It’s Good to Eat Green

Easter in Denmark begins with the Danes getting the day before Good Friday off as a holiday, a practice which apparently costs the country 5 million kroner, according to Jyllands-Posten.  This day is called Skærtorsdag, and it is known as Maundy Thursday in Christian countries around the world — where it is rarely a paid holiday (but the Danes do love their extensive number of spring days off from work).

The name Maundy is thought to come from the Latin word mandatum,  the first word in the Biblical quote “Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos” (“A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another; as I have loved you”). The first part of the Danish name for the holy day, Skærtorsdag, comes from the Old Norse word skær, meaning clean. This is thought to be a reference to Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.

Suppe med 9 slags grønt

Suppe med 9 slags grønt

The food traditions of Skærtorsdag go back to early times, and were  thought to have magical rather than Christian connotations. Skærtorsdagskål (Maundy Thursday cabbage) is a dish made by cooking several types of cabbage together with pork and other meats. When eaten on Maundy Thursday this was once believed to have the power to prevent a type of malaria formerly found in areas of Denmark with brackish coastal water.

Another version of this tradition, referred to as syv slags grønt (seven types of green), originally called for eating a soup made with nine kinds of fresh green vegetables (mostly cabbage) on Maundy Thursday—but this later this was often reduced to just seven kinds, especially since grass and nettles were sometimes needed to bring the total up to nine. This dish was undoubtedly based on a pre-Christian tradition celebrating the return of green plants in the spring.

Today we all recognize the nutritional value of green vegetables — the more the merrier. The food company Arla has published a recipe (in Danish) for Soup with 9 Types of Green that not only has nine types of greens but also bacon and a soft-cooked egg for extra flavor and protein. Of course in order to get up to the magical number nine, the recipe calls for  parsley, chives, dill and chervil. But these herbs undoubtedly taste better than grass and nettles!

Buns up!


Photo by By Ole Palnatoke Andersen

Move over, Mardis Gras. Instead of this “Fat Tuesday” tradition to mark the day before Lent, the Danes celebrate Fastelavn. This Shrovetide celebration is held on a day known in English as Quinquagesima Sunday because it falls 50 days before Easter. The Danish name Fastelavn comes from the Middle Low German term vastel-avent, meaning “fast-evening”.

And although the Danes no longer fast during Lent (or any other time of the year, from what I can tell), there is still one tradition of feasting as part of the Fastelavn celebration: fastelavnsboller. These sweet buns, often filled with whipped cream, are a bright spot in the Danish winter.

The children’s rhyme associated with Fastelavns is a shout out for fastelavnsboller:

Fastelavn er mit navn,
boller vil jeg have.
Hvis jeg ingen boller får,
så laver jeg ballade.
Boller op, boller ned
boller i min mave.
Hvis jeg ingen boller får,
så laver jeg ballade.

In short, the song says “I want buns, and if I don’t get buns, I’ll make trouble.   Buns up, buns down, buns in my tummy!”

For children, Fastelavn means more than just demanding buns. There is an old tradition, probably dating back to the Middle Ages, in which a barrel is filled with candy and oranges. Well, in actuality the original idea was to put a black cat in the barrel, and beating the barrel was considered a way to ward off the plague. Today there is just a picture of a cat painted on the barrel, making it a sort of Danish piñata. The child who beats the bottom off the barrel becomes the Cat Queen, and the one who knocks off the last piece is the Cat King.

Fastelavn has also evolved into a dress-up holiday for Danish children, similar to Halloween. This tradition comes from the fact that rich and poor were considered equal on that one day, so costumes were worn that didn’t differentiate between classes. But that was back when the holiday was celebrated by Danes of all ages drinking and eating heartily for several days before the start of Lent.

fastelavn_toende_5In addition to beating on a barrel with a poor frightened cat in it – a tradition that continued into the 1800s – there is the custom of having children use a fastelavnsris (a symbolic whip made up of twigs or branches, often decorated) to playfully “flog” their parents awake on Fastelavns Sunday. Modern Danish children might be shocked to realize that they are participating in an old fertility ritual.

But the sweetest of the Fastelavn traditions is the buns. Fastelavnsboller were originally not filled, and even today there are varying opinions about which kinds are the best (have you ever known Danes not to have an opinion about food?). They originated as a wheat bun in the 1600s, and were filled with raisins and fruit until the cream filling appeared in the 1900s. Today there is often a glaze, such as the chocolate one used in this recipe (in Danish) by Claus Meyer. There may be a custard, whipped cream or jam filling. But whatever type you prefer, “buns in your tummy” is a great antidote to the dark month of February in Denmark.


