Denmark, a small Scandinavian country nestled between Sweden and Germany, is renowned for its rich heritage, captivating landscapes, and, most importantly, its mouthwatering cuisine. From the humble open-faced sandwiches known as smørrebrød to the iconic pastries and savoury dishes, Danish gastronomy is a delightful blend of simple ingredients and culinary artistry.
OK, you got me. I didn’t write that. Was it my use of words like ‘nestled’ and ‘delightful’ that gave it away? Yes, I asked an AI for its perspective on the matter and I don’t blame it for being overly enthusiastic: when your food is based on potatoes, liver paté and rye bread, you have to ham it up a little bit.
Our eloquent AI goes on to say that “Smørrebrød, the epitome of Danish cuisine, is a symphony of flavours and textures layered on a slice of dark rye bread”.
Quite a bold claim there from our future overlord. Is smørrebrød really the epitome of Danish cuisine? What about other Danish delicacies like potatoes? Or crusty pork rinds? What about æbleskiver (apple slices), that have nothing to do with apples, or brændende kærlighed (burning love), where there is actually no love at all to be found? Fair enough, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s focus on one thing at a time: what exactly is this much-vaunted smørrebrød?
Smørrebrød, at first glance, is an enigma wrapped inside a riddle. Surrounded on all sides by a ghostly veil of expat lore and the slings and arrows of outlandish Danish vowels, smørrebrød is in reality nothing more than a slice of rye bread with elaborate toppings and ethereal-looking garnishing. Our AI was correct on that score, even though the sensible and pragmatic Danes would be loath to resort to such exalted poetry, and are far too modest to ever call their food a ‘symphony of flavours’. In fact, I don’t think anyone except an AI, which has no taste buds, would ever venture so far.
For many foreigners much of the allure of smørrebrød lies in the name itself. Like Häagen-Dazs, which an American entrepreneur made up because it was ‘Danish-sounding’, smørrebrød just sounds cool and exotic. It sends the imagination on an expedition into the misty Nordic boglands of abstruse inflections and all manner of smorgasbordry, before one bite into a slice of rye bread awakens you to the stark reality of the phenomenon that is Danish cuisine.
What does smørrebrød mean, then? In typically spartan Danish fashion, smørrebrød is simply a contraction of butter (smør) and bread (brød), nothing more. Unlike the French, for example, who would not be shy to call their food a majestic symphony, their Quiche Lorraine also takes you on a journey into the mystery of a certain lady Lorraine. What kind of woman was she? Who loved her so much as to name a quiche after her? And all the while these questions intermingle with and heighten the myriad quiche flavours already dancing on your taste buds. With the Danish ‘butter bread’ the experience is perhaps a bit less enhanced.
But the Danes, not to be outdone on the gastronomic battlefield, have a few aces up their sleeves, and they’ve managed to play their hand with great success. While lacking in poetic erudition, the Danish culinary landscape has been redefined in recent years with restaurants like Noma expanding their epicurean vocabulary and going super saiyan with live ants, reindeer brain custard, whole duck heads, bear dumplings and ice cream with sea snail broth and ground ants.
However, it is still the traditional smørrebrød, like the humble Little Mermaid, that keeps foreigners flocking to Danish shores. Perhaps unlike the reindeer brain custard and duck heads, the Danish tourism industry is completely supported by people looking at smørrebrød, rødgrød med fløde, røget ørred and øl, and coming to Denmark to see the spectacle of people actually pronouncing those words.