American-Norwegian chef Signe Johansen has a thoroughly Scandinavian (and infectious) outlook on wellbeing
What does ‘healthy’ mean to you?
I find the term really controversial these days. Health is worth trillions in business but not many people seem to know what it means. I was brought up in Norway, where to be healthy meant enjoying everything in moderation. Unfortunately, it’s old-fashioned advice, but we’re not a culture that jumps on dieting bandwagons – we’re just careful not to overdo it. We enjoy what we eat and make sure we stay active.
Scandinavians always look so glowing and healthy, and you’re no exception! Has it always been the case?
Since childhood I’ve always been very active. My parents have photos of me skiing in nappies! I’ve never been skinny, though, and my weight has fluctuated throughout my 20s and 30s. But I have more energy than ever.
What difference do you notice between British and Nordic attitudes to health?
This is slightly touchy ground and I don’t want to over-generalise… But Nords tend to perceive the body in terms of how it functions rather than the way it looks. Poop and periods aren’t considered taboo, and there’s no sense of shame, guilt or embarrassment about the body. We’re quite blunt people and it seems this has translated to how we think about our bodies.
Let’s talk about this fascination with hygge. There’s more to it than hot chocolate and cosy fireplaces, right?
Hygge [pronounced hoo-gah] taps into that sense of an alternative way of living that’s beneficial. People want to look after themselves and in a world that’s changing dramatically hygge helps people grasp the idea of living well, taking time out and nurturing themselves. There are three principles of hygge I’d recommend getting started with:
– Social A feeling of contentment, of coming together and nurturing and looking after others.
– Home space In 2017 I think we’re going to see the rise of the home body. We’ll be spending more time at home to get this sense of stepping back and retreating into domesticity. Think about your interiors and make it a happy place to live in. This is why Scandi design is so great – we had to come up with functional items because of the amount of time we spend indoors during the cold seasons, but we wanted it to be beautiful, too!
– Health Eat as seasonably as you can and allow yourself a treat now and then. Don’t be a martyr, just enjoy good home cooking and look after yourself. There’s a Swedish word, lagom, which means perfect equilibrium, or having that instinct of having just enough and not overindulging.
Why are Brits becoming more intrigued by this Scandi lifestyle?
We’re living in interesting times. I feel there’s a pushback against the clean eating and living ideals that dominated last year. We all need to live a little bit. Scandinavia has a lot to be proud of in terms of standard of living, public health, longevity – all these measurements are of a successful, healthy society, and I think Brits are saying, ‘why can’t we have that?’
And what about Nordic food?
Nordic chefs and food writers are going back to the basics of time-honoured methods. It’s all the things our grandparents did: fermentation, pickling, preserving and baking bread, including sourdough. It all went out of fashion when we got fridges and supermarkets. Sometimes we forget Britain is a northern European country, and the produce you grow is very similar to Norway – seafood, berries and vegetables. So when we talk about the trend for Nordic food, it’s more a question of why did it take so long to get here? The food is easy to prepare, so it isn’t about how many hours you spend in the kitchen. My mother said Nordic food is the best fast food in the world – if you’ve got pickles and crispbreads you can always rustle up a simple, naturally nourishing meal in minutes.
We imagine your pantry is well stocked… What would we find in it?
Yes, having a well-stocked larder is important, and mine is full of international flavours. Eggs are my absolute favourite ingredient. They’re satisfying, nourishing and you can do so much with them. For emergencies I always have Peter’s Yard crispbreads. They’re the kind of thing my grandmother would make, but as these are so good, why would you? They’re really great for canapés. And of course I have lots of spices. I really love cardamom, caraway and nutmeg. If you have plenty of spices you can really lift so many meals – soups, stews, casseroles and even toppings for cakes. They’re particularly important in healthy recipes, which I often see using lots of vegetables and protein but missing spices. It’s curious because simple ingredients like that need to be amplified, and spices are the way to do it.
How do you stay active?
I try to do a bit of everything because if I stick to one thing I get bored. To the Nords the outdoors is always preferable to the gym because you get the added psychological benefits of being outside and seeing nature, as well as vitamin D. I do a mix of long hikes, walking in the park, open water swimming, yoga and pilates. I’ve even had a go at archery and this year I want to try rock climbing. Women tend to get really worked up about being good at something or achieving something with exercise. I think you just need to find something that works for you – if you’re not a runner, don’t run! If you find a whole range of things you enjoy, do all of them.
Three things I love
Breakfast If I had to choose out of the three meals, it has to be breakfast. I don’t feel myself until I’ve had it!
I really love football (I used to play at university). Now I’m tempted to set up a women’s five-a-side – why do men get to have all the fun?
Chicken noodle soup
There’s nothing better when you’re feeling under the weather. I love making my own from a chicken carcass and any veg I happen to have.