to impress my boss and new colleagues,” he explains. 

And it was Peter's work colleagues who persuaded him to enter the show. In fact, he argues that science and baking, as well as his other passion, dance, have each taught him skills which have been useful in the other disciplines.

Bradley is also a classically trained ballet dancer who has represented South Africa in world championships. Photo: Graham Terrell

“Baking is one of my creative outlets, like dance, where I can express myself, but it's also like working in a lab – you have to weigh out the ingredients carefully, and follow the right protocol,” he explains, and the cake he created for the casting tape was a 'micro semla bun', made using equipment from the lab at work.

Despite doubts as to whether his baking or Swedish skills were up to the challenge of entering the show, Peter was invited to auditions, and this summer he found himself in the prestigious ‘bakers' tent' at Taxinge Slott, a castle an hour west of Stockholm where the competition is filmed.

Each episode was filmed within a single day, but those days sometimes stretched to 13 or 14 hours long. Still, Peter says the experience was “amazing on so many levels”, and that although emotions could run high in the tent, the competitors bonded over the shared experience.

“It sounds horribly cliched to say we were all great friends, but we really were. Meeting people with similar interests is so important when you move abroad, and that's how you improve your language and confidence. Even now we still try to meet up regularly and have baking get togethers!” he says.

The contestants. Photo: Anette Lindmark

Hela Sverige Bakar is based on the globally successful Great British Bake Off, but of course it has a Swedish flavour, with episodes dedicated to national specialities such as småkaka (small Swedish biscuits) and bullar or Swedish buns.

Even the name, which literally translates as ‘all of Sweden bakes' highlights the centrality of baking in Swedish culture. Although this put Peter at something of a disadvantage when faced with obscure cakes he'd never heard of before, he enjoyed the chance to discover new Swedish baking traditions.

“There's not much I don't like about it; I don't get salt liquorice or saffron, but I love all things almond and I go crazy for semla buns. I love that fika is so popular here, and that they have days dedicated to different pastries. It's one part hilarious and one part cute, but deadly serious! It's basically a human rights violation if you don't get a kanelbulle on Cinnamon Bun Day,” he jokes.

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Peter puts the finishing touches to a cake. Photo: Anette Lindmark

The Swedes might not take their buns lightly, but the researcher notes: “On a programme like that you want to impress and to show off, but usually it's only when you stop taking everything so seriously that you bake your best cakes – and that's applicable to all kinds of situations outside the baking tent.”

Unlike the other contestants, for Peter, the pressure of producing perfect cakes within a strict and stressful time limit was added to the challenge of doing it all in a foreign language.

“I'm fine speaking Swedish with friends, but on TV in front of so many people, that's a different ball game,” he explains. “During the technical challenges, we just got a very brief recipe with a few Swedish words and I had to somehow follow it. That was terrifying to be honest, but I knew I just had to figure it out – and glance over at what the others were doing if I needed to!”

He adds that the nerves meant he often didn't know exactly what the panel – made up of Birgitta Rasmusson, whose book Sju sorters kakor (Seven sorts of cake) is Sweden's best-selling book after the Bible, and award-winning baker Karl Johan Sörberg – were saying to him when they were judging his bakes.

“I was so stressed out and trying to interpret what they were saying through a mouthful of cake, so I'd catch maybe 50 percent and just hope it was positive!”

Dancing in South Africa. Photo: Graham Terrell

“Watching it back, I generally have a gin and tonic on hand to cope,” he adds.

“I was so stressed that I don't remember what I said or did most of the time, so before the ad break they'll show me making a crazy face and I think 'Oh no, what am I going to do!' I also hear my accent coming through and I get very embarrassed by that.”

He says the reaction he's had since the show began airing in late September has been overwhelmingly positive, including from his parents back in South Africa, who “have no idea what's going on, but think it's really cool”. 

Peter's parents were his inspiration in baking: as a child he went into the bakery where his father worked to learn how his favourite cakes were made, and he's also been influenced by his British mother, who introduced him to baking traditions from her home country.

They were also a source of support when he began to be teased for his hobby.

“In South Africa we have a very traditional culture, with stereotyped gender roles, so primary school was quite hard for me and children can be very cruel. I was a dancer which was very unusual for a boy, and I really liked baking too,” Peter says. “It was my parents who would tell me that all that mattered was doing what made me happy.” 

On the show. Photo: Anette Lindmark

After speaking out about these experiences in last week's episode of the show, Peter has been sent multiple messages from viewers calling him a role model and praising him for talking about the experience.

And he also hopes to have acted as a role model for immigrants in Sweden. As the only non-Swede on the show, Peter says he felt a responsibility to show that foreigners can integrate fully into Swedish society.

“There are a lot of immigrants in Sweden and a lot of them feel that they aren't fully integrated; it's actually a very hard thing to do, so it was important for me to show that we're here, we do integrate, and we can be part of Swedish traditions and do typically Swedish things like bake kanelbullar!” he says.

“It also helped me to understand this better myself, to realize I'm not an outsider. “I consider myself well integrated but it's because I made the effort early on. It's very easy to get sucked into the expat culture here, but you have to learn the language to integrate. But it's also important not to integrate so much so that you lose yourself and forget your own culture. I think Swedes love people who are different.”

Though he feels Swedish now, before the move Peter had never been to Sweden. He says: “Sweden is truly worlds apart from South Africa, and it was the first time I'd ever moved away from home so there was an immediate culture shock, but my personality is very suited to Swedish culture. I hate talking to people on buses and trains!”

At work as a cancer researcher. Photo: SVT

He accepted the job in Gothenburg after a short Skype interview, having applied for dozens of post doctorate programmes around the world. Once deciding to take the plunge, he spent a long time researching the country, reading articles, blogs, and speaking to Swedes to “figure out what he was getting into”, and recommends that other would-be expats do the same.

After arriving, he says it's important to realize integration won't happen overnight. “You meet a few people, learn a few words, then slowly you start using Swedish expressions and baking Swedish food at home – it comes naturally,” he says. “You become more Swedish by the day, and now I'm not planning on leaving! It's a perfect country for me and it's a great country for a lot of very different people.”

“If you're open to things, you never know where they'll take you. I never imagined I'd end up on a Swedish baking show! But as soon as you realize it won't be the end of the world if you say a wrong word or a cake goes wrong, you open yourself up to amazing opportunities if you just give it a go.”