The Sunday Interview: On Gardening, Self-Sufficiency and Life Balance with Karoline Jönsson

Kicka här för hela inlägget på svenska: Söndagsintervjun: om odling, självhushållning och livsbalans med Karoline Jönsson

I remember so well the first time I found my way to Karoline Jönsson’s Instagram account @sjalvhushallningprojektet (The self-sufficiency project), because I immediately felt “that’s how I want to live too”, as I started scrolling through her magical pictures and reading her thoughts on self-sufficiency, countryside living, vegetable growing and the love for nature. We had recently moved to Sweden at the time, and it had dawned upon us rather quickly that we had found our home in more ways than just one, with our little house in the woods and a vegetable garden in the making outside our window. Here we had Karoline and her partner Alex, a couple roughly our age living what seemed to be the dreamiest of dreamy countryside lives on a farm in southern Sweden. Were you really allowed to feel that way? That you simply want to live immersed by serenity with nature as your closest neighbor, far away from city life, hectic careers and expensive habits?

That was a little more than two years ago. Since then, we’ve gotten to know each other through social media on a more personal level, and Karoline has become a person that we both – despite the fact that we’ve never met in real life – like so much. She’s down to earth and very insightful, possesses a tangible integrity and knows the ins and outs of food, gardening, vegetable growing and foraging, and has already published four amazing cookbooks and won Stora matbloggspriset (award for Sweden’s best food blog), even though she practically just turned 30. In February, Karoline’s and Alex’ first child was born, a little boy, and around the very same time, they also bought a total fixer upper of a new farm. She’s a creative soul beyond comparison, and chooses a refreshingly unconventional way through life, where work isn’t everything. Where life itself gets a lot of space and isn’t squeezed into too small of a box. Where freedom and wellbeing are being prioritized, and where the equation is made possible thanks to keeping costs low and living with intention. Welcome to a very inspiring interview, if we may say so ourselves.

If we start out as early as we possibly can: what was your childhood like?

Well, first of all, I grew up in the countryside. The farm where we live now – in other words, the one people have followed us at through @sjalvhushallningsprojektet – is located on the outskirts of the village I grew up in. We actually lived in the old village school, and my parents still live there. So yes, I had a quite lovely childhood with raspberry brambles and currants and walking barefoot and a vegetable garden and all of that – it varied how much my parents were growing but I have some of that with my from my early years for sure. A wonderful upbringing in the countryside, with animals and such.

That sounds rather heavenly. Have you always lived in the countryside, or have you spent some parts of your life in a city?

Almost always, I’ll have to say. I studied in Edinburgh for a semester and I’ve also lived in Lund for about six months – I lived in my brother’s apartment when he was elsewhere – but besides that, it’s been countryside for me. I did move out here to the farm already at 23, so it’s really been most of my life.

When you did move to the farm at the age of 23, did you see yourself staying indefinitely?

No, that wasn’t the plan. It was more of a “layover” type of deal, before I was going to continue on doing all those things you’re supposed to do when you’re young – perhaps move abroad again and things like that – but then I realized that there will always be things that you miss or would like more of – for example having more people around you or more things to do – and I was already feeling like I loved it where I was, and that I already had so much. To just be able to walk out to the garden without having to put makeup on – that was amazing. I started growing vegetables, became a vegetarian, got into cooking big time, started foraging wild plants and realized how incredible it was that I could just go out into the woods and pick free food. I discovered how cool the concepts of growing, natural foods and all of those things were. To be a part of the natural cycles and nature. To actually notice the weather. You start to follow the seasons in a completely different way, and you eat with them too. You can’t go pick elderflowers any other time of the year than those precious weeks in June, and then it’s over. I want to argue I was thrown into the world of plants and growing things in a very emotional and almost religious kind of way. I was allowed to become part of nature, and not just stand to the side and live in an artificial city where everything is so far away from trees and grass and woods. Things were allowed to be more hands-on and for real, compared to the technological world we’ve gotten used to. Today, it’s just so natural that this is where I’m supposed to be.

