The secret’s out. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has come out of the Europop closet as an Abba fan.
Aged nine, he spent hours by the radio – finger hovering over the record button – because he wanted Money, Money, Money to be the opening track on his first compilation tape.
It’s hard to imagine it had much airtime in his dormitory at Eton – where he was a year above David Cameron – but now he’s out and proud.
So in the first, Swedish, instalment of Scandimania last week (catch it on 4oD), we saw him shimmying up to the microphone at the Abba museum in Stockholm: “I work all night, I work all day…” His performance is dreadful – more embarrassing dad than Eurovision – but at least he has the good grace to admit it.
The River Cottage chef enjoyed a different taste of Scandinavia a couple of years ago: dishing up “New Nordic” cuisine (as it’s been dubbed) at a food festival in Copenhagen. Just as The Killing, Borgen and The Bridge have enthralled British viewers, New Nordic fare has had gastronomes the world over in raptures – the Copenhagen restaurant Noma was rated the best in the world in 2012 (it was number two last year). Hugh is one of those smitten – the emphasis on locally sourced, seasonal and foraged ingredients is right up his street – but it wasn’t only the cooking that made him want to explore northernmost Europe further.
“Chefs are normally a very competitive bunch. They like to put one over on their rivals and be the best. Yet instead of spawning a great Scandinavian rivalry, they all really support each other and share in each other’s success. There’s definitely something in the water in Scandinavia.”
As well as tasting the region’s culinary offerings, including the malodorous Swedish fermented herring delicacy surstromming – “I won’t be rushing back for that!” – his new series attempts to work out why Sweden, Denmark and Norway are consistently voted the happiest countries in the world. “They’re always in the top five. Denmark currently has the number one spot,” he says.
One of the main reasons they’re happier, Hugh reckons, is the amount of tax they pay. “In Denmark, people on even moderate salaries are paying 50 per cent-plus in tax, and yet they’re happy to do so. There is pretty much consensus throughout these countries that they believe in the state, they believe in society. That’s something that many of our politicians are constantly asking us to question.”
On his travels he’s seen the benefits of higher taxes. “It’s hard not to be enthusiastic about the Scandinavian model, because you see a self- confidence in these countries and a social cohesion that we lack.”
One of the things Sweden’s strong welfare state has given birth to is “latte papas”: father- hood’s equivalent of the yummy mummy. The government pays either parent 80 per cent of their salary for up to 14 months and so four out of five Swedish fathers take at least four months’ paid leave to look after their children. Hugh meets three “latte papas” – bonny toddlers in tow – and asks if they change as many nappies as the mothers.
“More,” says one. “She would let me know if I didn’t,” adds another. Hugh’s clearly taken with this arrangement. Like most British fathers, he managed a few weeks off at best when his own children Oscar, Freddy and Louisa were born (he also has an adopted daughter, Chloe). “The idea that this is encouraged and nurtured by the state I find genuinely impressive. I can’t see a downside to that.
“We know that it’s been a battle for women in the UK and most European countries to fight for their rights, to get those opportunities. That battle was won some time ago in Scandinavian countries: men and women are close to having equal rights in the workplace.”
It’s not all fine food, happy families and hot tubs. Scandimania also touches on the uglier side of life probed in The Killing and The Bridge. “They’ve got this dark side to them. So you wonder about these nations that are supposedly the happiest countries on the planet – what is this dark side they can’t resist exploring in their drama?”
In Stockholm, for example, he visits the immigrant community where riots broke out in May last year – to the shock of the rest of the nation. “We’ve had race relations issues in the UK but they’ve been out in the open and debated, whereas Sweden has only just begun to get to grips with multiculturalism.”
What’s more, the celebrated Swedish model – with its promise of equality and prosperity for all – seems to be failing: Sweden has the fastest-growing gap between rich and poor of any developed country. And then there’s the paradox that parts of Scandinavia have exceedingly high suicide rates.
“You wonder – is that the flipside of happiness? If you’re an unhappy person in a happy country, will you feel worse than if you’re a moderately miserable person in a mildly depressed country?”
While Hugh doesn’t pretend to have the answers, he’s clearly relished getting to grips with these chewy matters – and they haven’t curbed his appetite. “I don’t think I’m about to emigrate to Scandinavia, but one thing is for sure: I’ll be visiting all of these countries quite a bit in the future, with my family. I want to continue to expose myself to these slightly different approaches to life and see what rubs off. I’d go to Denmark for the food and Norway for the landscape, and Sweden’s got a great sense of history and culture about it. I’m definitely heading back.”
And what aspect of Scandinavian life would he most like us to know about at home? “They’re got a really good sense of throwing a party and welcoming everybody. There’s a communal hospitality across the three countries I visited that I absolutely loved. They’re friendly and very, very happy to share the best of what they’ve got with you.”