Signe Johansen is everything you want from a modern day food writer.
Petite and blonde and rosy-cheeked from the winter cold outside, she is the picture of wholesome health; Saltyard books (her publisher) could not have baked a better face for their new book peddling Scandinavian epicurean delights – Scandilicious.
So it’s fitting that we catch up at St John Bar and Restaurant in Smithfield, where the smell of buttery baking oozes from the kitchens as we pore over cups of herbal tea: there could be no better setting to learn more about a woman whose food is unapologetically simple, utterly moreish and, you guessed it, wholesome.
Armed with a diploma from Leiths Cooking School and a masters in food anthropology, Johansen’s instinctive understanding of food stemming from an international upbringing (her father is Norwegian, her mother is Anglo-American) is supported by her academic knowledge of food origin.
Scandinavian food remains niche in the UK with esoteric visions of herrings and meatballs prejudicing the cause, but Johansen tells an entirely different tale, peppering her conversation with anecdotes of mountain walks and foraging for seasonal fruits: “Food from Norway is quite indulgent. There is a huge baking tradition. I enjoy it because I grew up with it; it was a way of bonding with my grandma. Most Scandinavian food is really low maintenance – there are lots of cured and preserved foods because they are really healthy, and there is a history of long, cold winters.”
There are two things that make Johansen’s particular brand of cooking relevant NOW – the first is the focus on inexpensive ingredients: “Norway was a poor country until the ‘70s. My family had a farm and eating was a frugal affair – Gravad Lax, which is one of my favourites – it’s so simple and cheap and tastes great!” The second is that because of its focus on natural ingredients, the recipes inadvertently find themselves at the forefront of an entirely healthy attitude towards eating without any of the resentment imposed by self-denial.
The picture of health herself, Johansen is a walking testament to the benefits of Scandinavian living: “I think the best way to stay in shape is to have a little of what you fancy and have a mix of all the building blocks – grains, greens, proteins – what you want changes with the seasons. And make sure you get outside – the outdoors is really important to the way of life in Scandinavia, even in winter.”
Of course, what most people will appreciate, is that as her recipes are true of a cultural way of life, there is no impossible expectation in her methods either in terms of what you eat or how it’s cooked: “I didn’t want recipes to be complicated so that people would be put off even trying them, or so that they would need lots of fancy equipment – even I get put off by that!”
The book has received only one criticism – that it isn’t traditional enough, which was a conscious decision that makes it quintessentially Johansen – partly to make it accessible – “there are some ingredients you just can’t buy in the UK, so what’s the point in including them in the book?”; partly because of her international heritage; and partly the result of her education, she rather progressively acknowledges that food origin needn’t be rigidly branded: “there is no such thing as authentic food – spices are from everywhere, but people think mince pies are typically English – food needs to be flexible to evolve.”
Having been dubbed the ‘Nordic Nigella’ it seems an unoriginal and somewhat undermining moniker for a woman whose cooking is a far cry from the butter swilling Domestic Goddess. That said, there is some reminiscence in the pleasing aesthetic and utter sensuality of Johansen’s philosophy – after all, this isn’t just cooking, it is a completely Scandilicious way of life!
Keep an eye out for some of Signe’s healthy recipes for January coming up on The Hot Tub throughout January!
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