Some countries’ food travels the world and becomes so popular that you can order it irrespective of whether you’re sitting on a mountain top in Switzerland or in the busy streets of Sao Paulo.
I’m talking about dishes with such universal draw that they seem to appeal to the palates of people from all over the world, regardless of age, background or nationality. In other words, the so called “world cuisines” such as Chinese, French, Italian or Thai.
The cuisine of Scandinavia does not belong to this group. So when a friend who is a self proclaimed food enthusiast and bon vivant told me he was going to Scandinavia on a food tour, my first reaction was to ask: “Why?”. Granted, Scandinavian food has experienced a bit of a renaissance in recent years with restaurants in Copenhagen, Stockholm and, to a lesser extent, Oslo raking in coveted Michelin stars. The hype, if we can even call it that, arguably started when Noma, a restaurant in Copenhagen serving innovative – some might say absurd – Nordic food, was awarded the title “World’s Best Restaurant” by the influential World’s 50 Best Restaurants. Not once, but three years in a row!
Other restaurants in Copenhagen, Stockholm, Oslo and beyond started copying and redefining the Noma concept of using local ingredients, often sourced from a confined area in close proximity to the establishment and re-interpreting well known, every day dishes into more or (in many cases) less recognisable renditions. Exciting times for nordic food indeed, but not quite the beginning of a new world cuisine if you ask me.
It just so happened that I was planning my summer holiday to Denmark around the same time that my friend was going to be in Copenhagen so I offered to take him around and introduce him to the dishes that I consider some of the must-try’s and a mandatory foundation to understanding what is going on at those modern Danish restaurants. Our food tour of Copenhagen started at a small outlet in the inner city area, just a stone’s throw away from the Botanical Gardens, and selling traditional smørrebrød. More commonly known as an open sandwich, smørrebrød is a piece of rye bread heaped with toppings and garnish such as eggs and prawns with mayonnaise and chives; sliced roast beef with ‘remoulade’, a Danish version of tartar sauce, and deep fried shallots; liver pate with bacon and sautéed mushrooms; ham salad with onions, cucumber and tomato; various cold cuts with garnish of parsley, savoury gel, radish, or pickled beetroot and cucumber; or salads made from tuna, ham or egg. In other words, the contents of a very well stocked deli are all crammed onto one slice of bread. The Danes will eat a simpler version of smørrebrød almost on a daily basis and reserve the extravaganza to special occasions or buy it as a lunch or a takeaway meal.
Stegt flæsk med persillesovs
Although we were pretty full after this mega sandwich experience, I coerced my friend to keep moving and we walked from one end of the three lakes that run through the city to the other, where we stopped at Restaurant Klubben in Copenhagen’s Vesterbro area. Apart from being a memorial garden of Tove Ditlevsen, one of Denmark’s most famous authors, The Club, as it is known amongst regulars, serves a good ‘stegt flæsk med persillesovs’. The dish is basically slices of fatty pork belly, fried until crispy, served with boiled potatoes and a white sauce with parsley. Simple and unpretentious, but “oh so good”, which was exactly my friend’s verdict having downed no less than two entire plates of the stuff. The dish follows pretty much the same formula as some of Denmark’s other popular dishes, such as pork meat balls with boiled potatoes and gravy, pork roast with boiled potatoes and gravy and pork sausage with boiled potatoes and gravy. Suffice to say, the Danes like their pork, potatoes and gravy.
No introduction to the classics of Danish food is complete without a visit to a bakery. Luckily, they’re pretty much on every street corner, thanks to the Danish propensity for freshly baked bread and pastry. After the slaughter at Restaurant Klubben, I decided we needed to move again so I dragged my friend across downtown once more and we ended up at Meyer’s Bageri på Jægersborggade in the city’s hip Nørrebro area. I guess Claus Meyer is the Danish equivalent of Jamie Oliver, without the school lunch programme, but he’s had several TV shows, has authored numerous cookbooks and now runs bakeries, restaurants and cafes. Ironically, what is known around the world as “Danish”, is in Denmark known as ‘wiernerbrød’, which translates into bread from Vienna. Biased as I am, I think the wienerbrød you get in Denmark is better than the Danish you get elsewhere, and my friend agreed.
So far my friend had been pretty agreeable with everything I showed him, so later that day I decided to challenge his taste buds a bit by introducing him to salty licorice, a hard hitting version of the sweet stuff that many people around the world enjoy. The salty version is enjoyed only in northern Europe and people familiar with the stuff never bore of giving it to unassuming friends and colleagues to watch their reaction. Depending on the relationship between the giver and the taker, the response generally ends with the taker politely smiling and trying to hide his or her disgust or spitting the licorice out as if it was burning coal. My friend did the latter.
Copenhagen is crammed full of excellent eateries but it’s a good idea to plan your visits to a few favourites in advance in order to experience the full flavours of Danish food.
- Aamanns Etablissement is located on Østre Farrigmagsgade 12 in Copenhagen K, near the Botanical Gardens. The restaurant had a Bib Gourmand from the Michelin Guide. http://www.aamanns.dk/us
- For people who like salty licorice, Johan Bulow makes some of the highest quality licorice and keeps things interesting with innovative flavour combinations. http://liquorice.nu/
- Restaurant Klubben serves traditional Danish fare in the memorial garden of Tove Ditlevsen. http://restaurant-klubben.dk/?lang=en
- Noma is currently considered the world’s second best restaurant. http://noma.dk/
- Meyers Bageri has several outlets around Copenhagen – all worth a visit. http://www.clausmeyer.dk/en/meyers_bageri.html