Ask a non-Dane to name some famous foods from Denmark, and they’re likely to offer up “pastries”, “butter” or “herring”. Indeed, the Danes are justifiably renowned for their superb butter, can’t get enough of herring and other cured fish, and specialise in light, flaky pastry – though no-one in Copenhagen would dream of asking for a “Danish” at the patisserie. The sweet treats are known locally as Wienerbrød, after the Austrian bakers (reportedly strike-breakers) who brought their techniques to Denmark in the mid-19th century.
Danish cuisine is all these clichés but much, much more. The well-known staples – a key one being dense wholegrain rye bread, traditionally baked weekly at home – are the building blocks of a hearty food culture that is steeped in tradition, is made for long, cold winters and celebrates blissful summer days.
Many aspects of Danish cuisine can be traced back to pre-industrial peasant cooking, when the need to make do with local produce and preserve it for the cold months meant the diet was dominated by bread, salted pork, seasonal and pickled vegetables and potatoes. Through industrialisation, the advent of food technology and imports, and more recently a “new Nordic” food revolution that has given old techniques and ingredients a modern twist, more fresh meat and green vegetables are appearing on plates. But traditional favourites are still the key to Danish hearts.
Dinner at home usually consists of a hot meat dish, likely to be pork (Danes are the world’s greatest eaters of pork per capita), served with potatoes and another vegetable or salad. Flæskesteg (roast pork with crackling) is a go-to dish for celebrations, while frikadeller (meatballs) are made in most homes, perhaps served with a side of pickled cucumber. Pork is also the hero of the Danes’ favourite fast food, rød pølse (red sausage), served in a roll with extras such as pickles.
In a nation that boasts a 7,000 kilometre coastline and a fishing culture that dates back thousands of years, seafood is hugely popular – and Danes, of course, adore their herring. Smoked herring from the island Bornholm is a national treasure and has been made since the late 1800s, while marinated or pickled herringdates from the Middle Ages. Streetside herring stalls are an institution and the fresh fillets are often eaten on the spot as a snack, sometimes served with a little chopped onion and pickle. Other popular fish dishes are kogt torsk (poached cod with mustard sauce) and of course gravlax (gravad laks to the Danes), whereby a fillet of salmon is deboned and blanketed in salt, sugar, ground fennel and dill, refrigerated for a few days until cured, then thinly sliced. The name actually comes from the words for “grave” and “salmon”, a reference to medieval fishermen’s practice of burying the salted fish in the sand to lightly ferment it.
The ubiquitous rugbrød (sourdough rye bread) is likely to feature in both breakfast and lunch and is the basis of the Danes’ beloved open sandwich smørrebrød. From the words smør og brød (“butter and bread”) this national dish comprises a slice of buttered rye bread piled with toppings that might include gravad laks with a mustard sauce; curried herring (chopped salted white herring, onion, curry powder, mayonnaise, sour cream, diced apple, capers and dill) garnished with soft-boiled egg and more dill; or roast beef with remoulade, fried onion rings and tomato. Be it a bang-up lunch or a restaurant concoction, this is treasured traditional fare and is eaten with a knife and fork.
When it comes to family desserts, the usual choice is ice-cream or a dish based on fruits such as rhubarb, apple or strawberries. Red berries, a treat in summer, are stewed and topped with cream in the famously tongue-tying rødgrød med fløde.