How do you go about making a home?
Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about the gradual process by which a place shrugs off its aura of newness and unfamiliarity and starts to become home. The repetitive performance of micro-rituals that, step by step, wear down the strangeness of a place and cosset it in the comforting blanket of domesticity and belonging. When do you stop being a tourist and start becoming a citizen? When does house become home? How do you stop staying in a place and start living there?
When I moved to Aarhus six weeks ago, I never left the house without a map in my pocket and my phone on full battery in case I got lost in one of the many labyrinthine alleyways of the city’s atmospheric Latin Quarter. I wandered around wide-eyed in a slight alien daze, apologising awkwardly at every turn for my inability to speak Danish, trying to get my bearings (the advantage of living in an apartment by the sea is that it’s fairly easy to locate if you just keep following the blue horizon). Scandinavia is not so dramatically different from the UK, particularly Denmark which, despite what all of my friends back home seem to believe, is not exactly the wilds of Norway. There are no mountains, winters are about as severe as those in Glasgow and you do not need to wear ski gear to leave the house. However, in many ways this absence of total culture shock is even more disorientating. You can be lulled into a sense of false security, believing that you are pacing the rainy cobbles of a crowded street in England, but then suddenly you spy the segregated cycle lanes, the ubiquitous Fjällräven backpacks or a cafe with a collection of sleeping babies in prams outside and you realise you are definitely ‘somewhere else’.
It got me thinking about the different ways we nest, the different things we prioritise when we find ourselves thrust into a strange place and have to figure out how to swim rather than sink. Six weeks on, I couldn’t for the life of me name any of the good bars in the city centre, advise you on any of the local museum exhibitions, or tell you where you could buy the latest Scandi fashion. But I could tell you about the local Turkish grocer who sells gigantic blocks of feta for only 20 kroner, or advise you where to buy tofu and Thai basil in the city centre, or have an opinion on the best bakery to visit for kanelsnurre (cinnamon buns), and where to go if you don’t want to pay 45 kroner (around £6) for a pot of tea.
And I could tell you how to ask, in Danish, for two kilos of quinces.
For me, food has been the vessel by which I navigated a somewhat tempestuous transition to a new country. Financial uncertainty, homesickness and the fragmentation of a long-term relationship have left me feeling very much adrift at times, unsure of quite how I ended up in this steely corner of Scandinavia and what to do next. Gradually, by a series of small steps, I realise I have started to put roots down – delicate, tangled ones they may be, but they are there nonetheless.
I started stocking my cupboards with rye flour and sunflower seeds. Eating cinnamon buns. Making Saturday morning trips down to the harbour where my local fishmonger, a mecca of piscine activity, sells hot-from-the-fryer fish frikadeller and every sea creature you could imagine, ready for the pot. Swapping lifeless bags of dried yeast granules for creamy, beery blocks of the fresh stuff that are sold as standard in any Danish supermarket (a Danish friend of mine expressed her confusion that British recipes sometimes call specifically for ‘fresh yeast’ – “surely all yeast is fresh?”). Scouting out the cheapest places for tropical fruit, Middle Eastern spices and soba noodles. Sampling crisp local apples at the farmers’ market. Snacking on homemade smørrebrød. Experimenting with cooking the Danes’ favourite pumpkin variety, a squat, vivid orange specimen they call ‘Hokkaido’. Learning Danish as much by asking for decorative autumn squash in the market as from weekly evening classes.
A couple of weeks after moving my life across Europe, I was standing at the small organic fruit and vegetable stall that frequents the cathedral square every Saturday, eyeing crates of beetroot in all shades of gold and fuchsia, springy crowns of kale and russet pears when my gaze alighted on a wooden box of quinces. I nearly mistook them for apples at first; far smaller than the Middle Eastern whoppers I’m used to buying back in the UK, these quinces were small enough to cup in your palm, patchy with downy fuzz, tinged with gold and green. They were just a box of fruit, but to me they were treasure, a reassurance that this strange land of Lego, knitwear and Nordic noir could yet provide me with my kitchen comforts, that I would be able to surround myself with tastes of home after all, to make every day a little more familiar through some bustling around with pots and pans and the knives I carried all the way from the UK in the back of a van, and which I feared would be confiscated from me at every border crossing. The Danes would have you believe that all you need to make a place home is a little hygge and perhaps a few scented candles. For me, I apparently needed quinces.