“I started growing vegetables, became a vegetarian, got into cooking big time, started foraging wild plants and realized how incredible it was that I could just go out into the woods and pick free food.”

We feel exactly the same way. If we make our way to the gardening part – first, is the level of ambition the same this year, with a little baby in the picture?

I’d go as far as saying the level of ambition is even greater, because we’ll be able to introduce our son to this food! Towards the end of the summer and this fall, he’ll be ready to taste things, and to be able to offer him food that we have grown and that has grown here next to us – food that hasn’t been sprayed and the things we’ve poured so much love into, that just feels amazing. That that will be his introduction to what food is. Of course there’s great organic baby food you can buy too, but it’s something completely different when we can go out and harvest what we need, prepare it for him and then half an hour later, he can eat it. The concentration of nutrients and flavor… it’s a whole other world. And all the love we’ve put into it. I can’t help but to think it matters. That we don’t just open up a jar. And then I also struggled with terrible pregnancy nausea last summer, so our gardening year wasn’t exactly great, meaning I’m really eager to get back into it this year for that reason as well.

I was going to ask to what extent you’re self-sufficient today, but considering that 2019 wasn’t a great one and 2020 hasn’t quite started yet – harvest wise – I’ll instead ask how your first year of “going all in” on vegetable growing went. To what extent could you live off of what you grew yourselves in 2018?

Well, first of all, you eat in a different way when you go for more of a self-sufficient approach. It’s not like you have access to fresh tomatoes all year round, for example, but instead you eat more varied over the year. Generally though, I’d say potatoes and onions were the only things we bought from the produce section at the store. It’s a little difficult for us to grow a year’s worth of those things. But then I also think self-sufficiency is a tricky term, actually. We still ate lots of rice and other grains that are also crops, but at least we didn’t buy fresh vegetables from the store but instead just walked straight past that section. Then there are other things too – Alex bakes a lot of bread, for example, so instead of buying pre-packaged bread we started buying high quality flour, and I think that can be viewed as part of your self-sufficiency ambition too, to go back a few steps in the process. You don’t have to grow the grains yourself and mill your own flour for it to count. Self-sufficiency to us isn’t so much about striving to get to 100% – which I’m not even sure is possible – but we’re instead pretty happy if we can hang out there around 80%, haha.

The important thing to me is that you get that connection between what we eat and what’s actually in season. I see the greatest value in being able to eat what nature and our garden are providing at the moment, and of course also that feeling of fending for yourself and not being so dependent on a system. To instead go back a few steps in the process and do a lot from scratch. If we return to that idea of the artificial, technological world we live in, growing vegetables is something so concrete. Your hands get to learn what good soil feels like, for example. It turns tactile and you develop some sort of kinesthetic intelligence. I like that.

That’s very true. Now, are there any vegetables that you’ve tried growing, not succeeded with and eventually given up on?

Nah, I don’t think so! I have never given up in that kind of way. Sure, I’ve bought lots of weird seeds over the years that I might not have been intrigued by again the following spring, but I can’t recall anything that I’d like to grow that hasn’t worked out for me. Or hang on – that’s not true! I have given up on something. I grew lentils one season, and they looked fantastic all throughout the summer and I thought “I’ve cracked the code to becoming a self-sufficient vegan here”. But then the task of shelling those tiny pods came along, haha… I think I sat two whole evenings and I got a total of 1.5 dl. So no, I haven’t grown lentils since!

That’s how we felt when we tried edamame beans last year! They grew so nicely, but at the end of the season, we only got about 2 dl worth that we practically looked at and then they were gone.

Yes, exactly! The tricky thing with dried legumes and those things is that you need such large quantities to be self-sufficient as a vegan or vegetarian.

Provided you don’t have unlimited land, you have to pick your battles a little bit, and ask yourself: how do I invest these square meters the best? Perhaps not by growing lentils, and definitely not edamame beans either, here in zone 4.

