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.”

A Toast to Store Bededag

You might think that Store Bededag (“Great Prayer Day”) is a modern Danish invention, created to efficiently combine several religious holidays no longer celebrated by Danes going to church.  Danish church attendance, except for major life events and the big holidays of Easter and Christmas, is indeed astonishly low among the 80% of the population belongs to the state-supported Lutheran Church.

Bishop Bagger & Buns

But Store Bededag, which is May 16 this year, actually dates back to 1686, when it was created by King Christian V at the suggestion of Bishop Hans Bagger of Roskilde to consolidate several of the minor Roman Catholic holidays that survived the Reformation (and thus have more work days for laborers). Since that time it has been celebrated on the 4th Friday after Easter as part of a series of days off after the long Danish winter.

There is actually very little celebration associated with Store Bededag except the tradition of eating varme hveder, a type of warm, toasted wheat bun, the evening before. The tradition began when bakers, forbidden by law from opening their bakeries on Store Bededag itself, started making these buns the day before so that parishioners could toast them at home on the holiday. It eventually became the custom to eat them fresh on Thursday evening instead of waiting until Friday.

Many Danes wax nostalgic at the very aroma of varme hveder, which are traditionally eaten toasted and buttered. If you would like to make your own, the famed Claus Meyer offers a recipe (in Danish) on his web site. The Kitchens of Kiki blog by Kirsten Lauridsen has a translation of this recipe to English.

Efforts to do away with Store Bededag have met with opposition — who would want to eliminate a day off from work, and a tasty tradition to boot?  There may not be much praying done on Great Prayer Day, but one can be certain that those who can get outside celebrate by enjoying this precious day of Danish springtime.


We are pleased to announce that Eat Smart in Denmark, our culinary guide to Danish food, will be published in August, 2014.  It includes a section on Danish regional food and holiday traditions such as this one.

Smørrebrød in Miniature

The Royal Cafe started the trend by combining smørrebrød with sushi to create what they called “smushi” soon after it opened in 2007.  The Royal Cafe, created and owned by Lo Østergaard and Rud Christiansen, is a combination of a cafe and a shop presenting Danish manufacturers such as Royal Copenhagen and Georg Jensen together with a fusion of traditional Danish foods and original cuisine.

While the name “smushi” implies the wedding of Danish open-faced sandwiches and sushi, these artistic little creations bear only a small resemblance to real Japanese sushi, which always feature vinegared rice (often combined with raw fish or other seafood).  Instead most smushi are traditional Danish smørrebrød combinations created in “sushi size”.  The small size allows diners to sample a wider variety without getting full, according to the company’s web site.

The concept has proven so popular that The Royal Cafe has issued a book with a decidedly not bite-size size or price:  The Royal Smushi Book is a coffee-table book that sells for a royal 350 kroner.  Photos of cute smushis abound on Pinterest, and the Danish-Japanese fusion has led a successful Japanese version of the restaurant and shop called Denmark – The Royal Cafe in Tokyo.

And now those who find even a smushi too large have a new option for truly bite size versions of smørrebrød: Danish Minies on Gentoftegade in Copenhagen. This company creates canapé-size smørrebrød based on traditional open-faced sandwich combinations. They don’t require knife and fork, or even a plate, so they’re perfect for parties or receptions.

It’s nice to see the revival of interest in smørrebrød, even if the trend is towards postage-stamp size creations. Which by coincidence is just what happened last year, when the Danish postal system issued a set of delicious-looking stamps that featured this classic Danish culinary favorite.