I have vague Danish heritage, and have often been told that I look a bit Danish. Indeed, although I have never been anywhere near that part of the world, I feel like I would fit in. The people seem efficient and practical, and I would greatly appreciate the cold weather, as I am definitely not made for Australian summers. A lot of my favourable impressions of Denmark have arisen from the many fantastic Danish TV series, which include Forbrydelsen, a world-class gritty crime thriller, and Borgen, a gripping political drama jam-packed full of heart and social justice. Apart from subtle and fantastic writing, acting and plot, these series often have very interesting multidimensional female characters that are a breath of fresh air compared to typical Hollywood tropes. There wasn’t much emphasis on food in those shows that I can remember, except that Denmark is a large exporter of pork and has a lot of piggeries. However, I’m hazy on whether this information was delivered in the context of political trade agreements or pigs eating murdered corpses (or both?). You never know with Danish noir! Danish cuisine originates from farmers making simple food from local ingredients, but has always held its arms open to exotic influences. For instance, there is evidence from Viking archaeological sites that they already imported and used black pepper in their cooking. Other imported spices that Danes favour are quite sweet, including cinnamon, cardamom and nutmeg. This has culminated in an honest and subtly aromatic cuisine that is also sustaining through long, hard winters.
Smørrebrød is sometimes said to be the national dish of Denmark, the name originally deriving from simply “bread and butter”. However, these open-faced sandwiches on dark rye bread (rudbrød) can come in thousands of varieties including combinations of seafoods, meats, fruits, vegetables and spreads. Some of the combinations are so famous that they have quirky nicknames, such as “veterinarian’s midnight snack” or “shooting star”. Smørrebrød can even constitute an entire meal, with smoked salmon and herring toppings for entree, cold cuts and roast meats for mains, and cheeses and fruit atop rye bread for dessert. The tradition is thought to have begun in the Middle Ages, when stale bread was sometimes used as a “trencher” to transport and serve food, often being thrown away at the end of the meal. This evolved into open faced sandwiches in the 1800s, favoured by agricultural workers for lunch, generally eating yesterday’s leftovers atop a piece of bread. For my smørrebrød I prepared some typical toppings such as shoulder ham, radishes, beetroot, smoked salmon, shrimp, blue cheese, blackberries, sugar snap peas, cream cheese, sour cream, quail eggs, orange slices, roast beef, liver paté, pickled herring, pickled cucumber, lettuce, and alfalfa sprouts.
Some countries’ national dishes are chosen by an implicit fractured consensus among the population, or sometimes an explicit and controversial decree by the ruling powers. These options were too undemocratic and/or unclear for Denmark, however, with 2014 marking the year that a national vote was held for the general populace to choose their own national dish. Out of 24 submissions, with 44% of the vote the triumphant champion was stegt flaesk, literally meaning “roast pork strips”. As I’ve already mentioned, pig farming is a big part of Danish industry, with pigs jokingly said to outnumber people 2:1, and pork is therefore frequently on the menu. Pork products come in an astonishing variety, but stegt flaesk is a simple preparation of pork belly, lightly salted (but never smoked or highly cured like bacon), sliced into chunky strips and fried or baked until golden and crispy. It’s almost always served “med persillesvos” meaning “with parsley sauce”, made from a roux of butter, flour and milk, flavoured with lots of finely chopped fresh parsley. Also traditionally accompanying the dish are plain boiled potatoes, however I deviated slightly from this and made another Danish classic that I just couldn’t resist – brunede kartofler (browned potatoes). Small peeled potatoes are first parboiled, then tipped into a saucepan where a piping hot mixture of melted sugar and butter is waiting. They are then frantically tossed to achieve an even coating over the whole potato, and removed once they are cooked on the inside and golden-brown and shiny on the outside. This style of potatoes is particularly popular around Christmas and Easter, and is commonly seen accompanying roast meats, so I figure it isn’t entirely inappropriate to serve with my stegt flaesk.I also included some boiled carrots as a gesture towards those who have laughed at stegt flaesk, calling the Danish national dish “a plate of pork fat and potatoes”. Not that there’s anything wrong with such a plate, but look! It can even have vegetables!
