Hooked on Cult Crackers

Birgitta Durell (left) and Dianna Dar at work in the Berkeley Kitchens.

Crunchy, Seedy, and a Little Bit Cult-y

Swedish cracker culture comes to Berkeley

Story and photos by Anna Mindess

As a kid growing up in Malmö, Sweden, Birgitta Durell took knäckebröd (crispbread) for granted. These mostly rye-based
 crackers are eaten there daily, paired with everything from pickled herring to lingonberry jam. Many Swedes still make the crackers at home or buy them from specialized bakeries. Scores of varieties line entire supermarket aisles.

When she moved to California after college, Durell baked her own knäckebröd for many years, until a confluence of events propelled her to share a novel take on the traditional Swedish standby.

Cookware? I’ll Take the Crackers!

It all began when an old friend in Sweden sent Durell a unique recipe that called for a mix of different seeds and corn flour rather than the traditional rye flour. Durell tried the recipe, liked it, and started bringing the crunchy, seed-rich crackers to her daughter’s school potlucks. They were a hit, and the fact that they happened to be gluten-free and vegan was an added plus for some at the gatherings.

At the time, Durell had a job selling her brother-in-law’s high-end Swedish cookware at trade shows. She always had a batch of the crackers at her booth, and when customers tasted them, they often told her to forget the cookware and sell the crackers instead.

Birth of a Partnership

Durell and Dianna Dar met via their daughters, who attended the same school. Dar is a graduate of the California Culinary Academy and worked for a time as a chef at the now-shuttered Postrio in San Francisco. She later branched out to recipe development, editing, marketing, and copywriting for food start-ups, but found she missed hands-on cooking.

One fateful night, the Durells had the Dar family over for dinner. The beloved seedy crackers were on the table, and when they elicited the usual praise, Birgitta Durell’s husband, Mitch, commented, “I’ve been trying to convince Birgitta to make and sell these crackers.” Dianna Dar replied, “Good idea. I’ll help.” 

Through numerous evening testing sessions in time slots borrowed from caterer friends in commercial kitchens, the two women tweaked the original recipe, switching from olive oil to coconut oil and adding hemp and chia to the mixture of sunflower, sesame, flax, and pumpkin seeds for greater nutritional benefits. They agreed it was important to use organic ingredients, which Durell purchased from Berkeley Natural Grocery Company. Employees there wanted to know why she was buying so much of the same seeds and what she did with them, so Durell brought them some crackers to taste. She got the usual encouragement to start selling them. When Cult Crackers launched as a business in 2017, the shop was the first retail location. 

Buckwheat, Original Corn, and Cassava Cult Crackers

Flour as Flavoring

Dar and Durell offer several varieties of Cult Crackers—Original Corn, Crunchy Cassava, and Toasty Buckwheat. “Most cracker companies start with an ‘original’ flavor and then add herbs and garlic for savory variations,” says Dar. “We make our flavors using different gluten-free flours. That way you can eat [any] of them with either sweet or savory toppings. They serve as a sturdy base for avocado, cheese, hummus, lox, nut butters, or jam.” When crumbled, the crackers add a satisfying crunch to yogurt, salads, or pea soup (a Swedish classic).

Durell and Dar continue to experiment with novel flours, and they still hand-mix the batter pan by pan, working at the Berkeley Kitchens complex in West Berkeley. They share the light-filled dedicated gluten-free space with Bread SRSLY, maker of gluten-free sourdough breads.

Why Cult Crackers?

Durell admits to a longtime fascination with cults. While majoring in anthropology at college in Sweden, she wrote her thesis on Sun Myung Moon and his Unification Church. (Followers were called “Moonies.”) It was that research that first brought her to California. Swedish cracker culture, which dates back hundreds of years, is a food cult (of sorts) that Durell brought with her, and now it has spawned the name Cult Crackers. The cracker makers are never surprised to hear comments to the effect of, “I always wanted to join a cult but never found a good one before. This is one cult I will join.” ´

Cult Crackers are sold at Berkeley Natural Grocery Company, Berkeley Bowl, Berkeley Farmers’ Market, Monterey Market, Country Cheese Shop, Three Stone Hearth, Star Market, other local shops, and online.

Anna Mindess writes about food, culture, travel, and immigrants’ stories for AFAR, Fodors, KQED Bay Area Bites, Berkeleyside, and Oakland Magazine. She also works as a sign language interpreter. See her visual take on the world on Instagram @annamindess. Find her stories at annamindess.contently.com.