Danish smørrebrød

You Only Eat Once

On a crisp fall day in 2005, I arrive in Copenhagen with a rumbling stomach. Looking for a place for lunch, I bump into a line snaking out the doorway of a tiny shop under a blue awning. A glass case is filled with what look like artistic assemblages, but are actually exquisite, open-faced sandwiches. The colorful compositions display backgrounds of creamy havarti, velvety pate or golden battered fish, set off by asparagus spears, cucumber disks or tomato crescents. The foregrounds feature decorative details: radish coins with a sprinkle of chives; pickled herring with a twist of lemon, a mini-bouquet fried parsley.

When it’s my turn, I point to an undulating wave of smoked salmon topped with a mound of baby shrimp and a sprig of dill and some neatly folded slices of rare roast beef dressed with a dollop of remoulade and a fan of cornichons. I take my edible artwork outside, find a sunny bench and promptly fall in love with the traditional Danish lunch of smørrebrød. The word means “buttered bread” and refers to the essential ingredient: a buttered slice of dense, dark Danish rye, hiding coyly beneath the elegant toppings.

I have been invited to spend the week lecturing in Denmark and in my remaining days taste multiple variations on the theme of smørrebrød. They epitomize the way Danish design enhances everything from sleek furniture to sinuous plastic forks.

Arriving home, I lose no time in recreating my food find for my unsuspecting family. I buy a lot of herring, which no one but me has any desire to eat. And I compulsively decorate every sandwich with little flourishes of capers, pickles or fried onions. For some reason, my husband and daughter do not share my enthusiasm. Then it hits me. Obviously, it’s the bread. Without the hearty Danish rye, it’s not authentic smørrebrød. I try packaged pumpernickels from Germany. Close, but not close enough. My sweet husband, who has humored me through many food fetishes, goes online and orders a genuine rye bread mix from Denmark. But even after making that, there’s still something missing.

I finally recognize that I am suffering a bad bout of “Greek salad syndrome”– the delusion that if I could perfectly recreate the food I savored on a blissful trip, I could recapture the sensations as well.  I name this malady in honor of a trip to Greece my husband and I took 25 years ago. On the tiny, car-free island of Hydra, we dined on wooden tables set on cobblestone streets next to sun-baked buildings, cooled by the evening breeze. We fed each other bites of perfect salads of tomatoes, cucumbers, feta and olives. Something so simple should be easy to recreate at home. But I can never capture that feeling of being at one with the ocean, the glowing sunset and each other. I tell myself, these olives just aren’t earthy enough; this feta doesn’t have the right tang.

My culinary compulsion favors everyday foods. The warming Swiss raclette (broiled cheese with potatoes, pickles and onions) our friends made us on chilly nights in Moutier; do-it-yourself falafel with bowls of spicy toppings at a stand-up counter in Haifa; warm goat cheese salad and pear tarts at sympathique sidewalk cafes in Paris. No matter how many times I try and fail to cook myself back into those magical moments, I never give up the pursuit.

In early 2008, I am thrilled to receive another invitation to Denmark for December. This time I will be traveling around with only one day in Copenhagen. Before planning my lectures, I research the best place to renew my love affair with smørrebrød and so discover Ida Davidsen, who runs a restaurant of the same name. It was her grandfather who opened the first smørrebrød restaurant over 100 years ago. Ida Davidsen’s is renowned for the longest menu in the world with more than 200 varieties of smørrebrød. Clearly, this is my destiny and I pick a hotel a short walk from her restaurant in the charming Nyhavn district.

On my only day to lunch there, I arrive exactly at noon. Entering the cozy cave-like atmosphere, I notice the tables are already full of diners enjoying themselves with the help of beer or the aquavit that traditionally accompanies smørrebrød. The harried waiter asks if I have a reservation. As I shake my head sadly, I tell him I came all the way from California to eat here. He explains that in December, it is traditional for work groups to reserve the restaurant weeks ahead for their Christmas festivities. There is nothing he can do. Heartbroken, I hold back the tears and ask to use the restroom.

When I emerge, the waiter amazingly winks and beckons me to a tiny table he has somehow squeezed in-between the revelers. After my profuse thanks, he directs me to line up in front of the display case where Ida Davidsen herself, a short cheery woman in a tall chef’s hat, will describe today’s specialties.  As I drool over the possibilities she speaks in rapid Danish to the group ahead of me and switches into charmingly accented English for me. I choose silky salmon studded with shrimp from Greenland and chicken salad layered with smoked potatoes and bacon, topped by a haystack of fried carrot shreds. This time I won’t try to replicate the experience at home. I close my eyes and savor every bite.

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7 Responses to “Danish smørrebrød”

  1. Ilana DeBare Says:

    I love the concept of “Greek salad syndrome”! I guess I also suffer from it at times. When we spent two weeks attending language school and living with a family in Guatemala several years ago, we came home with a comal — the flat round skillet they use to make homemade tortillas.

    I still think fondly of the thick, handpatted corn tortillas we ate there. But have we made a single tortilla of our own with our comal? No. And if we did, would it taste as good? No. Clearly — Greek salad syndrome.

    On another etymological note, does “smorrebrod” have anything to do with the word “smorgasbord?”

    And… congrats on starting what looks like it will be a very interesting blog!

  2. Sasha @ Global Table Adventure Says:

    Sounds incredible… I’m going to try my hand at Smorresbrod this weekend 🙂 Wish me luck!

  3. Anna Mindess Says:

    Hi Sasha,

    Love your blog quest! Good luck. I have a Danish friend here who invited me to a Glogg and aebleskiver party on Sunday– typical Danish December get-together with mulled wine and popovers. Will update on my other blog: East Bay Ethnic Eats.

  4. A Toast to Gløgg – A Danish Holiday Treat | East Bay Ethnic Eats Says:

    […] winter trips to Denmark and Sweden, I encountered many new foods, including herring in wine sauce, smørrebrod (artfully composed open-faced sandwiches)  and reindeer stew. My fondest memories involve coming […]

  5. Mark Says:

    Just a word of warning for anyone feeling inspired to visit Ida Davidsen’s after reading this: Denmark has experienced an extraordinarily wet summer and has endured several months of intense flooding. Ida Davidsen’s, in common with many basement establishments, has experienced extensive flood damage and is currently closed for business. Repairs are under way, but the restaurant isn’t expected to reopen until 1st November 2011 at the earliest.

    • Anna Mindess Says:

      Thanks, Mark, for the update. I hope to have another lunch at Ida Davidsen’s someday, but have no plans as of yet. Too bad about the flood damage. The underground burrow feeling of her basement restaurant helped give me the feeling of discovering a hidden treasure.

  6. Mark Says:

    @Ilana DeBare

    You ask if ‘smørrebrød’ has anything to do with the word ‘smörgasbord’?

    Yes and no. The Swedish equivalent of the Danish open sandwich, or smørrebrød, is called ‘smörgas’. To an outsider they will probably look much the same, but to a Scandinavian they are noticeably different .. as indeed Norwegian smørrebrød is different to Danish smørrebrød.

    A smörgasbord is more akin to a buffet meal where you help yourself to sandwich ingredients, from which you then make your own sandwiches, or eat as a traditional buffet – or, more commonly, a mixture of the two.

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