Carol and Katrina

PS We are pleased to announce that our book, Eat Smart in Denmark, has been selected ‘Best American Culinary Travel Book’ in the Gourmand World Cookbook AwardsGourmand-Winner-Digital-Sticker-F, and recently received a prestigious starred review in the U.S. Library Journal.

Delicious Danish Irony

Home chef Søren Jessen with stegt flæsk med persillesovs.

Home chef Søren Jessen with stegt flæsk med persillesovs.

In the hotly contested survey that concluded this month, stegt flæsk med kartofler og persillesovs, (slices of fried pork belly served with potatoes in a béchamel white sauce with parsley, for the uninitiated) was crowned the national dish of Denmark. In fact stegt flæsk, which represented Southern Jutland in Food Minister Dan Jørgensen’s poll, received almost 28,000 of the 63,000 votes cast.

This is ironic (and the Danes love irony almost as much as they love licorice) because the survey was part of Dan Jørgensen’s ‘food revolution’, an effort to get Danes to focus on eating healthier and more local foods.  And yet stegt flæsk med kartofler og persillesovs is hardly a healthy food – in a recipe from the fat percentage is listed as an astounding 29%

Jørgensen himself voted for the potentially healthier – and much prettier — smørrebrød, which came in second with 17,000 votes, followed by hakkebøf as a distant third. For reasons known only to those who set up the survey, smørrebrød represented East Jutland and hakkebøf was the candidate from Copenhagen.

The purpose of the vote for Denmark’s national dish – aside from being a vehicle to get Dan Jørgensen to become a household name – was to draw attention to what Danes eat. The goal was not necessarily to glorify Danish food traditions, since spaghetti with meat sauce was originally in the running. Happily the ten final candidates were all tried and true staples of Danish cuisine, although frikadeller had mysteriously not made the cut.

Although the first round of voting was strictly based on popularity, the final round involved inviting celebrity chefs from different regions to prepare “New Nordic” versions of the top eight dishes. Few fans of stegt flæsk med kartofler og persillesovs, a popular and inexpensive meal, would recognize the winning version of the dish by Ninna Bundgaard Christensen. Christensen, a young sous chef at Comwell in Southern Jutland, created a fancier (and more stylish) recipe reflecting her interest in New Nordic cuisine – although she doesn’t stint on the butter.

Ninna Bundgaard Christensen's stegt flæsk

Ninna Bundgaard Christensen’s stegt flæsk

The vote for Denmark’s national dish has been criticized as being a publicity stunt, but it did initiate a great deal of discussion about Danish food culture. “Danish and New Nordic Cuisine have become known the world over. But here at home in our own kitchens, we often forget our culinary roots. The national dish has helped us to rediscover and develop our food traditions,” Jørgensen said in a press release.

Will the rest of the world embrace the new Danish national dish? Probably not, because unfortunately there are very few places outside Denmark where you can get pork cut correctly to make stegt flæsk med persillesovs. Those who want to taste this specialty will just have to come to Denmark to discover this longstanding traditional tradition – either the New Nordic version (at Noma, perhaps?) or the version of stegt flæsk med persillesovs known and apparently dearly loved by working class Danes across the country.

PS We would have voted for smørrebrød!

Hakkebøf 1, Frikadeller 0

Pork producers throughout Denmark are undoubtedly wringing their hands over the news that the ground pork and veal meatballs known as frikadeller have lost their place in the final round of voting for Denmark’s national dish.  Granted, there are several pork-based dishes still in the running as Food Minister Dan Jørgensen’s campaign draws to a close.  But frikadeller fans were probably not much comforted by Jørgensen’s statement that “I’m personally sad fiskefilet didn’t make it, but we have lots of good dishes in Denmark.”

As the Food Minister points out in The Copenhagen Post, “the competition is primarily about generating a public discussion about our food products, food and meals. It will be fun to see what the Danes choose at the end.”  Those of us not qualified to vote due to a lack of Danish residency (to say nothing of ethnicity) can only cheer for our favorites from the sidelines.  But how did hakkebøf med blød løg get to be the home team for Copenhagen?

Hakkebøf is, when it comes down to it, a hamburger. Granted it is served without a bun, and with a big pile of delicious sautéed onions, but it is a burger nonetheless. And Danes are not as well known for their beef as they are for their pork products – whereas those of us in the US pride ourselves on having great burgers.

According to a recent article by Kalle Bergman for Honest Cooking, we Americans may have a Dane to thank for the invention of our beloved hamburger.  Danes have contributed so much to world culture, from Legos to this year’s Eurovision extravaganza, but few people would credit them with creating the first burger.

