Julia Wakeham

19th February 2015

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Alan O’Connor

19th February 2015

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Alan O’Connor

Julia Wakeham is a South African designer and video-maker living in Dublin. She was born in Cape Town and moved around a lot as a child but her strongest connection has always been with Norway, where her mother is from. Every year, the family would travel to visit Julia’s grandparents in Finnskogen1, a remote, densely forested area northeast of Oslo, on the border with Sweden. Julia would spend the month picking berries, fishing in the lake and helping her grandmother bake traditional cakes and biscuits to go with their afternoon coffee.

These childhood holidays made a huge impression on her and she continues to make pilgrimages to Norway as an adult. Every summer, Julia and her husband join her mother in the little wooden cottage in the forest where her grandparents lived. It’s a retreat from the intensity of city life, a time to slow down and focus on important questions such as “What’s for dinner?” and “Should we have a gin and tonic?”

Food was always central to her Norwegian experience. “Every day of my stays there as a child would be marked by what we ate – I wouldn’t think back on where we went or what we did but whether we had meatballs that day.” It’s no different now: she still spends her time fishing, picking berries and making elaborate things in the kitchen. Last summer, her husband Alan spent two weeks documenting Julia’s life in Finnskogen and he has kindly agreed to share his photographs and a video with us. We caught up with Julia after the trip2 to talk about foraging, 6pm cake feasts and how her grandparents’ house is like a time machine.

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How long have you been making trips to Norway?

All my life. I went for the first time when I was three months old. When I was really young we’d go to stay with my grandparents twice a year. Later, when we moved back to Cape Town, it would be once a year during the European summer – it was important for my mum to maintain that connection with her family. I grew up speaking Norwegian because my grandparents didn’t speak English.

Did you enjoy these trips?

I absolutely loved them. For a kid growing up in the city, the forests of Norway are so different to Cape Town – I don’t think you could get more different. My grandparents’ house is pretty remote: the nearest shop is half an hour’s drive away. I know that house better than anywhere in the world. I can tell you where every stone in the garden is.

Was it their summer house?

No, it’s where they lived3. My grandfather was a lumberjack and a warden of the forest – he would look out for fires and that sort of thing. His company built the house for them in 1948 but they never actually owned it.

What did you get up to on these trips?

A lot of foraging. As far back as I can remember, I’d be going out berry-picking in the forest with my grandmother. I loved that. In the evening I’d crush the berries – that was always my job – and we’d have them with sugar and cream for dessert. She would take me fishing as well. We’d go out on the lake in her row-boat and catch little fresh-water fish – perch and trout. As a kid I thrived on it, being outdoors all the time. It’s a really wonderful way to spend a month when you’re that age.

And it must have given you an appreciation of where food comes from.

Oh hugely. Something as simple as scrambled eggs would be a big deal for me, because I’d get to go and cut the chives in the garden and snip them into the mix.

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Were your grandparents self-sufficient?

Back when my mum was a kid, they would have been. They had pigs and chickens, so there’d be eggs and meat. My grandmother would make sausages and cure meats for the winter – she used to make meatballs and preserve them in jars, the way you’d do with jam. There was a farm down the road where there were cows, so she would trade eggs for milk. And they grew their own vegetables at home, so yeah they would have been pretty much self-sufficient.

Are either of your grandparents still alive?

No, unfortunately not.

But you continued to visit after they passed away.

Oh definitely. We own the house now – we finally managed to buy it in 2006 – and I’ll try and go for a couple of weeks whenever I can.

Of course, now you’re the one in charge of the kitchen.

Yeah, and it’s funny because when I’m there I like to eat the kind of food my grandmother used to cook. It’s not something I cook a lot at home – it can be quite rich and a bit of a faff – but when we go to Norway it’s like, right, here’s a list of things that I need to eat while we’re here.

What’s top of the list?

When we used to come from Cape Town it would take 24 hours door-to-door and I’d be so exhausted, but I knew that when we arrived my favourite meatballs with potatoes, cucumber salad and my grandmother’s gravy would be waiting for me. It was the same every year.

I was going to ask about your ultimate comfort food. Is that it?

That would be it, definitely. Meatballs, potatoes, gravy, cucumber salad. That’s it for sure.

Aside from your Norway experiences, was food important to you growing up?

Of course. I remember going mussel picking with my dad in Cape Town. And when the fruit and veg guy came by in his little broken-down van, I was always interested in what he was selling. I started to cook for myself when I was 15 because I wanted to eat different things. But it would have started with my grandmother, learning to cook with her.

So she’s at the root of it all.

Oh yeah, very much so. There are pictures of me sitting with a mixing bowl when my grandmother was baking. I had my own little baby rolling pin and I’d be making bread and rolls and things with her. She was such a vivacious person and she always said she would have loved to cook professionally. She took great pride in seeing that we really enjoyed what we ate.

It was 24 hours from Cape Town, but I knew my favourite meatballs with potatoes, cucumber salad and my grandmother’s gravy would be waiting for me when we arrived

That’s something I’ve definitely gotten from her, a strong appreciation of food. We are in the process of putting together a cookbook to document my grandmother’s recipes and create a record of the things we used to eat. People aren’t cooking this way very much any more.

