Embracing the art of hygge in rural Scandinavia

The Nordic concept of hygge (cosiness, warmth, conviviality, celebrating the simple things – in case you’ve been living under a rock) has been pretty well thrashed since being ‘discovered’ by the rest of the world a while back, but before you roll your eyes and stop reading, think of the Scandinavians: for them it’s not a lifestyle-section trend but a way of life. I’ve always had a problem sitting still, but found it a cinch to ease into a slow-it-all-down mindset during the Scandinavian leg of our epic camper-van trip, especially when there was little to ‘do’ but hunker down and happily do nothing much. The cities of Scandinavia are unquestionably cool (and I’ll write about them in another post), but when I look back on the month or so we spent driving around Denmark, Sweden and Norway, it’s the memories of our time spent in the countryside, sitting by a fire doing very little, that are the most enduring.

Bornholm is a Danish island that sits in the Baltic Sea, closer to both Sweden above and Germany and Poland below than to Denmark. It’s one of those out-of-the-way islands that sometimes get set in a little box in the corner of the country map. It’s far from obscure though – it enjoys more hours of sunshine than mainland Denmark and holds a special place in the hearts of holidaying Danes. A magazine article that put Bornholm on our radar before setting out on our trip focused on the culinary scene and painted the island as a hyper-fertile fruit basket of the north and summer idyll. We didn’t need much convincing.

Our first taste of the Scandinavian seaside, waiting for the night ferry from Ystad in Sweden to Bornholm.

Bornholm is known as both Solskinsøen (the Sunshine Island) because of its weather and Klippeøen (the Rock Island) because of its geology; apart from the white-sand southern beaches, it’s mostly granite. We visited at the end of the summer season, so frustratingly, many of the restaurants I’d read about had recently closed for the long off-season (one day we’ll go back and eat at Kadeau), but we still had mostly fine weather during our three days there.

After our ferry arrived in the very early hours of the morning we drove straight to Allinge and our Airbnb summer house, Bolle’s Minde. The summer house (sommerhus in Danish) is as ubiquitous in parts of Scandinavia as the bach is in New Zealand. Echoing the bach-building trends of this country, there was a big sommerhus building boom during the 1960s and 70s; the Danish economy was growing and people began to build a second residence close to the sea to holiday in. In a country with under 6 million people, there are a whopping 200,000 sommerhus.

Our Bornholm home was fairly basic, but had the essentials of solid relaxation: hammock beds outside for the daytime, and a fireplace inside for the cooler evenings. Determined to go full hygge, we stocked up on supplies and spent our first day cosied-up inside, unnecessarily stoking the fire early in the afternoon, and making the most of having a full kitchen after weeks in the camper van by cooking a pork roast (flæskesteg, one of Denmark’s national dishes – always, always, cooked with the crackling on). With the aroma still mingling with the smoke from the fireplace, we finished off the meal with apple cake (æblekage) served with sun-kissed figs from the tree in the garden (a local variety known as Bornholm’s Diamond) and blackberries picked from the laden bushes in the lanes around the house: a forager’s dream.

A backyard of apple trees opening onto the seaside, spied on one of our walks.

Dragging ourselves away from cosy hibernation for a tour of the island the next day, we stopped in at the ruins of Hammershus, the largest medieval fortress in northern Europe, and the small towns of Sandvig, Rø, Gudhjem, Svaneke and Nexø, where hand-blown glass and ceramic studios rub shoulders with fish-smoking warehouses and their pyramid-shaped chimneys. We climbed the vast sand dunes on the southern coast and stopped in Tejn for a meal of ‘shrimps on toast’ at Skipperkroen, an old-school fisherman’s restaurant run by the endearingly surly henna-haired Pippi and groaning with nautical knick-knacks. Before heading back to the summer house for another evening by the fire, we stopped in at seaside hotel and bar Nordlandet to take in the views back towards Sweden and try the excellent craft beer by Penyllan, a local boutique brewery recently started by a friendly Aussie girl and her Danish partner.

