Where to Enjoy the Mania for Nordic Things, From Herring to Hygge
The Scandinavians and Finns approach life itself as a design challenge, demonstrating a quiet confidence in cuisine and a knack for the industrial arts. Get a taste of the Nordic advantage in Toronto, New York and Quebec
Imagine yourself curled up next to a fire, wrapped in a humble but tasteful sweater, picking up a cup of hot beverage off the tastefully simple coffee table so you can blow off the steam and raise a toast to staying indoors.
Congratulations, your daydreams are now on trend.
Visit any bookstore and you’ll be instructed further – seek out any book with the word “hygge” on the cover. You could fill an Ikea bookshelf with the stack of recent volumes dedicated to translating the Danish word and concept into English. When it’s portrayed for anglo consumption, hygge (pronounced “hoog-uh”) is generally about cosying up by candlelight and sharing a bite and drink with one’s loved ones in a spirit of warm conviviality. It’s a quintessentially analog activity; an antidote for the digital distractions of our darkening days.
Meanwhile, the Nordic peoples are taken as experts beyond their usual purviews of meatballs, gløgg and stacking pillows and blankets in an apparent bid to keep the kids from tearing their cableknit sweaters on the decorative antlers. It has become fashionable to call upon Northern European wisdom in the quest for perfect happiness, design, parenting, coffee breaks, and, well – everything, really.
The common thread stitching together all these (allegedly dubious) fantasies – or should we say the common yarn spun from Norwegian heritage breed sheep’s wool – is the hope of co-opting the Nordics’ supposed harmonious and elegant home life. And when we absolutely must leave the house, we can aspire to at least finding the wisdom to seek out moments of peaceful solemnity. It’s all about clean lines and quiet times.
Interest in all things Nordic is a worldwide phenomenon – there’s a popup for famed Cophenhagen restaurant Noma planned for Tulum, Mexico next year, to give one example of the reach of Scandinavian soft power. Yet Canada seems especially suited to embracing the hygge. The climates of Canada and Scandinavia bear a blustery similarity; the shared tendency toward social democratic politics suggests a foundation for deeper cultural exchange; and meanwhile, there are enough random traits in common (high alcohol prices, social taboos against bragging, a taste for salmon) to add up to more than just a passing resemblance between the regions.
Heck, the hygge ritual, especially if you mispronounce it as “hoogie,” suddenly sounds right at home in the land of pogey, hockey and Dougies. And frankly a positive attitude toward autumn and winter activities is desperately needed in a country that mostly complains through the cold months instead of enjoying what scant charms they offer.
The Midwestern and Northeastern United States can sympathize with a lot of that, too. So it’s simply logical that there are plenty of spots around Eastern North America where you can get your hygge on. Below are some of Billy’s suggestions on where to get started. In New York and Toronto it’s Nordic food and the aesthetic that you’re most likely to encounter first, while in the Ottawa-Montreal-Quebec corridor, Scandinavian-style spas are all the rage.
Scandinavian stops in New York
If you can’t get too hygge you can at least fika. To hear certain Northern Europeans tell it, the coffee break is sacrosanct across the region – not only in the Nordic countries, but in the Baltics as well. Taking a break with coffee (normally brewed) and a little treat, such as a tart or savoury-sweet biscuit, serves as the excuse for a moment of zen. The Swedish – and now English – word for this ritual is “fika,” and it functions not only as a noun, but also as a verb, as in: “Shall we fika?”
In 2006, Swedish-born entrepreneur Lars Åkerlund decided Americans had to learn how to slow down and make the afternoon coffee-and-baked goods break a highlight of their day. He even persuaded them that $4 is a reasonable price to pay for the coffee. From an original location near the south end of Central Park on Sixth Avenue, the Fika café empire has expanded to 17 (!) locations – all in Manhattan. A Swedish vibe is evoked by white walls and fruit-coloured chairs. If you’re bringing home souvenirs for loved ones, consider the beautiful bonbons.
Is the inner peace of the fika possible even amidst the bustle of Manhattan’s Grand Central Station? See for yourself by visiting the Great Northern Food Hall. Opened in spring 2016, it represents restaurateur Claus Meyer’s bid to inject some Danish culture into New York. A sort of food court designed for adult tastes and concerns, the 5,000-square foot area is billed as “a place to rewind, to come together over a bite, a drink or a coffee, to observe the Grand Central pulse.”
Adam McDowell / Billy
Not all the food is Nordic – indeed there’s enough of a focus on local products that even the beer is American – but where’s the fun in eating something off-theme? We filled up on the Open Rye stall’s smørrebrod, which are open-faced sandwiches on thick slabs of rye bread with colourfully wholesome-looking toppings. Herring with cream cheese, radish and caper was tangy and not too salty, while chicken liver with cucumber and tiny blueberries came off earthy and wholesome.
