When Douglas Adams first introduced us to the world of Arthur Dent, Ford Prefect and Marvin the Paranoid Android, courtesy The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a comedy science-fiction franchise was born. That was in 1979. Nearly a decade later, in 1987, a more modest but equally galactic plot line, this time centred around a private detective’s unwavering belief in the “the fundamental interconnectedness of all things,” arrived with Adams’ publication of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.

If, like me, you have a lingering attraction to the apparent “…interconnectedness of all things”, then Dirk is clearly your kind of private eye.

Unlike the hapless Arthur Dent, Adam’s newly created gumshoe is no slouch, and he can barely resist interweaving home-spun philosophy into his uncertain detecting methods. How about this by way of a taster –“What I mean is that if you really want to understand something, the best way is to try and explain it to someone else. That forces you to sort it out in your own mind”.

Could so easily double as a writer’s, if not a home cook’s aide memoire. That’s if ever one were needed – although I was to discover one occasionally was.

And in the hilarious sequel novel, Dirk Gently and the Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, he advances a further observation that “I rarely end up where I was intending to go, but often I end up somewhere I needed to be.”

And so it was that an apparently unintended recipe provision, caused me to blunder upon such a joined-up outcome.

By way of digression, but to start where I intended to go, I was wrestling with a storage dilemma. It is a well known family joke that my ever-growing collection of wine and cookery books shows little sign of restraint, and additional shelf space is regularly required (shades of Parkinson’s Law circa 1958 – Data expands to fill the space available for storage), so where else but by kicking off this Nordic tale with an inexpensive‘Billy’ shelf system from IKEA?

Designed in 1978 by Gillis Lündgren (no, surprisingly, not Billy Lündgren) it still boasts an unchallenged sales legacy. It may perhaps come as no surprise that a Billy bookcase leaves IKEA’s factory every 3 seconds, and it’s been estimated that there are more than 65 million systems erected across the globe. To date I have erected but one of them.

Presently stacked on Billy’s bookcase, in what passes for my own data system and found amongst the British Cookery section, there nestles a trio of game-changing British chefs; Rowley Leigh, Alistair Little and Simon Hopkinson. All fine chefs, all fine writers (two of them anticipated totally different careers when studying at Cambridge) and all have moved from the technology of fine restaurant chefs to the down-to-earth practicalities of attentive home cooks, in print at least. A vital distinction when you don’t have Gordon Ramsey’s intimidated brigade de cuisine or Nigella’s beguiling food stylists to hand.

One early coincidence came to light when I found that all three chefs manifested a shared fondness for the unctuous Jansson’s Temptation, a soft, gentle style of gratin dish comprising potatoes, onions, cream and ansjovis, an arguably unique fish dish born of Sweden’s maritime influence.

Alistair Little’s first wife being Scandinavian may account for part of the connection here.

And although I continued to track the genesis of this dish amongst many other British and Swedish chefs, I finally settled on Simon Hopkinson’s effortless recipe below. I still adhere to this particular recipe as numerous other chefs I have reviewed advocate the inclusion of oily, salted anchovies – delicious in their own way, but completely inappropriate for this dish. Please make sure you don’t attend to their instruction or you’ll think you’ve swallowed the Dead Sea by mistake.

Dirk would have immediately understood where the fault-lines lay.

The Swedish word ansjovis has all too frequently been translated by careless authors as anchovy. The literal translation however is sprats, or more importantly marinated sprats, a totally different kettle of fish as Dirk would be the first to point out.

Online, following a lengthy trawl of esoteric Swedish importers, I found a routinely recommended brand of sweetly marinated ansjovis canned by a company (wait for it)  called Abba. I kid you not. Which or whom came first I do not know, Dirk of course would. But apart from a minstrel group of the same name and those steadfastly reliable Volvo cars, I knew little of Swedish exports.

So where on our retail-outlet’s shelves are you likely to find Swedish ansjovis – effectively the critical core of this dish?

Trust me you won’t. Or so I was convinced. Our sleuth would not have been so easily placated.

So whilst idly considering a further purchase of Billy’s MDF bookshelves, and unknowingly channeling Dirk at the time, I skimmed past the shelving range in the IKEA catalogue only to discover a thoroughly incongruous Canned Fish section. Flat packed fish, why not? Dirk would have spotted that coming.

And what canned sprats, if any, might our flat-pack furniture company possibly stock?

You’re way ahead of me I’m sure – IKEA’s Abba ansjovis no less. There they were, the very brand recommended by Simon Hopkinson in the preamble to his recipe.

Hats off to Dirk, without connectivity the dish might never have seen the light of day. Six tins of sprats were swiftly delivered and Jansonn’s Temptation assembled. The second Billy bookcase was delayed “due to recent unforeseen demand”.

But then Dirk would have foreseen that too.

Jansson’s Temptation from Simon Hopkinson Cooks (2013)

Serves 4

50g butter, softened
2 onions, peeled and finely chopped
2 x 125g tins Swedish anchovies (sprats), including the juice from only one of the tins
Red-skinned potatoes (Desiree) 6 medium-sized, peeled, cut into thick matchsticks, briefly rinsed, well drained and dried
400ml whipping cream
2 tbsp fresh white breadcrumbs
Salt and some freshly ground white pepper

Preheat the oven to 190C/gas mark 5.

Grease a shallow, ovenproof dish (handsome enough to transfer from oven to table) with half the softened butter.

Fill the base of it with the onions.

Using a pair of scissors, snip the anchovies into small pieces and distribute them over the onions. Pour over the juice from one of the tins.

Cover with the prepared potatoes, press them down lightly and season.

Pour over the cream and then quietly tap the dish a couple of times on a wooden surface to settle the assembly. Sprinkle the breadcrumbs evenly over the surface and dot with the remaining softened butter.

Bake in the oven for anything between 45 minutes and 1 hour, or until the surface of the dish is nicely gilded, crusted and bubbling around the edges. Serve as is, all on its own.

Wine thoughts

White of course, but oaked, creamy or full bodied wouldn’t enjoy connecting with this particular partner. A crisp, fresh, wet-stone and mineral slicked wine was needed for some hand-to-hand fighting with the onions and a background of refreshing acidity to partner the slight sweetness of the oily fish. And although Sweden has a small but emergent wine industry, the state-run monopoly of alcohol, romantically known as Systembolaget Aktiebolag, has little interest in promoting such apparently debauched habits.

As so often, we connect with France. Select a simple Muscadet, preferably with sur lie in the title and Sèvre-et-Maine on the label, or the newly fashionable Picpoul de Pinet from the Languedoc coast in southern France, bone dry with sappy cooking apple flavours to the fore and hints of white pepper in support. Value-for-money refreshment is very much the order of the day here.