Do you cook a lot at home in Ireland?

Pretty much every day. We’re quite busy at the moment so I’ve started to cook for the freezer. I’ll spend one full day on a Sunday cooking – trays and trays of moussaka, aubergine parmigiana, soups and all sorts of things. By the end of it I’m wrecked. It’s like I’ve done a shift in a restaurant.

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When you go to Norway as an adult, do you still go berry-picking?

Oh yes. My mum usually arrives before us so she’s had a chance to scope out where the best berries are. Over the course of a few weeks, you can see certain things starting to ripen and certain things tailing off, and that’s really nice. Blueberry season ends, then cranberry season picks up. Norwegians tend to forage quite a bit, it’s part of the culture. A lot of the jams you buy in shops are made with foraged berries.

What else do you get up to?

I have a thing for vintage homeware. There have been a lot of second-hand shops sprouting up around the towns because people like my grandparents are moving out of forest houses into old-age homes, so there’s a lot of vintage stuff for sale. It’s fun for me to go and have a nose around and see what there is in terms of lovely old crockery and beautiful glassware, embroidery and woodwork, and give them a new home.

We’ve kept the wood-burning stove. I always think of it as the heartbeat of the house

Do you bring them back to Ireland?

Unfortunately, yes. I always have the craziest luggage. I brought a chair home on the plane, and a wooden cabinet, and cake platters. My husband always says, “There’s no way we can take that home with us”, and I’m like, “Whatever, leave it to me, I’ll get it back”. It’s funny, my grandmother had a thing about curtains, crockery and pretty glassware. I must have gotten that from her as well.

Are you keeping your grandparents’ house the way it is?

We’re fixing it up bit by bit – you don’t want it to be a museum. At the same time, there are so many things that will always stay the same. We’ve decided that we’ll never paint the hall because it’s this funny mustard yellow colour and the crazy retro orange kitchen cabinets will never go.

On The Menu

A typical cake and biscuit spread that Julia’s grandmother would have served with coffee
every day at 6pm

To eat:

Krumkaker »
Sandkaker (crushed almond biscuit cups – Julia’s favourite)
Wienerbrød (“Vienna bread” or cinnamon pastries)
Smultringer (similar to a doughnut but with a slight lemon flavour and deepfried in lard – Julia’s mother’s favourite)
Serinakaker (vanilla shortbread biscuits)
Vafler (waffles served with strawberry jam and sometimes whipped fresh or soured cream)

To drink:

Strong black coffee

Has the rest of the kitchen been modernised?

Generally the appliances are new. One thing we’ve kept is the wood-burning stove. I always think of it as the heartbeat of the house. My mum usually gets up much earlier than us, so we wake up to the sound of her pottering around and the purring of the house, which is really comforting. I remember one Christmas in Norway, we had a really heavy snowfall and there was a power cut. My grandmother was halfway through cooking the dinner and she had to finish it on the wood-burning stove, which was amazing. It was the last Christmas I had there, it was really something else.

When you go back to your grandparents’ house now, do you feel like you’re slipping into the past?

Oh yes. There’s no television, no phone reception. Life is so busy in the city, but there you get to completely shut off. Instead of cars and phones you get the sound of trees and birds. I love just being quiet, taking time to read and hang out and pick flowers with my mother. My husband has taken up knife-making so he carves when he’s there. We go for walks. It’s a really great time to recharge batteries. And when you come back to the city, it all feels so intense, an assault on the senses, because you’ve been in this quiet place with a really slow pace of life where it’s all about “What’s for dinner?” and “Should we have a gin and tonic?” I can highly recommend it. It’s amazing. You come back a different person.

For more info on Julia and Alan’s work, have a look here

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  1. It means “forest of the Finns”. A lot of Finnish migrants – including Julia’s forebears on her grandfather’s side – settled in this forested part of Norway in the 17th-century
  2. It’s usually our policy to visit the people we interview and spend proper time with them in the kitchen, but we liked Julia’s story and Alan’s photos so much that we decided to make an exception just this once. Hopefully we’ll have a chance to visit them in Finnskogen very soon
  3. Julia’s grandmother grew up on the southwest coast of Norway. She was engaged to a man who was killed in the war – his boat was torpedoed by a U-boat on the way to England. Some time later, she placed a notice in a national magazine. Julia’s grandfather responded and his, Julia says, were the warmest letters. “At the time, he was taking messages across the border to Sweden as part of the resistance, so he said to her, ‘If you don’t hear from me, it’s not that I’m not interested, it’s just that I’ve been taken by the Germans’. He was taken by the Germans but they eventually let him go. After the war he came to see her in the southwest of Norway. Then she came to visit his family in Finnskogen. One night he took her for a boat ride across the lake in the moonlight – the same lake that’s in front of the house – and she said it was at that moment she fell in love with the area and fell in love with him. It’s all very romantic but that’s how the story went.”

Posted 19th February 2015

In Interviews | Video

 

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Alan O’Connor

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