And wouldn’t you know? It really does feel relaxing to chase lunch with a coffee and watch all those suckers stress-hustling through the ornate environs of Grand Central.
Just a few blocks away on Park Avenue, Scandinavia House bills itself as the centre of Scandinavian culture in America. There’s a mid-price sit-down Nordic restaurant called Smörgås Chef (come for the meatballs, stay for the selection of beers imported from the region) and twin gift shops (mostly housewares and personal accessories and snacks – it would be nice if they carried more high-end design items). One gets the sense the main attraction here is the cultural programming. Scandinavia House offers a mix of art exhibitions, kids’ activities and language classes for adults, which are part of a partnership with New York University (NYU).
Adam McDowell / Billy
Toronto’s Stockholm syndrome
Despite not having an especially large Nordic population – you’re better off heading to Northern Ontario or the Midwestern U.S. for that – the Nordic moment is especially vibrant in Canada’s biggest city (where, after all, City Hall itself is a fine example of Finnish architecture).
There’s no question a store called Mjölk can claim a lot of responsibility for pushing the aesthetic forward. Since opening in 2009, the shop in the trendy Junction neighbourhood (its name means “milk” in Swedish and is pronounced “myelk”) has become a destination for devotees for the solemn beauty of handmade Northern European (and Japanese) housewares and furnishings – everything from couches to candlesticks. Items from other countries – Italy and Canada, for example – are welcome, too, if they exhibit a sufficiently elegant vibe and come out of a workshop as opposed to a sweatshop.
As well as running the store, owners John Baker and Juli Daoust Baker serve as curators of sorts: The store publishes its own little magazine, and Mjölk hosts events and showcases of particular artisans (and yes, the stuff is for sale). At the time of writing, for example, the ceramics of Quebec’s Renaud Sauvé are on display. It’s not Nordic but you could be fooled.
The Gardiner Museum borrowed some items from Mjölk for its current feature exhibition, True Nordic. The show explores the influence of Northern European design on Canadian domestic objects since the 1930s. It’s eye-opening to discover how many influential Canadian furniture and ceramic and artists worked on their technique over there – Walter Dexter studied in Sweden, for example, while Ruth Gowdy McKinley spent a spell in Finland.
The Nordic-to-Canuck cultural transmission was especially strong in the mid-20th century, and again in our time, giving rise to room design that combines elegantly geometric furniture with earthily organic woollens, art and ceramics – the look will be familiar to anyone who’s visited more than a few Canadian homes.
On the way from Mjölk to the Gardiner Museum, stop in at Karelia Kitchen, where neighbourhood denizens jam the place to the blond wood rafters to enjoy Northern European cuisine; specialties of the house include potato pancakes and smoked fish. If it’s weekend brunch you’re after, reservations are a must – and whether or not you score a table, take something home from the smokehouse counter. Karelia smokes not only trout and other fish, but also pork, poultry and cheese.
Meanwhile, if you’re swinging through Kensington Market, Bungalow offers a rotating selection of second-hand Scandinavian and Scandinavian-influenced furnishings and housewares from the 20th century, while cosy little café Fika (no relation to the New York chain) provides precisely what the name suggests.
Quebec Nordiques – spas, not hockey
Nordic-style spas – where guests alternate between hot and cold settings over a period of hours in a bid to achieve optimal relaxation – are big in Quebec, a region with a depth of expertise in dealing with winter, to a degree that rivals Scandinavia itself.
At the Nordique Spa Mont Ste-Anne, some 30 to 45 minutes east of Quebec City in the little town of St-Férréol-les-Neiges, you can live the après ski lifestyle without having to bother with the skiing part. Start with a steam, take a dip in the river or Nordic bath, soak in the outdoor hot tubs, then don your robe and settle into one of the many relaxation areas on the property. Round out your visit by partaking in any number of body treatments on offer (couples massage, anyone?). In addition to a bathing suit and water bottle, don't forget flip flops. They're required, and pricey to purchase on site.
Spa Nordique Mont Ste-Anne
On the other side of the province Nordik Spa-Nature, near Ottawa, makes for quite a trip – in the sense that it feels trippy. The property features the usual Nordic spa stuff (thermal baths and saunas), and we had a lovely time nibbling on light snacks while just hanging around in bliss in our bathrobes, dipping in and out of hot and cold spaces. The highlight, however, had to be the Källa treatment room. That’s a pool filled with Epsom salt to a point of 12% salinity to create a sensation of weightlessness – and you share it with other people, floating along and trying not to bob into the path of the other blissed-out souls. Add in the eerie blue light, and the experience can feel like a rave with no music.
And step outside again and you find yourself in an absolutely serene forest setting. If the ideal of the perfect Nordic-style life remains an unattainable dream, at least moments like that can give us a glimpse of its realization.