One of the great cooking conundrums of the last ten years, since the exponential growth in cook book publishing, has been the overall British lack of focus on Nordic cuisine. British gastronomy shares so much with Swedish, Finnish, Norwegian and Danish ingredients and methodologies: a very similar climate for growing fruit and vegetables, a love of the great outdoors, foraging, smoking food, sandwiches and growing-your-own as well as a deep appreciation of good, old fashioned comfort food to nourish the spirit and fill the senses. Oh, and bread and cakes. The Scandinavians love their baking, as do the British.
Elizabeth David introduced Mediterranean cookery to these cold isles, but we think that the flavours of the lemons, red peppers, garlic, tomatoes, chilli and basil, so prevalent in the cookery of that region, is elusive and disappointing for more northern cooks, as the taste is never quite the same underneath our heavy, pewter skies.
We have anticipated Signe Johansen’s debut cookery book, “Secrets of Scandinavian Cooking-Scandilicious”, with excitement, we have to admit, because we have followed her on Twitter, on cookery courses, in magazines and through her Blog, at www.signejohansen.com. Now it has arrived, we can herald it as the home cooking bible for those wishing to cook simple, easy and flavoursome Nordic cuisine without the Noma complexities and layerings. We found this paragraph in the author’s blog very revealing:
“If, as acclaimed Danish chef Rene Redzipi asserts, a “Nordic terroir” really exists then it is firmly anchored in the wild, in foraging for local ingredients, in celebrating our maritime and hunting heritage and marrying that heritage with modern culinary techniques and flavours. Food in Scandinavia is perhaps best understood as a way of life, as an ecology, rather than as a distinct cuisine. That philosophy of resourcefulness, a discreet frugality and a focus on provenance makes Scandinavian food distinctive but of course not unique.”
Signe originally trained as a food anthropologist, and grew up in Norway, in a family where food and entertaining were obviously at the heart of life. She trained at Leith’s School of Food and Wine, and then went to work for Heston Blumenthal in his Experimental Kitchen, at the Fat Duck in Bray. She co-wrote “The Ultimate Student Cookbook” and her Blog focuses on her everyday cooking and foodie finds.
You cannot help being cheered by “Scandilicious”. The photography by Debi Treloar is stunning in its simplicity, and there are really beautiful line drawings of log cabins, outdoor scenes, decorations and kitchen life by Liam Wales. The team at publishers Saltyard Books, an imprint of Hodder and Stoughton, have done a really impressive job in depicting and layering romantic Scandinavian panoramas of Smorbrod, homely kitchen styles, crisp colours, pastoral picnic scenes, home preserving, warm comfort and raw flavours. This book is a very stylish and useful accomplishment, and you will want it at the very front of your bookshelf.
The book chapters take you through Breakfast, Brunch, Lunch, Afternoon Cake, Dinner and Dessert. There is also a practical outline of The Scandi Store Cupboard, telling you where you can find shops that stock the ingredients, as well as Signe’s favourite foodie finds. There is also a page entitled “The Scandi Kitchen” which showcases the best places to find all the Marmekko, Liz Nilsson and Arne Jacobsson accessories of your dreams.
Scandinavians take their breakfasts and brunches very seriously, and preserves, fresh fruit, Nordic porridge, smoothies, milkshakes, muffins, waffles and baked eggs form an uplifting entry into the world of this cuisine. The emphasis is on healthy, fast and modern food, the sort of recipes everyone and everyone can make, without great skill or preparation.
Signe conveys the job of this sort of informal cooking with zeal:
“In true Scandi style, I tend to lay out a Smorgasbord buffet for brunch, with a variety of dishes from which everyone can help themselves. Muffins, pancakes and cinnamon buns are always popular, as are hot treats like Eggs Norwegian, Nordic French toast and buttery baked eggs.”
Lunch carries on in the same vein. We are introduced to Scandilicious breads: oatmeal, spelt and fennel seed bread, sourdough toasts and open and closed sandwiches.
We love Toast Skagen, a classic open sandwich made with sweet North Sea prawns, lumpfish roe, lemon, dill and mayonnaise. Mama Johansen’s vegetable soup is delicious, made from fresh shallots, leek, new potatoes, raw broccoli and asparagus. Signe writes:
“My mother possesses the marvellous and somewhat underrated talent of knowing precisely what to do with leftover vegetables after a big meal….This one is satisfying and virtuous in equal measure.”
We think the communal concepts of “fika”, a Swedish word for a chatty get together, and “hygge”, a Danish celebration of conviviality, sound completely appropriate for the “Afternoon Cake” section of the book, with no less than 17 of Signe’s favourite party treats, including Spiced apple cake, Mor Monsen (Norwegian lemon, currant and almond cake) and Mustikkapiirakka (Finnish blueberry tart).
There are no less than 25 main dinner recipes, but some of them are very light and unassuming, including the wonderful array of soups: Bergen fish chowder, crayfish soup, chilled cucumber and borage and beetroot and ginger. We have long been searching for a good pickled herring recipe, and now we have one, flavoured with aquavit, allspice berries, peppercorns, mustard, coriander, cloves, juniper, bay and dill. The Kveldsmat evening spelt pancakes are a lifesaver: “Kveldsmat, or “evening food” is perfect for those days when you don’t feel like cooking up a storm at the end of the day, but still fancy a satisfying bite before bedtime” writes the author, and why no one has ever thought of this idea is a mystery. As well as being good cooks, the Scandinavians are extremely clever, innovative and stylish. This book is an ambassador for those national traits.
The desserts really do deserve a special mention because they embrace and rejoice in the whole gamut of sweet-tooth desire, from strawberry sorbet, Finnish strawberry snow and iced Nordic berries with white chocolate sauce, right through to cherry liqueur drenched Valhalla brownies and Scandinavian rice pudding.
Interspersed between the bright, colourful and enticing photographs of food and accessories are photos of Signe herself: tall, blond, blue-eyed with Viking chiselled features, and that soap and water beauty that Scandinavians are famed for throughout the world.
We could not recommend this book more heartily: it is well paced, well written, honest, indulgent but balanced, purposeful but relaxed. Within it are some genuinely useful and helpful recipes that are absolutely ideal for the coming of the long summer holidays. Signe Johansen’s style is very homely, relaxed and approachable, whilst at the same time there is no doubt that this is the work of a real foodie, from a part of the world that appreciates simple, fresh and natural flavours. It is a much deserved triumph.
Signe Johansen’s Website and blog: www.signejohansen.com
To follow Signe on Twitter: @scandilicious
Hodder and Stoughton: www.hodder.co.uk
Saltyard Books: www.saltyardbooks.co.uk
Photographer Debi Treloar: www.debitreloar.com