That’s actually a standpoint we’ve actively chosen in our self-sufficiency ambition – we buy all dried legumes. If we had put our land and time towards growing that, we had been forced to say no to other crops that feel more valuable – such as artichokes and tomatoes and leafy greens and cabbages – because we wouldn’t have the physical ability to care for it all, and that wouldn’t have felt right for us. Then on the other hand, you can choose to buy those types of products directly from a farmer instead of at the grocery store. There’s for example a farmer outside of Kristianstad who grows both legumes and quinoa, and you can buy those items in bulk from there. You can make great choices even if you don’t grow everything yourself. There are better and worse things to eat for sure. If your desire is to eat as kind food as possible, then you have many actions to choose from.

For sure. If we make our way to your work life a little bit – you used to work as a graphic designer before you started documenting cooking, food and your countryside life in a blog format, which has lead to four cookbooks to date, among other things. First: have you ever been employed, or have you always been a freelancer?

Haha, I have never actually left the hamster wheel behind, because I’ve never been in it! So no, I’ve never been employed. I think the whole thing always scared me a little bit – I remember all the way back when I started school that I thought it was so weird the whole thing, that you never got to decide any timetables for yourself but always had to follow the same schedule and that you were in a structure you hadn’t chosen. And that was despite the fact that I actually liked school and learning in general. I think since I was about seven years old, I’ve thought to myself that the day I’m starting to work, it has to be based on my preferences and conditions. I knew I didn’t want to be tied to times and stuff like that. I might not have thought I’d become a freelancer or business owner, but in some way I’d say I’ve always envisioned my situation to be what it actually is today.

That’s wonderful! I think of how many feel that the concept of leaving the hamster wheel is really scary, and battle that a lot. That there are so many benefits to the regular paycheck, the safety it provides etc. To then feel so strongly it’s not for you is amazing. To not have to doubt that.

Yes, and maybe that’s why it has worked out for me. I’ve never had that comfortable work position with that monthly paycheck. Ever. In the beginning though, I did wonder if I was really onto to something or not. I was thinking… could this really work? Am I not making a whole lot less than everyone else around me? There were definitely times when I struggled in my thoughts, wondering if it made sense to continue or if I should try to find a job. Then again, it’s not the easiest thing in the world to find permanent employment as a graphic designer, and perhaps that was another reason why it worked out. I simply had to try freelancing and make sure it worked. And then the whole food thing entered the picture.

Photo by Moa Sonerud

Yeah, exactly. You drifted away from graphic design relatively soon. Was it moving to the farm that acted as the catalyst? That made you choose a different path?

Yes, it was. Or, many things happened at the same time around then. I moved here and discovered nature in a whole new way. I became a vegetarian, and food blogging was sort of trendy then. It was really the big thing. Initially, my plan was to create material – or content, as you call it these days – that could perhaps get me into designing cookbooks or open up a door into the magazine industry, which were fields I’d been interested in for a long time. But then things got moving rather quickly for me. Only a year after I started my blog, I won Stora matbloggspriset (award for Sweden’s best food blog), and I immediately saw some action after that. Bonnier fakta (one of the biggest publishing companies in Sweden) got in touch, and eventually they published my first book. I also ended up with different magazine gigs, and all of a sudden, that’s what I was doing. It made it very easy to let go of the graphic design part, simply because it wasn’t nearly as fun. The work I got from the food world were much more stimulating.

And then maybe a little too much work and too little recovery lead to burnout syndrome. What are your strongest memories from this time?

That was when I realized the full meaning and value of time. I could work one day, and then I knew that I’d have to spend the next day on the couch, just breathing, unable to do anything else. It became so obvious to me what’s important and what’s not. Even if writing books was the most fun thing to do, work-wise, it didn’t feel worth it if I wouldn’t be able to go do fun things or see people if I wanted to. If all I could do was to lie on the couch and breathe, no books in the world would ever matter. I realized that work doesn’t mean anything unless it gives you something back. And sure, making money is an important meaning and a must for life as a whole to work out, but it just made it so easy to say no to things. And all of those things that had been fun to do but that I had been doing for free, those were all of a sudden a piece of cake to turn down.

That’s such a valuable insight to arrive at, even if having to go through a burnout is very hard.