The island’s roads were lined with small honesty-box produce stalls, with blueberries, figs and apples apparently the main crops at this time of year. Every little town has at least one bakery where you can pick up supplies for fika (coffee and cake), a tradition embraced with varying enthusiasm all over Scandinavia. ‘Fika’ is used as both a noun and a verb, and it didn’t take us long to happily give in to regular fikasugen (fika cravings) and make the question ‘Shall we fika?’ part of our daily routine. As Anna Brones and Johanna Kindvall point out in their book Fika: The art of the Swedish coffee break, it isn’t merely a coffee break, it’s a moment to slow down and appreciate the good things in life.

It was tempting to linger longer and slide further into the island way of life, but the road, and Sweden, was calling. Roxette serenaded us on the local radio as we drove north towards Stockholm, stopping in Kalmar for lunch. At a salad and sandwich bar, we ordered smørrebrød – an open sandwich of thinly sliced rye bread with various toppings, technically Danish but enjoyed more widely – and smörgåstårta – slices of bread layered with many fillings and garnishes, creating a creamy, salady layer cake. The idea of a savoury cake may not appeal to the uninitiated, but you’ve got to treat it like an elaborate club sandwich – it was delicious.

A little further north, after a detour to Örland island, we arrived in teeny-tiny Oknö. This really was a pick-a-random-spot-on-the-map location, a one-night stop chosen because it was in the excellently named Mönsterås region and because we liked the shape the finger-like shoots of land made on the map. It’s technically an island, one of many little dots of land covered in reeds and forest and connected by bridges and causeways. We arrived to a near-empty campsite and set up right by the water, enjoying an evening spent beside a bonfire on the beach. A morning sauna heightened the sense of retreat – exotic by New Zealand standards, but something we came across in a few of the campsites we stayed in.

(Curiously, the entry for Oknö on Wikipedia consists of only two lines, the second being a reference to Karolina Olsson, the ‘Sleeping Beauty of Oknö’, who apparently stayed asleep – or ‘hibernated’ – for 32 years.)

After a few days in Stockholm we drove west towards Norway, through vast swathes of sun-dappled pine and birch forest and small red-painted settlements. Dalarna County is the home of the hand-painted Dala horse, born in the region about 400 years ago when long winter nights by the fire would be whiled away carving wooden toys, and now a symbol of the whole of Sweden. It’s also home to the Mora knife, used all over Scandinavia and beyond in industry and outdoor pursuits, and by all of the region’s armies.

In Särna, we camped for a night at a lägerplats – a designated but very basic camping spot you pay a small fee to use (much like a DOC campsite in New Zealand). True wild camping is forbidden here, unlike the rest of Sweden, where the ‘freedom to roam’ policy is restricted only by the ‘do not disturb; do not destroy’ proviso. We cooked meatballs over the riverside fire, drank cups of tea with the addictive sötsak dammsugare we’d bought in the food market at Stockholm’s flagship IKEA store, and went to sleep early, only to be woken in the night by the unnerving sound of highway truckers using their horns to scare off wandering animals. Getting back behind the wheel in the morning, the reindeer sharing the road reminded us that this was the beginning of Sami country.

Knäckebröd and colourful cheese pastes (apparently very popular) displayed like art supplies in the supermarket.

A lagerplats in Särna, where we shared the campsite with reindeer.

After driving to the top of the nearby ski field (Salen hosts the start of Vasaloppet, the oldest, longest and largest cross-country ski race in the world) and deciding against a walk thanks to signs warning of roaming bears, we continued on route 66 into Norway. Some of the houses on this side of the border have grass and even pine trees on the roof and there are almost immediate differences in the landscape – the most obvious being the majestic fjords, which saw our journey punctuated by many short ferry rides and less-short tunnels (one, at 30km, is the longest road tunnel in the world and has a light show every 5km to ‘keep drivers awake and alert, avoid mental strain, and lift claustrophobia’ during the twenty-minute drive).

