Unless you have been living under a rock, you have no doubt heard about hygge (pronounced hoo-guh), that glorious Danish concept that has spawned a dozen books and countless articles on “how to hygge”, not to mention several think pieces. The word even made an appearance in Collins Dictionary’s list of 10 words of the year 2016, and was on the Oxford Dictionaries’ 2016 “word of the year” shortlist.
As with many Scandinavian words, hygge is not easy to translate into English. It is the Danish culture of creating a cosy, convivial atmosphere that promotes a feeling of wellbeing. “Hygge, our new claim to fame,” laughs Andrea Bak, a food and travel writer based in Copenhagen. I met Bak on an earlier trip to Ireland, and I catch up with her in Copenhagen to understand what hygge means to her. We meet at Laura’s Bakery at Torvehallerne, Copenhagen’s cool food market with more than 60 stands selling everything from fresh produce to fish and meat, as well as cheese, spices, coffee and more. There are small restaurants and cafes, and a profusion of dessert shops (they have a raging sweet tooth here).
The Danes are considered to be the happiest people in the world and their hygge culture has a lot to do with it. It likely originated as a counter to the long, harsh winters in Denmark, and it’s all about creating a feel-good atmosphere with intimate settings, incandescent lighting (candles are very important for achieving hygge), comfort food (in moderation, gluttony has no place in hygge), and having family and friends around you. “Hygge is not something I think a lot about, but it means a lot. It means having a home with comfy furniture, dimmed lights and candles, and good food and drink. Hygge is not possible without, at least, a cup of coffee and some sweets; in fact, many Danes have a kitchen cupboard or fridge stocked with sweets and cookies, and we bring out ‘the goods’ when we want hygge,” explains Bak. And, as if on cue, the waitress brings us our coffee and carrot cake.
My real brush with hygge comes at the restaurant Nyhanvs Færgekro, on the ground floor of a townhouse with a cornflower blue façade on Copenhagen’s picturesque 17th-century Nyhavn (pronounced nu-haun, meaning New Harbour) waterfront. The townhouse stands cheek by jowl with other brightly painted 16th and 17th century townhouses facing the canal. Several sailboats and historical wooden ships bob on the canal. In summer, all the waterfront restaurants have al fresco seating, but I was in Copenhagen at the fag end of summer when the skies were grey and temperatures dipping. And I could do with some hygge.
Nyhanvs Færgekro is an atmospheric restaurant, with warm toned interiors, candlelit seating and a roaring fireplace. The restaurant is known for its specialty aquavits, a potent spirit (40 per cent alcohol by volume) flavoured with spices and herbs, which is an important part of the Scandinavian drinking culture. It is drunk as an aperitif and is also a celebratory drink often consumed at weddings or at Christmas. Nyhanvs Færgekro serves 20 different varieties of aquavit made from local berries and herbs. The waitresses are dressed in the traditional Danish costume of a long printed dress with an embroidered apron tied around the waist. One of them brings out a selection of aquavits in a cane basket. There are flavours such as sweet woodruff, yarrow, and St John’s wort; I choose hyben or rose hip, a pale golden liquid that the waitress pours into a tulip-shaped shot glass. I take an exploratory sip — it’s bittersweet with the faintest hint of star anise and caraway — and a pleasant warmth washes over me.
Sitting around a candlelit table, clinking glasses with strangers in a restaurant buzzing with conversation, laughter, and cries of “skål” (Danish for ‘cheers’), I can see how hygge is a part of the Danish national character.