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).

Savouring salad season

At a friend’s for dinner recently, she apologised for the ‘90s’ salad she’d made to go with an incredible crayfish Américaine. While there is a time and place for a simple salad, especially with a punchy dish that won’t tolerate any competition, it made me think about how much salad culture has changed in New Zealand since that decade, when lettuce-tomato combos, and maybe the occasional coleslaw, reigned. Rather than a sad side, a decent salad will often be the main meal at our place now, and as well as the requisite veg will usually contain some kind of grain or pulse, cheese, nuts and possibly some fish or meat, often a dollop of hummus and sometimes a knot of sauerkraut or some other pickle on top.

I was given Peter Gordon’s Savour: Salads for all seasons for Christmas and at the end of March, as the autumn veges were appearing in stores, I realised I hadn’t yet made a recipe from it. A cover endorsement from Yotam Ottolenghi, the king of veg, could convince me to pick up any cookbook, but really Gordon’s own name is enough of a selling point. Years back when I was a work experience student at Penguin, I proofread one of his cookbooks, and although I assumed they weren’t entrusting this task to the intern alone, it was a thrill to be working on a collection by a big-name New Zealand chef who had made it overseas, especially one with a reputation for being a lovely guy. This collection was published by Jacqui Small in the UK, who also publishes fellow expat Dean Brettschneider.

Although I’m not a strict stickler for food photography on the cover, the vaguely food-based painting here didn’t do much to tantalise my taste buds, but that’s the risk you take using artwork: it’s highly subjective. I am a bit of a sucker for the gold foil type though. I like the clever use of the endpapers and the way the veg-filled banana boxes (do they call them that in the UK?) fit perfectly into the book dimensions satisfies the compulsive in me. The creative recipe photo placement seems a little out of sorts with the fairly conventional font and text layout choices, though it’s not necessarily a bad thing to adventure beyond the rarely-departed-from norm of full-bleed images set opposite recipe text.

The introduction gives handy information on ingredient choice (‘salad leaves should be plump and firm’), quantities (I appreciate a cookbook that advises ‘two handfuls’ of rocket rather than a fiddly 100g – you can’t go too wrong freestyling a salad), growing microgreens and sprouts (though after accidentally waterlogging my first attempt at sprouts in about 20 years, more detailed information would be good here) and dressings (‘as a rule, I use three and a half parts of oil to one part of vinegar’). The contents page lists the sections as Simple Salads; Veggie Straight Up; Veggie Grains; Veggie Cheesy; Fish and Shellfish; Poultry; Meat; Dressings. So far, so standard, but Gordon’s famous fusion style leads to some unique flavour combinations and a creative use of the term ‘salad’ has allowed for the inclusion of a few recipes that are as far from our familiar slaw as you can get. Also not necessarily a bad thing.

Ignoring the not-really-a-salad recipes (such as the seafood in broth, where the small amounts of samphire, tomato, mushroom and lentils only just save it from looking like it got lost on its way to a different cookbook), I decided on the baby beet, broad beans, tarragon, goats’ curd and hazelnuts. This choice was partly a challenge to myself; I have never really warmed to broad beans. My mum loved them and would grow them in her large and impressive vege garden and then cook them with the unappealing grey papery skins intact, so I never knew they were a vibrant edamame-green underneath and refused to eat them. For this salad I slipped the skins off one by one, which along with toasting the hazelnuts and then rubbing them individually in a clean dish towel to take the skins off, makes this a fairly time-consuming recipe. But the broad beans were more than tolerable, and I’d use them again in something like this salad, where they’re not the star ingredient. Beetroot, hazelnuts and goat’s cheese is a favourite combination that I first tried at Prego, so it was a bit of a given I’d like this slightly more elaborate version.

I’d recommend this book if you’re feeling stuck in a stale salad repertoire, or god forbid, still getting your veg quota through lettuce and tomato with claggy mayonnaise. There are plenty of substantial recipes to satisfy an autumn or winter appetite once the warm weather is truly over for another year, and I’ll try the octopus, potato, bean and dill salad or the seared salmon, nori sauce, crispy buckwheat, gomasio (ground toasted sesame seeds with flaky salt) and avocado next. I may even try the clams, mussels and puy lentils, but I probably won’t be calling it a salad – sorry, Peter.

Savour: Salads for all seasons by Peter Gordon (Jacqui Small, 2016)