The Danish for quince is kvæde, a fiendish word that combines all of the stumbling blocks of Danish pronunciation: the unusual vowels that don’t exist in English; consonants that you wouldn’t expect to find together; the dreaded ‘soft d’, somewhere between an English ‘L’ and ‘th’ and which takes a lot of practice to master. When I first found those quinces, I spent several days repeating the word to myself as I cycled to work and back, gradually starting to feel less like I had fallen into a book of tongue twisters and instead enjoying the way it began to trip off the tongue with ease. At first, the market vendors looked at me in puzzlement when I attempted to ask for their quinces in Danish; several weeks later, they don’t bat an eyelid and start to fill up the bag for me.
Some of those quinces became a cake, a Sunday morning experiment in efterårsmad (autumn food). Caramelised in butter and sugar to bring out their perfume and slight lemon sharpness, they formed the golden topping of an upside-down cake rich with spice, dark brown sugar, orange zest and olive oil. An olive oil cake makes sense with quinces, nodding to their Mediterranean and Middle Eastern origins, while the spices, orange and dark brown sugar evoke more European cakes and gingerbreads. The sponge is moist and warm with spice, molten and sweet on top where the caramel has soaked into the crumb. The quinces are knife-point tender, alive with perfume and musky sweetness, and the whole thing glows with the burnished hues of autumn. When transforming a place into home, there are few methods more effective than baking a cake.
I’ve started buying a kilo or two of quinces from that market stall every Saturday, hoarding them in the bottom of my fridge as insurance against the dreaded moment in the future where quinces are no longer in season and these perfumed fruit disappear from my recipe repertoire for another year. Perhaps it is the desperate action of a homesick Brit trying frantically to build a nest in this country of bacon and strange vowels, accumulating in quinces what she lacks in emotional and social stability. But it seems to be working. Small steps, like I said.
Quince, olive oil and spice upside-down cake (serves 8):
- 1kg quinces
- 150g golden caster sugar
- 4 tbsp water
- 50g butter
- 150g plain flour
- 150g spelt flour
- 2 tsp ground ginger
- 1 tsp mixed spice
- 1 tsp ground cardamom
- 1 tsp baking powder
- Pinch of salt
- 3 large eggs
- 100g light or dark brown sugar
- 1 tsp vanilla paste
- 1 tsp orange extract (or zest of 1 orange)
- 120ml rapeseed or olive oil
- 120ml Greek yoghurt
Put the caster sugar and water in a large frying pan and heat gently, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Increase the heat and bubble for 5-10 minutes until you have an amber caramel. Don’t stir – just swirl the pan to ensure it cooks evenly. Take off the heat and add the butter. Stir into the caramel until it melts and becomes golden.
Peel, quarter and core the quinces, then cut into 2cm thick slices. Add these to the caramel and cook for 5-10 minutes. The caramel will solidify when the quinces go in but don’t worry, it will loosen up as they start to release their juice. Flip the quince pieces over and cook for another 5-10 minutes, or until they are tender.
Grease a 20cm cake tin. Remove the quince pieces from the caramel with a fork or slotted spoon and arrange the quince slices in the bottom of the tin (you can attempt to do this neatly in a pinwheel pattern, as I did, or just at random). Return the caramel to the heat and simmer for a few minutes until thickened and syrupy, then pour over the quinces.
Pre-heat the oven to 170C. Combine the flours, spices, baking powder and salt in a small bowl. Using an electric mixer or hand whisk, beat together the eggs and brown sugar until pale and increased in volume. Beat in the vanilla, orange, oil and yoghurt until you have a smooth batter. Fold in the flour mixture and combine.
Spoon the batter over the quinces in the tin and level the top with a spatula. Bake the cake for 40 minutes, or until a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean. Put an oven tray under the cake in the oven to catch any caramel drips.
Remove the cake from the oven, allow to cool for a few minutes then invert onto a plate. Serve warm, preferably with a scoop of thick yoghurt or ice cream (I like ginger ice cream with this).