Having done little research on our route – preferring to find our way as we went – we were surprised to come across the serpentine Trollstigen (trolls’ ladder) road, whose eleven sharp hairpin bends follow a steep incline though the mountains. The Trollstigen viewing platforms are exceptionally well designed and built to blend in with the surroundings; some sections have been carved into the rock and others built onto sympathetically constructed stone walls. The dramatic viewpoints are well protected against the elements by steel and glass and from the top you enjoy a dizzying view all the way down the mountainside you’ve just climbed if coming from the east. (We came across examples of this superior public design all over Norway.) We spent that night in a campsite on the water’s edge in Geiranger, dwarfed by the emerald-green walls of the fjord and the huge, alien cruise ships lit by festoon lights.

Our log cabin in the woods in Tinn Austbygd in Telemark County provided the deepest sense of retreat. The settlement is about half an hour from Vemork, the site of the dramatic ‘heavy water sabotage’ – a series of actions undertaken by Norwegian saboteurs during World War II to prevent the occupying Germans from acquiring heavy water to produce nuclear weapons. We visited the museum at the imposing hydroelectric plant before driving north around Lake Tinn (Tinnsjå) to our cabin in the woods. The Airbnb listing describes it as a ‘fairytale place’, and it really does feel like something out of a Scandi children’s book: a log cabin with grass and small trees growing on the roof set in an untamed garden of blueberry and lingonberry bushes, with a white lavvu tent and an outdoor fire-heated bath tub beside the river at the far side of the property, all nestled so neatly in the surrounding forest that we drove right past it several times before finally spotting the roof peeking out among the trees.

There was an open fireplace inside and beside it a little stove, and a big fire pit outside. We alternated between the two, with it still warm enough in September to sit outside in the early evening. We baked cinnamon buns, picked berries and wild flowers, read books in the sun and took walks up river, across the moss-carpeted forest floor.

I didn’t know too much about Scandinavian food before our trip, having unfairly focused solely on cold pickled herring, which is in fact enjoyed all over Europe. But the Scandinavians certainly know how to bake, and their savoury dishes skilfully utilise quite subtle and unusual flavour combinations, especially when compared to more well-documented cuisines like Italian or French.

Seeking to emulate our Bornholm bliss, I made the Spiced Roast Pork Belly from Signe Johansen’s How to Hygge (not strictly a cookbook, but it has a great recipe section; it’s also endorsed by Nigel Slater so a guaranteed winner). A fairly straight-forward recipe in terms of cooking time and preparation, the special thing about it is the spice paste for marinating the meat: fennel seeds, allspice berries, star anise, coriander seeds, smoked sea salt and acacia honey (which I substituted with blue borage honey). It’s a thick, pungent paste, but mellows with cooking, and I ended up wishing I had used a bit more of it. To go with the pork, I made the Nordic Coleslaw, a fairly simple mix of shredded celeriac, white cabbage, fennel and carrots, with a complex and punchy green dressing of crème fraiche, lemon juice and zest, horseradish sauce, grainy mustard, cider vinegar, dill, coriander seeds, caraway seeds and spring onion. I added some thinly sliced radish for a colour pop. It was delicious – rich pork belly balanced with a crunchy fresh salad couldn’t be anything but – but we did miss the open fire and smugness of being on a little Danish island floating in the Baltic Sea.

A few days later, I made a buttery apple cake (æblekage in Danish; äppelkaka in Swedish) from The Nordic Cookbook by Magnus Nilsson. It needed almost an hour and a half in the oven rather than the 50 minutes the recipe called for, but it was a lovely golden buttery colour and rich without feeling too decadent. Next I’d like to try the cardamom and cinnamon buns, as well as some of the more unusual recipes.

Not many New Zealanders travel to Scandinavia, mainly I think because it’s seen as just too expensive. Admittedly we ate out in restaurants very little and drank out even less (those shrimps on toast in Bornholm were on par price-wise with a fine-dining restaurant in New Zealand, two small beers at one very beautiful bar we went to in Stockholm was a scandalous $50 and coffee was also pricey at upwards of NZ$8 for a small espresso), but more casual dining was not too eye-watering, and it is well worth scrimping a bit in order to admire the fjords of Norway, share a road with reindeer in Sweden’s Sami country and bask in the sun on a white-sand beach in Bornholm. In fact, the expense and need to budget for a trip there could encourage you to practise the hygge of 2017: ‘lagom’, or the perfect balance of not too little, not too much. And if you’ve brought a little hygge into your world already (or naturally embrace the cosy things in life and don’t need to be told how to do it, thank you very much), you’ll love hanging out in a region where it’s almost mandatory.

