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Then, now, national dishes - Denmark

"Lacking the wild natural surroundings of their northern neighbours in which to climb and hike, the Danes have made eating their national pastime, both their sport and their recreation. I think eating is also for them a way of forgetting, of smoothing down the rough edges of reality - and even of loving and being loved." Dale Brown



The cartoon above is, I think a wonderful comment, but of course exaggerated, on the difference between restaurant and home food, and in this case in particular between the New Nordic cuisine - represented here by Noma's Rene Redzepi and the lower end of the restaurant trade. Both men are holding very different versions of Denmark's official national dish - Stegt flæsk med persillesovs - crispy fried pork belly with creamy parsley sauce. It's official because the Danes actually had a vote to decide what was the national dish. A humble dish, as I suspect all national dishes would be if they were voted for. Which they generally are not.


And in the case of Denmark, if you are a foodie, you really cannot ignore the influence of Rene Redzepi and the New Nordics - see their manifesto - yes it's grand enough, some would say pretentious enough, to have a manifesto - New Nordic Manifesto. I tried to find a Noma version of this dish but failed I'm afraid.


So yes, I'm continuing my trip around the world's cuisines, which I know will not be finished. There are just too many countries and not enough time. But I have finished with Great Britain, home of my early influences. The obvious thing would then be to go to France and the rest of Europe, but I have decided to ignore the countries we all know about and head off in a different direction - beginning with Scandinavia and then across the Atlantic. Hence Denmark, the nearest Scandinavian country to Britain.


I've been thinking about this on and off for a while now - which to do next - and also the question of what constitutes a national dish anyway, so it was interesting to see that Denmark had actually had a vote on it. It wasn't compulsory of course but over 630,000 people took part. Now those people would have been people really interested in food, and also those with some national pride, so probably not the ordinary man or woman in the street. Mind you according to GMA World News "The most cooked dish in Denmark, however, was Spaghetti Bolognaise."


Which begs the question really of what the term 'national dish' refers to - see also Chicken tikka masala as supposedly the most popular British dish. According to the Danish Agricultural Minister, Dan Jorgensen whose responsibility the vote was:


"Danish, and new Nordic food, is world-famous. But at home in our own kitchens, we often forget our food roots. The vote for the national dish has contributed to the rediscovery and development of our food traditions"


So possibly an ulterior commercial motive as well. In the modern world of globalisation, and cross cultural evolution in food, I guess recognising a national dish, or dishes is a good thing. Or is it? I confess I have always been a believer in nationalism as one of the great evils on the planet. Besides cross cultural exchange in food (and other things too - language for a start) - has ever been with us. Today I suppose it's at a faster rate, and generally to be applauded. However, to contradict myself I do like the idea of national dishes, because it's interesting - almost as interesting as what innovative cooks do with them. Which is why I was slightly disappointed not to find a Noma version of Stegt flæsk med persillesovs.


Perhaps there are three kinds of national dish - the historical, and traditional dishes created in the kitchens of the nation question, and so beloved of tourism and nationalists. Then there are the most cooked at home - which could be from anywhere - and finally the most popular, which might not actually be cooked at home but found in restaurants, as takeaways and even on supermarket shelves.


But back to Danish cuisine. I confess that my main source, boosted by the net, has been a rather old book in my collection - a volume in the Time/Life series Foods of the World, The Cooking of Scandinavia, written way back in 1969 by Dale Brown. No mention of New Nordic here, but he did have a few general comments which I suspect still hold.


Denmark is pretty flat and their soil was poor and sandy, and so long ago they took the decision not to grow grains - rye being an exception - but instead to import grain to feed these to animals - particularly pigs and cows. Not even chickens were bred for their meat initially - just for the eggs. Dairy products were made and exported from the milk produced by the cows. Cheese being one product - Havarti and Danish blue are the most well-known, maybe Danish feta these days, as well as the milk itself and cream and let's not forget Danish butter - some of the best in the world. Danish dairy products are one of the country's largest exports. Interestingly, in spite of being a coastal nation, fish is apparently not that big in Denmark - or it wasn't back in 1969. Maybe that has changed.


