For two years I lived in a small town near Brussels, Belgium, and seeking to make friends, I joined an international cooking club. There were twelve members, and we were each assigned a month where we hosted the entire group for lunch, with foods from our own culture. Each month was new and exciting, learning about the cuisines of the places represented by our membership.
I have very fond memories of the month when we lunched at the home of our Danish member. I had been to Copenhagen as a high school student, but my memories of those few hours in the capital were mostly of the Hotel Lawrence, a ship converted into a floating hotel, and of course, the Little Mermaid, where we all posed in the bright summer sun for photos with her.
My Danish luncheon however, was something I won’t soon forget. Bright, airy, and minimalist in decor, her home was a respite from the loud city noises and busy traffic. Lightly stained and highly polished wood furniture was softened by flickering candles and plush cushions. Her dining room had been stripped of chairs, anchored solely by a long teak table, unadorned but completely covered with platters of food—my first experience with a true smorgasbord.
After a brief welcome and a toast to our ongoing friendships, she instructed us in how to build the perfect open-faced sandwich of brown bread, soft sweet butter, pickled herring, and a topping of dill-specked cream. It is almost as though I can still taste it, nearly twenty years later: the contrast of textures, the brinieness of the herring, the sweetness of the butter and the cream, accentuated and brightened by lemon and dill.
If you’ve read any of my essays here on my website you know I was born and raised in southeast Louisiana, and I know a thing or two about seafood. There is nothing that comes from the water that I don’t love, but this was my first taste of pickled herring…and I adored it. When teaching the book Number the Stars by Lois Lowry set in Denmark to my 6th grade literature class one year, I talked so much about that little open-faced sandwich that I had to make good on a promise to bring in brown bread and pickled herring for them all to try.
In 2003, I had never heard of the concept of hygge, although now it is so prevalent in pop culture it made its way to a Jeopardy clue on a recent episode. When I saw the title The Hygge Holiday listed on Amazon’s Kindle deals, I decided it was just the thing that would drag me out of a reading slump, and boy, was I right.
This quick read by Rosie Blake is a delightful example of how hygge worked to bring a dilapidated Suffolk village back to life, resuscitating even the recalcitrant son of the gypsy toy store owner who has left her flat and toy store in the capable and creative hands of Danish wanderer Clara. How and why Clara has ended up in a tiny village in Suffolk slowly unfurls as the story tightens around her relationship with the villagers and London financier Joe, Louisa’s son.
While the plot and much of the story line is well-known, the beauty of this book is the deft balance of humor and loss. Blake’s writing really shines in her dialogue, both dialogue between Clara and Joe as well as their individual internal dialogue.
While most British literature leaves me gasping for a cuppa’ tea, this charming novel left me reminiscing about that small open-faced sandwich of pickled herring on brown bread!