In retrospect, I feel like the takeaways were so important that it feels worth it, in many ways. I know that my life looks very different today, because of it. I felt lots of pressure and anxiety to perform and achieve things before – that, you know, I was a freelancer and I needed to work and accomplish things, and I needed to do that when everyone else was at work. Today, I don’t feel that way at all, but rather the opposite. No, I don’t have to do that one bit. I’ve chosen a different life, and I’ve done so for a reason. Life isn’t all about work. It can be filled with so many other wonderful things and you can make other types of choices. Today, I have no problem being super non-productive and just devote all my attention to the garden for weeks, without doing any “work” at all. I know gigs show up eventually, and it feels amazing to have reached that point where I can be off and not feel one bit bad about it. That was something I used to feel like I couldn’t. Then it was more like… Let’s say I didn’t have anything I needed to do on a Tuesday – then I’d feel that there were things I should do instead. That I should make myself visible online. Take pictures and post to Instagram. Blog about something. Today, I can just enjoy myself on a Tuesday instead.

That sounds amazing, and almost crucial – especially as a freelancer, as that lifestyle more or less erases the border between work and private life.

Yes, and particularly when you work with something you enjoy! I can find myself thinking “oh, I’m having so much fun – something must be wrong! This isn’t what work is supposed to feel like”. Then it’s important to remind yourself that hang on, shouldn’t that be the right thing to feel?

In society in general, I feel like work is associated with suffering. We count down until Friday, wonder when it’s time for lunch and the whole thing is just oozing hardship. And I guess that’s what Mike and I eventually asked ourselves: is this how we want to live, until we’re 65? And then we’ll do all the things we actually like? Or should we try to do that from when we’re 30?

Exactly, and that’s sort of what I realized when I was burnt out. You know, wait a minute – I need to lie on the couch and breathe to be able to live? It just became so obvious how harmful it was to my body. It didn’t even feel like a given that I was going to live until 65 and retirement anyway. It became easy to want to change things.

I want to show that there’s an alternative route – that you can take it a little slower, too. That you don’t need to be booked up all the time.

Today, it’s status-filled to be stressed, booked up, busy and all of that, unfortunately.

Definitely. And that’s not something that I strive for, or want to encourage others to chase after either. I want to show that there’s an alternative route – that you can take it a little slower, too. That you don’t need to be booked up all the time. Be the one who’s seen everywhere constantly. There’s endless value in other things. That’s really been a big thing for me. To see the value in other things.

All your books – so far – have been cookbooks of different kinds. One (Det goda gröna) also touches upon farming and gardening (a wonderful book, if we may add). If we get to be a little nosy: what’s your process like when you create recipes?

It depends. Sometimes it’s the kind of thing where we need dinner on the table and you just whip something up that comes out really good, and then that’s turned into a recipe. Perhaps you found a new flavor combination or maybe you cooked a vegetable in a new way, for example. I could also be working with a theme, which is what I do when I create recipes for Vegomagasinet (Swedish plant based cooking magazine). Now I’m working on content for the July issue, and the theme is pasta dishes. Then I think to myself: what would I be in the mood for? Yes, I often ask my own belly what I’m feeling up for! And then of course, I think about what is or will be in season. What will there be lots of at the store in July, or what will people be growing lots of themselves? If I’m shooting for five different pasta dishes, I certainly can’t have them all feature a tomato sauce, so you have to ponder what other vegetables could be options. Could I do something with fennel? Zucchini, maybe, or perhaps eggplant? And then I move on from there. I also try to keep my recipes simple – I think I’ve had a more complicated style previously, both with regards to ingredients and process, but now I find myself working with more of a base ingredients-approach and not a list of 20 different things, so it feels doable and people really get around to trying it. I also want to keep the process simple, so you don’t end up using all four burners on the stove and maybe even the oven on top of that. I feel like it’s actually reflecting my own current food philosophy – and that’s really all about simplicity. There’s something fun about working with simple ingredients and a simple process. To go the more rustic route, and really shoot for that farm-to-table vibe. Quick, but jam-packed with flavor.