The hen and the egg
This is my first recipe for the purposes of this blog where I’ve replicated a dish entirely created by an identifiable and living person: René Redzepi. Redzepi is the head chef of internationally renowned Danish restaurant Noma, which has been ranked either first or second in the world for nearly a decade. Noma was founded in part by Claus Meyer, who is widely attributed as spearheading the “New Danish Cuisine” movement, and, by extension, “New Nordic Cuisine”. These ideologies centre around showcasing local and seasonal produce, reinvented into unfussy modern dishes that take inspiration from traditional food in fresh and simple ways. If this concept sounds familiar to you, it’s likely because this movement has since taken over the world, and is among the most popular ethoses for modern fine-dining restaurants internationally. Noma has produced countless dishes since its opening in 2003, but I chose “the hen and the egg” because it’s among the most famous, as well as best exemplifying the New Danish Cuisine movement. At its heart, the dish is comprised of ingredients local and traditional to Denmark: wild duck eggs, foraged greens, and fried potato. However, instead of the dish being entirely cooked in the kitchen, the chefs heat up the hotplate to exactly 280 degrees, and set it on a bed of slightly damp hay to release the grassy aromas, and bring the raw components to the diner with a set of instructions and a timer. The patron then cracks their own egg into the hotplate, starts the timer, adds the thyme butter, spinach and wild greens exactly two minutes later, and a wild ramson sauce another one and a half minutes minutes following that. Redzepi often notes that you might be surprised how many people have never cracked an egg before, and the idea behind this dish is therefore putting the power of cooking back into the diners hands, making the meal an interactive experience, as well as showcasing just how delicious simple and local ingredients can be when prepared with expert timing and thought. Of course, cynical critics might pan this as a cheap gimmick, and quip that they would prefer not to have to cook their own meal given the price of the restaurant. However, I encourage you to keep in mind that Noma was at the forefront of the avant-garde modern approach to cooking, and that these dishes, whatever you might think of them, were significant milestones in our collective culinary modern history. Ultimately, New Nordic Cuisine is responsible for the noble goals of keeping the culinary traditions of specific regions alive, while simultaneously being conscientious on the nutrition of the food, as well as encouraging local and seasonal cooking which is ultimately the most environmentally sound strategy. The other reason I like this dish is the name: the hen and the egg. The recipe always specifically calls for a duck egg (and not chicken), which begs the question: why the reference to the hen? I’m not sure whether there are other meanings in Danish, but my preferred personal interpretation is that its a subtle jibe at the nervous diners shaking as they crack their own egg in a Michelin star restaurant – what a bunch of chickens!
Fiske frikadeller and remoulade
Fiske frikadeller are Danish fish “meatballs”, or as I might call them, fishcakes. I grew up loving my Mum’s fishcakes, which were usually chunky, breadcrumbed, made with salmon, and which I now recognise she craftily packed a few days’ worth of vegetables into without my detection. Danish fishcakes are commonly made with any mild white fish, but especially cod, which is what I used. Whereas I’m used to chunkier fish cakes, the recipes for these prescribed that all ingredients be finely food processed. I was a little dubious that everything would hold together, but regardless I mixed the cod, lemon, egg, flour, cream, capers and dill together, then formed them into patties and dusted them with a little flour. To my surprise and delight they did hold together very well during the frying process, and were a wonderful consistency. In the past I haven’t had as much success with fritters that don’t have a thick coating of egg and flour and/or breadcrumbs; I’m not sure why this worked so well, but I was certainly pleased. Remoulade is originally a French invention, but has since spread across Europe. There are many variations, but it generally has a mayonnaise base which is flavoured with pickles, capers, curry powder, mustard, onion, chives, and many other possible ingredients. The tangy and salty flavours go especially well with seafood, and I think it may have formed the basis of “tartare sauce” which is a regular at fish and chip shops in Australia. I also served my fishcakes with a squeeze of lemon and pea shoots.