How to Hygge : the secrets of Nordic living by Signe Johansen (PanMacmillan, 2016); The Nordic Cookbook by Magnus Nilsson (Phaidon, 2015).

Two takes on Hawaiian poke

With several more poke-devoted eateries opening in Auckland recently, New Zealand seems to be fully embracing a dish that has been making a buzz in places like LA for a while, and in Hawai‘i for, well, centuries.

Poke, which according to some sources is pronounced ‘poh-kay’ and others ‘poh-keh’ (this seems more likely to me, seeing it’s a Polynesian language), means ‘to cut’ or ‘section’, referring to the raw fish that is the star of the show.

 

I found two recent cookbooks focusing on the tasty bowl-food. Poke: Hawaiian-inspired sushi bowls by Celia Farrar and Guy Jackson of Eat Poke in London has an abstract pop-art style cover and a more fast-and-loose approach to ingredients, while The Poke Cookbook: the freshest way to eat fish by Martha Cheng sticks with a more trad food-pic cover and ingredients (though it does have a ‘modern’ section). Both include seafood and vegetarian versions. Cheng’s book also includes a section called ‘Local Style’, which has recipes for Hawaiian favourites like kālua pig (pork ‘butt’ cooked in an underground imu), butter mochi (a chewy, custardy baked treat) and lychee fizz, and Farrar and Jackson include a drinks section, with both alcoholic and booze-free offerings.

I’ve flagged many recipes in both of the books for my next trip to the seafood market, but the spirit of poke is versatility – it’s more about the style of preparation than sticking to particular ingredients – so in that spirit, I made up my own combination based on what we had at home.

Our compile-your-own poke bowls featured a mix of brown basmati and red rice; ribbons of purple and orange carrot; thinly sliced radish, red capsicum, spring onion, avocado (hooray that they are no longer the price of an Auckland house deposit) and iceberg lettuce for crunch; rehydrated dried seaweed from the Asian supermarket; and trevally marinated in lemon juice and coconut cream and combined with diced cucumber, tomato and red onion and perked up with a little minced fresh chilli. Because condiments are everything, we topped it all off with drizzles of kewpie mayo, soy sauce and sesame oil and sprinklings of my homemade furikake (made using seaweed collected from the local beach; you can find the recipe here) and chopped roasted and salted macadamias. As we were putting it all together, it felt a bit odd adding nuts to a meal that takes its cues from Japanese cuisine, but the crunchy, creamy macadamias – a staple of traditional Hawaiian poke – really make this dish.

Despite the fairly long list of ingredients, one of the joys of poke is the simplicity of preparation: chop everything up roughly the same size and serve over rice, or if you fancy, just veg. You don’t necessarily have to prepare a marinated fish, either – unadulterated thinly sliced or cubed raw fish is a marvellous thing, as long as you can get your hands on very fresh fish.

Now the library-book test (am I happy to return it, or do I want to renew my loan so I can savour it longer, or buy the book?). I admit that in this instance, I am judging a book/books by the cover, and buying Celia Farrar and Guy Jackson’s version.

The Poke Cookbook: the freshest way to eat fish by Martha Cheng (Clarkson Potter, 2017) and Poke: Hawaiian-inspired sushi bowls by Celia Farrar and Guy Jackson (2017).

Lighter seafood chowder

This chowder is incredibly flavoursome and a lot lighter than traditional fish chowder. I’ve been curious to see whether removing dairy from my diet could have health benefits for me, so this is my milk- and cream-free take on this classic soup. I used homemade fish stock made from snapper frames, but you could use vegetable stock; it just might not be quite as tasty.

1 tbsp olive oil

1/2 leek, white and light green parts, finely chopped

1 large clove garlic, finely chopped

2 carrots, peeled and cut into rounds then quarters

2 potatoes, peeled and diced

1 tbsp flour

pinch of paprika

pinch of chilli flakes

1 litre fish stock

1/3 can coconut cream

200–250g firm white fish (I used tarakihi), diced

150g raw prawns or prawn meat

zest and juice of 1 lemon

crispy friend pancetta, to garnish

fennel fronds, parsley or dill fronds, to garnish

Heat olive oil in a large heavy-based saucepan over a medium heat. Add leek and cook for 4–5 minutes, until starting to soften. Add garlic and carrots and cook for a further 2 minutes, taking care to not let the garlic burn.