Then there are the pigs - twice as many as the people it seems, whose breeding has been one of constant improvement. Growing up in England I seem to remember that Danish ham and bacon were thought to be of very high quality. And I have no doubt that it still is. The animals produced manure and over the centuries, as a result, the soil improved so that a larger variety of crops to the traditional rye, cabbage and root vegetables, especially beetroot - could be grown. Grains too. If you look for pictures of Danish agriculture you will mostly find pictures of some kind of grain - although maybe some of it is hay for the animals. The New Nordics are into foraging of course but their emphasis on ethical and environmental issues, has led to an increase in organic, free range production and so on.


One thing that, then, and now - in the form of the New Nordic movement - have in common though - well it seems to me - is an emphasis on the produce of the land and letting that produce shine, in a relatively simple way:


"Actually the Danish cuisine is a blend of two traditions - the courtly and the rustic, The first lends colour to dining, the second ensures that nonsense will not dominate the table." Dale Brown


A last general word from Dale Brown:


"the dinner was a triumph of what the Danes call 'hygge', a word that connotes a sense of well-being, of visceral and mental comfort when the world has somehow been reduced to dining-room size and the curtains have been drawn against the night. ... Perhaps a truer picture would be given of the Danes if it were said of them that they like less to eat than to dine. One of their sayings puts the matter this way: 'First flowers on the table; then food.'"


So what are these famous national dishes - some of which I confess I thought were from other parts of Scandinavia? Here are the ones that appeared on various lists most frequently.


Smorrebrod - those open sandwiches that were so trendy back then in the 60s - when Scandinavian design was so big. I guess these days smorrebrod have been replaced by crostini, bruschetta and avocado on toast. Well outside of Scandinavia anyway - but maybe there too. They are all fundamentally the same idea but executed in slightly different ways and with different flavourings and different bread - in this case rye bread very thinly cut and thickly buttered before a topping is arranged on top:


"Smorrebrod ... can range from plain to elaborate in construction and in taste, and can consist, as has been said, of everything between heaven and earth." Dale Brown


I await with interest how the other Scandinavian versions differ from the Danish ones.


Pølser - hot dogs. Although half of the votes in that national dish poll went to the winner these hot dogs were runners up. It's the most common kind of street food - toppings include ketchup, mustard, remoulade, chopped and fried onions and pickles.


Frikadeller - the meat is traditionally a mix of pork and veal, but they don't appear to have much else in the way of flavourings, and yet they are hugely popular. The picture on the left is from my Time/Life book, but the one on the right is from a Noma offshoot called Barr. I don't know whether it still exists, but they look pretty simple too - if beautifully presented.



Leverpostej

LIver paste. Pork of course, very simply made with just a touch of anchovy maybe. It was introduced to Denmark from France in the 19th century, but now it is popular with everyone, most often seen as a smorrebrod topping, or served with rye bread, mushrooms or pickles.




Flæskestig

Another fundamentally simple dish - roast pork with very crispy crackling which is traditionally served with Danish brown sauce and boiled potatoes


And then we come to sweet things, where apparently the Danes obsessive love of cream comes to the fore.


Danish pastries - which as you probably know are not Danish at all, but come from Vienna. Apparently in 1850 the Danish bakers went on strike and workers from Vienna were imported to replace them. Of course they brought their recipes with them and it was in Denmark that they became so well-known that they got the name Danish. We all love them, don't we?


Koldskäl - somewhere between a cold soup and a dessert, this is buttermilk, sweetened with sugar and enriched with eggs, lemon and vanilla to which is added fresh fruit and sweet biscuits. No fresh fruit in this one though.


Rødgrød med fløde

Still remaining simple this is really berries and cream - the berries in this version are raspberries, puréed and cooked with arrowroot and a little water, cooled before being served with cream.


I guess the thing I get from all of this dishes is how fundamentally plain they all are. Even more so than British food which has that reputation. And how almost ironic that a country with such plain fare should be the home of Noma - top restaurant in the world for many years, and a huge influence on, at least restaurant cuisine.


And I shouldn't forget their beers - Carlsberg and Tuborg as well as Aktavit.


A last quote from Dale Brown, although it's actually a saying - and one of those sayings that makes fun of so-called national characteristics.


"Danes live to eat. The Norwegians eat to live and the Swedes eat to drink"

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