5 reasons London is obsessed with Scandinavia - and how to indulge more

How the recession has subtly shaped our exploding Nordic scene

There has been an undercurrent of Scandinavian culture in London for a very long time. We’ve loved our Northern European neighbours ever since we first listened to Dancing Queen or assembled a Billy bookcase.

But something has happened recently that has pushed the Nordic scene to the forefront. London is massively embracing Nordic culture, and there are a multitude of reasons why.

Dr Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen, senior lecturer in Scandinavian literature at University College London, says he’s noticed a huge rise in Londoners taking an interest in all things Nordic: “Certainly, I have. Look at the numerous events related to Scandinavia all over the country – but particularly in London.”

He’s right – earlier this month Nordicana, a festival celebrating film, television, books and food from Scandinavia, took place at East London’s Old Truman Brewery. This is only the second year the festival has been held, with organisers saying it was a much bigger affair than last.

So why are we so obsessed with Scandinavia?

1. The literary spark

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was made into two films. The English-language one starred Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig

Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy books, which started with the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and were made into two sets of film series, are widely credited with being the spark that started our recent fascination. Originally published in Swedish in 2005, an English version of the books didn’t arrive until 2008. Even then, Brits have been pretty slow on the uptake, and if you use public transport, you’ll still see people discovering the books. In fact, the first book is still at #2 in Amazon’s bestselling film and television tie-ins.

This has resulted in a wave of well-known Scandinavian authors being published for the first time in English. Stougaard-Nielsen laughs: “There’s a lot of Scandinavian crime fiction now arriving in Britain as new, but some of it was written as far back as the 90s.

“There have been a lot of attempts by publishers to match the success of Stieg Larsson’s books. Some books are being published simultaneously in Britain and Scandinavia, which is a huge change.”

2. Media popularity

The popularity of the dark Millennium trilogy might have been what inspired the BBC to screen the popular Swedish series Wallander in 2009. The moody, icy feel of the drama is now almost trademark Nordic, creating a template showing TV bods what other series Brits might like. And they weren’t wrong. We’ve now been engrossed by The Killing, absorbed by Borgen and gripped by The Bridge, which had 1.1 million viewers over the first weekend of February.

Brett Croft, manager of Daunt Books in Marylebone, says there’s been a phenomenal increase in Londoners buying Scandinavian fiction.

“It’s just gone beyond an explosion,” he says. “It’s almost out of the other end now, but there’s no sign of it stopping - almost every book is the new Stieg Larsson.

“Customers are still looking for high quality in both the story and the translation,” he adds.

London’s Nordic Noir Book Club, which you’d expect to be a gathering of Swedes, Norwegians, Danes, Finns and Icelanders, is “almost exclusively British”, according to Stougaard-Nielsen. It’s full of people from all age groups and all walks of life, he says, but mostly Brits.

Norwegian Constitution Day

3. The recession

There are a number of theories as to why we’ve suddenly fallen in love with Scandinavia, but Stougaard-Nielsen thinks the economic downturn might have something to do with it.

“There’s something about Scandinavian culture which is almost exotic, but also familiar and nostalgic.

“I think there’s a reason that this has coincided with the recession. British people are familiar with Scandinavian values of social equality and social justice, which are some of the biggest issues in this country at the moment. There’s a sense of the nostalgic values of home, family and nature too, which is what Scandinavia seems to represent.”

4. Food

Nordic food, which traditionally hasn’t been that exciting to Londoners who will often go out for Asian or southern European food, is becoming more fashionable. Perhaps this is the opportunity to try something new in a city that has supported and adopted so many foreign foods for so long. For example: fermented herring, known as Surströmming. We’re told that, despite the terrible smell, it does actually taste good.

Scandinavian Kitchen

There are a number of well-renowned restaurants such as the Scandinavian Kitchen, just off Oxford Street, which has traditional dishes like a Smörgåsbord - a selection of different dishes.

“They do good coffee too, and there’s a mini Scandinavian supermarket at the back so you can get your Brunost or your Knäckebröd,” a Swedish-loving friend tells me.

Scandinavian Kitchen has seen a huge increase in British custom in the six years since it opened.

“Most of our customers are British,” says chef Marta Adelsoen.

“During the week about 80% are British and we’ve started doing a lot of catering for non-Scandinavian people.”

Another fantastically popular hangout is Broderna Olsson, a garlic restaurant in Soho which also has a menu of 101 shots.

Plus, if any further confirmation was needed about the sudden interest in Nordic food, on Sunday nights Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall can be seen cavorting round Sweden, Denmark and Norway in typically virtuous and wholesome style on Channel 4’s Scandimania.

5. Design

On the whole, Nordic food is simple, much like the home and furniture designs we’re used to from the region. This could be another reason it appeals to us so much, says Stougaard-Nielsen.

“It’s about simplicity, which goes against all the disorder of the recession where everything is complicated and people think policies are on the wrong track,” he says. “Danish, and Scandinavian design in general, is about simplicity and functionalism. It looks good and is ordered.”

This applies to all aspects of design, too. In late November, the Knightsbridge Harvey Nichols introduced Norwegian Rain – a coat brand made by a bespoke tailor and business graduate duo from Norway.

The brand’s popularity is down to the combination of classic Scandinavian design and functionality - the garments look great but are also waterproof and highly durable.

Scandinavian hotspots in London

·         The Harcourt Arms, W1 – a well-known Swedish pub and somewhere to watch Swedish sports like ice hockey

·         Nordic Bar, W1 – a ping pong table bedecked bar which is showing the Winter Olympics on three screens

·         Den Norske Klub, SW1 – an upmarket social club formed in 1887, which gathers London’s Norwegian community together

·         The Scandinavian Kitchen, W1 – a café and shop with traditional and modern Swedish food

·         Broderna Olsson, W1 – “No dishes are served without garlic. You can always order extra garlic, but never less,” according the Olsson brothers, who created the restaurant

·         Fika, E1 – a cheap, hip Swedish café on Brick Lane

Obsessed? Here are three ways to indulge your Scandimania in London:

Language

What is possibly the most surprising is that the Scandivanian trend appears to be more than just a short-term fad.

Language schools are reporting an upturn in Brits wanting to learn Nordic languages, suggesting they’re prepared to commit more to soaking up the culture than simply eating meatballs and wearing Faroese pattern jumpers.

In fact, admissions to Danish courses at the University of Westminster have increased five-fold over the last three years.

Events

Those wanting to practise their Scandi languages might have missed Nordicana, but can still take advantage of their skills on 17 May at Norwegian Constitution Day – Norway’s national celebration which involves a parade in Southwark Park. Everyone is welcome to join in - but dress smartly, as Norwegians wear suits to honour the day.

After that, there’s midsummer, with a lot of events likely to take place across the capital. Where Brits don’t typically celebrate midsummer, Nordic countries have a long-held tradition of commemorating the longest day of the year. There are often bonfires, picnics and general merriment taking place around the city between 21 and 24 June.

Fiction

But if you’re a Scandophile waiting for your next fiction fix, Stougaard-Nielsen tips Danish TV series The Legacy as a future hit over here. “But I’ve been wrong about these things before,” he admits.

The series is about four siblings who have to divide up their mother’s estate, with the secrets and lies thrown in. Sounds right up our street.

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