This month Ultimate Library had the absolute pleasure of speaking to Signe Johansen, the much renowned, and critically acclaimed, author of How to Hygge: Secrets of Nordic Living. However her talents as a food writer and cook do not stop there. After gaining her degree from the University of Cambridge, Signe went on to study at the prestigious Leiths School of Food and Wine where she honed her talents as a brilliant cook. Signe has written for and had her scrumptious recipes in many esteemed newspapers and magazines all over the world. Aside from all of this, Signe is a charming, funny and brilliantly clever woman who is doing great things for women in the food and drink industry. Read on to discover Signe’s top tips when it comes to cooking and writing about food.
Your degree in Anthropology and Archaeology and your career as an accredited author and cook are very disparate, what led you from one to the other?
I would argue that they are not that disparate as food exists in culture and in society, and anthropology is exactly that. It is looking at how humans interact with each other and the way that societies work. I have always been interested in other people so food is a really good conduit to have those conversations about the way that we live. If you look at the world that we live in at the moment, food prices are going up and there is a lot of discussions about how Brexit will influence the food industry, supermarkets and the cost of living. So really it all kind of all ties together when you start looking at it from a bigger picture. In the food industry there is that weird over simplification that goes on, people either assume you are a chef or a food critic. But the great thing about the industry we are in, particularly in Britain, is that you have lots of great producers and interesting writers and investigative journalists, making it a really interesting field. So in that sense, to my mind, it seems perfectly logical to move from anthropology to career in food, but from the outside it doesn’t look that logical at all!
How to Hygge is not only a book of delicious recipes but an education on how to live a ‘cosy’, cohesive and happy Nordic life – did you find it hard to write a cookbook with such a new kind of template?
No I didn’t, I have wanted to for a long time. There is a trend that you can see appearing for simplistic cookbooks, if you go into the food section of any book store or even on Amazon a lot of the books available follow this idea. There is a market for anchoring food in a broader cultural context hence books about Persian cooking, middle eastern cooking, the Ukraine and parts of the world that maybe we aren’t that familiar with. We are pulled into cookbooks that are centred around places we haven’t travelled to, or places we are just curious about. I think that for a place like Scandinavia it still feels a bit esoteric and a little bit strange, even though we are right up the road, across the North Sea from you! The Scandinavian concept also felt quite timely for our generation. For millennials, and for people who are slightly older than that, Copenhagen has become a hot destination to visit. It is such a great city, people are drawn to everything, the design, the food, the culture and the way of life. Scandinavia is very progressive, if you look at attitudes towards gender equality, politics, maternity leave, all the things that make peoples lives a little bit more bearable, the Scandinavians have figured that out through legislation and good governance. There is a sense that there is an alternative way of living, that is not necessarily being a hippy, but a way of life that can lead to a lot more contentedness.
What is your top tip when it comes to writing your own cook book?
Keep it really simple. There has been an interesting rise in single subject books, for example, there is a book by Catherine Phipps called Citrus that is all about citrus fruits. It may seem like an odd choice for a book to focus on one thing like an egg or a citrus fruit, but actually people are really drawn to these single subject books, and likewise, single subject areas or regions or countries. People tend to over complicate book proposals and having spoken to editors they say that the simpler you can make it the better it is for sales. It is like any branding or marketing, keep the concept very straight forward and people are drawn to that.
What is your whisky of choice?
It really varies, I don’t have a single favourite, it depends on the time of year. So for example in the summer I like something which is a bit lighter and a bit more citrusy, a Singleton or a Japanese whisky. The Japanese do some really great whiskies, like Yamazaki or Chita. There are tonnes that are really great, although they are very expensive so it is a treat rather than a daily libation. But, in the winter I like something a bit richer, a bit smokier. It really depends on context, like with food. There are certain foods you crave during the summer months but not in Winter. In the winter months when it is dark and cold and miserable outside, I would go for something a bit peachier and smokier.
Which book has most influenced you in your career, or in your life?
I was really lucky in that I had a mentor in Fiona Beckett, who is the Guardian’s wine writer, and she took me under her wing after I left Leiths School of Food and Wine, which was 10 years ago now. She was a really great mentor in the sense that not only does she write in an approachable, straightforward and easy way, but she doesn’t have that kind of air of pretention that you sometimes get in the food and drink industry. Her message was always about great communication, which I think is really important, no matter what subject you are in, to just communicate with people and write in a way that is accessible. I would say that her books, her whole list of books, some of which I have worked on and some which I have just been reading over the years, have been really inspirational. And then also the great food writers like M. F. K. Fisher, Tim Hayward and Marina O’Loughlin, who is a restaurant critic for The Guardian. Marina’s writing style really appeals to me because she is funny, erudite without being pretentious. Those are the kind of writers I get the most out in terms of my career, but, in terms of life in general it is a very wide range. I have just been reading a book by Linda Grant called The Dark Circle, which is a really brilliant novel. P. G. Wodehouse is such a great one to read too, I make a point of trying to read one of his books every year because his writing is so brilliant and funny, he is light comic relief in the best sense.