By Joyce Hendley, "Northern Light,"May/June 2008
On a bright spring day I pushed my way past thickets of parked bicycles and well-dressed sun worshippers at café tables along Copenhagen's Gråbrødretorv (Greyfriars' Square). I didn't need a phrasebook to understand what Danes were craving at the moment. At one café a young mother coaxed her daughter to sip some of her asparagus soup; at another, an older gentleman was eating an open-faced sandwich of asparagus topped with baby shrimp. Nearby a couple shared a plate of thick white asparagus stalks dusted with grated hard-cooked egg yolks.
"Danes are crazy about asparagus and we're even crazier about new potatoes," explained a waitress as she delivered a tray of Bloody Marys garnished with asparagus stalks. "We waited for this all winter. Besides," she added, citing folk wisdom, "it's supposed to be bad luck to eat asparagus after Saint John's Eve [June 23], so we have to eat it all now."
Denmark is nearly as far north as Juneau, Alaska, so in June the sun is up by 5 a.m. and sets as late as 10 p.m. All this abundant sunlight is close to intoxicating for the Danes. It's also the best time, I think, to experience Danish food at its most exuberant. Indeed, "seize the moment" might be the operative phrase to describe the intense Danish midsummer.
Until I married into a Danish family, my knowledge of that country's cuisine was limited to the buttery, flaky pastries called "Danish" everywhere but in Denmark (where they're known as Wienerbrød, or "Vienna bread," to honor their Austrian origins). After all, beyond ham, butter and a few cheeses like blue and havarti, few Danish specialties usually make it to American tables. But after many visits to my in-laws' kitchens and gardens, I've discovered a sophisticated and varied cuisine with a healthier side that seems more Northern California than Northern Europe.
Cooking and eating the Danish way is all about simplicity, with minimal seasoning and fuss. Danes have always been passionate about fresh produce at its peak of ripeness. When I ask for a recipe from my mother-in-law, Hanne Lumholdt, I'm always amazed at how brief the instructions are from this accomplished cook. "Brown it in a little vegetable oil," she'll say, "and when it's done, sprinkle on a little salt and pepper." But I've learned that this simplicity is a refined art in itself. It honors fine ingredients by doing little to them, letting pure flavors come through without heavy sauces or complicated cookery.
Denmark's culinary traditions owe a lot to its geography. Though centuries ago their Viking ancestors ruled large swaths of the known world, the territory Danes now command is about the size of Switzerland and comprised of a peninsula and many islands. Lying south of Norway, Sweden and Finland and connected to northern Germany by its Jutland peninsula, Denmark is a crossroads between Scandinavia and continental Europe, with culinary roots in both places. And of course, you're never far from the sea.
In Denmark's cold northern waters, omega-3-rich fatty fish like herring and salmon thrive. It's an education just to browse the fish shops, where the selection is always huge and impeccably fresh. Best of all is the herring (sild) section, offering at least six or eight different ways to appreciate the heart-healthy little fish: sweet-sour pickled, smoked, dressed in curry or tomato sauce, or sprinkled with fresh dill and a little sour cream. Or my favorite way: sautéed and steeped in a spicy-sweet vinegar marinade, a technique that works beautifully with most firm-fleshed fish.
According to Claus Meyer, the Danish host of PBS's New Scandinavian Cooking series, the geography and intense sunlight of Denmark contribute to what he has dubbed "Nordic Terroir," using a term usually applied to wine to describe the unique taste of place that climate, soil and sea contribute to foods produced here. "Nowhere else on earth do we find a temperate climate so far from the equator," he explains. During the summer's long days, plants get plenty of light but the cooler temperatures cause them to grow more slowly, he notes, allowing more time for a variety of flavors to arise. Apples and strawberries, he says, "develop an entirely different kind of freshness and aromatic intensity than do similar fruits grown further south."
Take potatoes, for example. "In June our potatoes are crisp like hazelnuts, juicy and tender," sighs Meyer. His idea of a heavenly meal? Those potatoes, "with a little butter, fresh dill and salt from Læsø" (an island in northern Denmark). And Meyer's not alone in his dedication to these potatoes. In Copenhagen, the arrival of the first crop of new potatoes each spring makes national headlines. Top chefs bid outrageous prices—the equivalent of hundreds of dollars per kilo—for the right to serve the first sack of prized specimens, and just about any Dane will pay top dollar for freshly dug pedigreed spuds from the island of Samsø to the west or from Sweden's nearby Bjäre region.
I used to wonder how such praise could be heaped on lowly potatoes until a few bites of last spring's crop convinced me—in, of all things, a sandwich. Restaurant Ida Davidsen in north-central Copenhagen specializes in smørrebrød—open-faced sandwiches, Danish style. On mine, "asparagus" potatoes (named for their long, slim shape) were layered onto rye bread, then topped with tart apple and thyme-flecked onions. It struck me as a perfect combination of sweet and sour, softness and crunch, and it was just one of dozens of tempting choices I could have made from the 175-plus sandwiches on the menu.
Great bread is the foundation of the centuries-old tradition of smørrebrød. No matter what the size or shape of the bread, whole-grain is the rule rather than the exception, so most Danes get a regular dose of the fiber, B vitamins, magnesium, zinc and other nutrients whole grains supply. Though no one knows the origins, smørrebrød ("buttered bread") probably evolved from a custom of using bread rounds as edible plates so that no morsel of food or sauce was wasted. Today it's as much art form as sandwich. The only constant is a single, thin slice of sturdy bread, spread with butter to keep the bread from getting soggy.
The art comes in assembling what Danes call the pålæg, or "what is laid on top." It can be as simple as last night's leftovers, carefully assembled to complement flavors, colors and textures—or as elaborate and prescribed as the Stjerneskud ("shooting star") topping: fried fish and cooked shrimp with caviar, lemon slices and dill. The toppings can be abundant, but never messy; "overstuffed," thankfully, hasn't made its way into the Danish sandwich lexicon. Though in Denmark they're considered strictly lunch fare, in my own household smørrebrød often become tasty impromptu dinners and in smaller portions, spectacularly easy appetizers.
Aamann's, a casually elegant spot near the Danish National Gallery, is renowned for a fresh, modern approach to smørrebrød. There, I chose a smørrebrød with house-smoked eel, asparagus, pink grapefruit and a soft-boiled quail egg, with extra asparagus on the side. Though it was tempting to have a seat in the pretty, light-filled room, I thought about the green spaces of the nearby Botanic Garden, and in my best "Danglish" ordered til takeaway instead. It just wouldn't be Danish to savor those first tastes of spring anywhere else but under the sun that gave them life.
—Contributing editor Joyce Hendley is the author of The EatingWell Diabetes Cookbook and co-author of The EatingWell Diet.