Bergman’s article mentions that there is an unconfirmed legend of the hamburger being created by a Danish butcher’s apprentice in the US around the turn of the 19th century.  Whether or not this is true, she goes on to say, in the 1940s a Danish food writer raved about hamburgers, inspiring Oscar and Anni Pettersson to open Oscars Bøf Bar in Bakken (which is a great tongue-twister).  According to the Bakken web site, Pettersson actually got the idea from a friend who visited the US in 1949, and his wife Anni spend many days developing the recipe that is still used. The beef sandwich at lunch became a dinner entree when the bun was replaced with potatoes and gravy – and today Oscars peels 3 tons of onions and fries about 60 tons of ground beef each year.

The popularity of this relatively new Danish dish, especially in fall and winter, accounts for its place on Minister Jørgensen’s final list of favorites.  But will it win out over “Burning Love”?  Only time will tell…

Danish Kringle, American Style

Wienerbrød, the classic Danish pastry that is considered to be “Viennese” in Denmark, has a life of its own in the pockets of Danish-Americans in the US.  It is known by the name given to the pretzel shaped version — kringle — and is in fact the official state pastry of my home state of Wisconsin.  (Narrowly beating out the cream puff, but that’s another story.)  You may think that we have better things to do than to vote for a state pastry, but I might point out that at the moment there is a poll being conducted by Food Minister Dan Jørgensen to determine the Danish “nationalret”.  Promise me you won’t vote for spaghetti with meat sauce.

“Kringle” has evolved from its wienerbrød origins into something that is uniquely American, and in fact often doesn’t even have the pretzel shape it is named for.  As part of the celebration of the debut of Eat Smart in Denmark, our culinary guide to Danish cuisine, we decided to host the North American Kringle Competition. The last one that had been held was in 2005, sponsored by the now-defunct Danish-American Dana College in Blair, Nebraska.

That competition was won by Kirsten’s Danish Bakery of Burr Ridge, Illinois (near Chicago), much to the chagrin of the bakeries in Racine, Wisconsin.  Not only is kringle the state pastry of Wisconsin, but Racine calls itself “America’s Kringle Capital”.  Several bakeries in Racine make kringle that is shipped around the country, and sold wholesale to grocery stores and big box retailers.  Racine had a lot riding on the September 14, 2014 competition that we held at HotelRED here in Madison, Wisconsin.

There were twelve kringle entered, representing five states, including one from the community of Solvang, California, as well as Elk Horn, Iowa (known in Denmark from the Danes on the Prairie TV program on DR).  We even had a “Cajun Kringle” from New Orleans, which featured a praline filling.  A panel of four judges, including a professional pastry instructor, a food journalist and a Dane from the University of Wisconsin Scandinavian Studies Department, tasted all twelve before choosing the winner.  The entries were of course labeled by number only, with no indication as to where they came from.

The general public was then invited to select a “people’s choice” kringle, and over 150 votes were cast.  We’re happy to say that those attending also purchased over 70 copies of Eat Smart in Denmark, which will be the first introduction for many of them to the wonders of Danish cuisine beyond the familiar kringle.

Both the professional judges and the book debut attendees selected kringle #7, which was revealed to be a Sea Salt Caramel Pecan Kringle from Uncle Mike’s Bake Shoppe in Green Bay, Wisconsin.   Uncle Mike’s has only been making kringle for one year, but their dedication to using all fresh ingredients — including 3/4 lb. of European-style butter in each kringle — paid off.  Their entry would not necessarily be familiar to those raised on Danish wienerbrød, but it was uniformly declared to be the most delicious.

This set off a bit of a firestorm of response in Racine, the town that thinks of itself as America’s Kringle Capital. But one of the bakeries there pointed out that their kringle is vegan, meaning of course that there is not butter used in making it.  Danish pastry without real smør? Unthinkable.

We had the pleasure of going to Uncle Mike’s to deliver their trophy in person, and it was fun to see how excited Mike and Mary Vande Walle (yes, they are of Dutch and German extraction, not Danish) and their staff are about winning. They’ve set up a new web site already in order to be able to ship their kringle around the country, and we even plan to bring one with us when we come to Denmark for the Danish debut party for Eat Smart in Denmark.  That party will be at Restaurant Kronborg in Copenhagen, and will undoubtedly feature delicious smørrebrød  — made with real Danish butter, of course.

Carol and Katrina

PS At the debut party for Eat Smart in Denmark at The Copenhagen in New York last month, Consul General Jarl Frijs-Madsen kindly said “This is a book that every tourist should get when they arrive in Denmark, because it will make their enjoyment of Danish food so much better.”