Do you have a simple everyday dish that you’re whipping up a lot right now and would like to share?

Ah, that’s so hard! Now we’re hitting up the difficult questions. What do I really eat? I’m not sure I know myself.

If we put it this way instead then: what are you harvesting from your garden currently? We basically only have spinach, chives and oregano, but I bet you guys have a lot more.

Well, let’s see: we have celery, cilantro, garlic greens and fresh garlic, scallions… I’m trying to picture what we have now. We haven’t really gone for a super early season, the way we did in 2018, but we have lots of different cabbages – that is, kale and broccoli and such, just about to go into bloom. We also have lots of rhubarb, and also green leaves of different kinds, for example arugula. It feels like little, but when you harvest to cook something up, it does accumulate I guess. And you certainly learn how to use things in different ways, so it still feels varied.

It sounds like half a farmers market to me! And for even more food inspiration: if you were to pick one recipe from all of your books that you think everyone should try, which one would that be?

Hmm… It’ll have to be my parsnip cake! It’s one of the yummiest things I’ve come up with and sort of unexpectedly good. (See recipe below).

And last but not least: what’s your favorite ice cream flavor?

Rosemary/cognac! I once read that Henry VIII loved that combination and was inspired to try it, and I’ve been sold on it since.

And with that wonderfully unexpected answer, we’re ending this interview. Thank you so much, dearest Karoline, for sharing some of your precious time with us. If you’d like more of Karoline, her life and her books, here are various ways to connect, follow along and continue to be inspired:

Instagram

@sjalvhushallningsprojektet (where Karoline is the most active and where the focus is on self-sustainability, vegetable growing etc.)

@gronaskafferiet (Karoline’s “original” account, with a more pronounced food focus)

Books

(if available, English translated title can be seen in parenthesis)

Det gröna skafferiet

Det goda gröna: Mat från min trädgård

Den goda gröna julen (Happy Vegan Christmas)

Värmande vego: Comfort Food Deluxe (Happy Vegan Comfort Food: Simple and Satisfying Plant-Based Recipes for Every Day)

This interview was originally conducted in Swedish.

All photographs courtesy of Karoline Jönsson.

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Parsnip cake

Here you can choose between a raw frosting based on cashew nuts, or a quick version relying on store bought cream cheese.

15 pieces

Ingredients

Cake

200 g parsnips (3 small)
1 tsp cardamom seeds
5 dl all purpose flour or spelt flour
2 1/2 dl sugar
1/2 dl psyllium husk
4 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
3 1/2 dl oat milk
1 1/2 dl warm pressed canola oil

Option 1: Raw Frosting

3 dl cashew nuts
5 soft dates
1 dl water or until desired consistency
1/2 tsp vanilla powder
1 lemon, zest from whole + juice from half

Option 2: Quick Frosting

300 g plant based cream cheese
2 dl confectioner’s sugar
1-2 tsp lemon juice
1/2 tsp vanilla powder

Instructions

Cake

  1. Grate the parsnips on the finest side of the box grater (keep the peel on). Grind the cardamom seeds using a mortar and pestle. Mix all the ingredients for the cake batter.
  2. Pour the batter into a parchment paper covered baking form (approx. 20 x 35 cm) and bake at 175ºC for about 45 minutes or until a cake tester comes out dry. Let cool completely before spreading the frosting across the top.

Raw frosting

  1. Soak the cashews for at least 5 hours and then drain.
  2. Remove the pits from the dates. Place all ingredients in a high speed blender and blend until smooth. Spread the frosting across the cake.
  3. Let the cake rest in the fridge for at least 2 hours, and then cut it into pieces.

Quick frosting

  1. Stir together all the ingredients in a bowl until smooth. Spread the frosting across the cake, and let sit in the fridge for a few hours before serving.

This recipe was originally published as part of Karoline’s most recent book Värmande vego: Comfort Food Deluxe (Happy Vegan Comfort Food: Simple and Satisfying Plant-Based Recipes for Every Day).


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