Add potatoes, flour, paprika and chilli flakes and stir until vegetables are lightly coated in flour.

Add fish stock. Scoop the cream from the top of the can of coconut cream and stir this into the mix. I used about 2 tablespoons of it, but you can vary this depending on how creamy you want your chowder, or how much coconut flavour you want. Simmer for 10–15 minutes, or until potatoes and carrots are cooked through.

Add fish and prawns and cook for 3–4 minutes, until just cooked through. Take care not to overcook.

Stir through lemon zest and juice.

Divide between bowls and garnish with crispy pancetta and fennel, parsley or dill.

Gooey lemon and rosemary slice

This recipe was inspired by the groaning lemon tree in my backyard. I’ve been stalking it for weeks, waiting for the lemons to tip over into juicy ripeness so I could make some limoncello using the family recipe some Dutch/Italian friends shared with us. Luckily there are plenty for baking too. For this slice, I freestyled the measures (not being a natural baker I like a test!) and next time might use a little more lemon zest or juice and a little less sugar (I used 1 3/4 cups) in the topping to make it tarter. Some recipes for this type of slice use icing sugar for the base, which would give more of a shortbread texture. (Limoncello to come.)

1 1/2 cups flour

1/2–3/4 cups caster sugar

150g room-temp. butter, cut into cubes

4 large eggs

1–1 3/4 cups caster sugar (depending on how tart you like things)

zest and juice of 3–4 large lemons (about 2/3 cup juice)

1/3 cup flour

Preheat oven to 180°C and line a slice tray. I used a glass dish and that worked fine.

Sift first measures of flour and sugar into a bowl. Mix in butter until you have a crumb-like texture. You could also do this in a food processor.

Press into tin and bake for around 20 minutes, or until just starting to colour.

Beat eggs and second measure of sugar until pale and thick. Add lemon zest and juice and then sift in second measure of flour. Fold gently to combine fully (don’t stir too hard or the tiny air bubbles in the mixture will skedaddle). Pour over base.

Bake for 30–40 minutes, until set and slightly crispy on top but still gooey in the middle. If it starts to colour too quickly, drop the temperature to around 150°C.

Leave in tin to cool then remove, dust with icing sugar and sprinkle with rosemary flowers (and extra lemon zest if you like) and slice as desired.

You can turn this slice into a decadent dessert by fancying it up with some whipped cream or ice cream and a drizzle of limoncello.

❤️ your library (and your bookshop)

It might seem against my interests to promote libraries given my livelihood depends on book sales, but recently I have once again rediscovered the joys of the library request system. With something like a cookbook, it gives you the chance to try before you buy. Most Fridays I swing by the library to pick up whatever requests are waiting for me, and borrow any other books or magazines that look like good weekend reading.

Sometimes I’m happy to flick through and maybe try out a recipe or two before returning a cookbook, while other times I just don’t want to give it back, and decide to buy a copy.

The public library system is such a fantastic free resource, offering much more than book loans – libraries provide a place for interest groups to meet, activities for kids, computers, internet and printers for those who do not have access at home (my local even has a 3D printer). You can ‘book a librarian’ for personalised help, and have books delivered if you are housebound. The fairly new Waiheke library building has become my office-away-from-home, a cosy and quiet (and well-designed) place to work when I need to get out of the house and don’t feel like lurking in a cafe. And I am not alone – many local freelancers use it regularly.

‘A library in the middle of a community is a cross between an emergency exit, a life raft and a festival. They are cathedrals of the mind; hospitals of the soul; theme parks of the imagination’, wrote the great-value British author Caitlin Moran when lamenting the ‘cost-saving’ library closures all over England. It makes me sad that a large number of Auckland librarians recently lost their jobs, especially given that the various libraries I frequent in Auckland seem well-used.

So I say #loveyourlibrary