Scandinavian food culture is not well-known in North America. You rarely see restaurants advertising Swedish, Danish or Norwegian food. I'm sure there are many reasons for this, but it definitely isn't because Scandinavia has no food culture. In fact, what's sometimes called "nordic" or "northern" food is currently wowing diners and critics at Rene Redzepi's Copenhagen restaurant, Noma. Chef Redzepi catapulted to fame when Noma was named the best restaurant in the world by San Pellegrino in 2010. Although we spent one day in Copenhagen on our trip to Denmark in August, it didn't include a visit to Noma (big surprise). But having visited Denmark twice, it looks to me like their food culture is alive and well.
One thing you see everywhere In Denmark is delicious open-faced sandwiches called Smørrebrød. They are made of thin slices of square, dense rye bread and whatever kinds of toppings you like. My Danish uncle, Eigil, makes these sandwiches to take to work for his lunch every day. He even has a special lunch box for them. It's a small plastic box with four little compartments to fit four different kinds of smørrebrød. How cute is that?
It's a very small box. You might be thinking, how can that be his whole lunch? But apparently, this rye bread, though it's thin, is so dense and fibrous that it's extremely filling. So two slices is plenty.
You can put all different kinds of things on these sandwiches. I've eaten them with pickled herrring, hardboiled eggs, tiny shrimp, mayonnaise, mustard, pickles, jam, and cheese.
There is lots of great cheese in Denmark. When we were there we ate soft, creamy blue cheese, logs of aged goat cheese, sharp, old cheddar from Ireland, and a Danish specialty called smoky cheese, or ryegost. (Danish is a difficult language to read unless you know a few rules. For example, y is pronounced like the french "u" and g's are silent. So ryegost is pronounced ru-euh-ost.)
Ryegost is a soft cheese that's very easy to make at home. We went to buy some from friends of Eigil and Lucy, an elderly couple who make it at their farmhouse. They don't sell it much anymore and they don't advertise it at their farm. But years ago they used to sell 50 to 100 cheeses every weekend.
Here's how Lucy described to me how you smoke the cheese: Put some hay in a bucket and place a metal pipe full of nettles above the bucket to keep the fire under control. Put the cheese on a kind of mesh grille over the bucket. Light a fire in the hay. The smoke will go up through the nettles to the cheese. It leaves it with a beautiful burnished brown top and a delicious, subtle smoky flavour. Right before you eat it you can sprinkle whole cumin seeds on top if you like, which Eigil loves. Smoky cheese is fantastic with all kinds of topping combinations. Eigil suggested:
mustard and pickles
butter and jam (funnily enough, there's no word for jam in Danish so everything is called marmalade)
Smørrebrød, and smoky cheese, isn't quite as good without the rye bread, but I still found it delicious eaten on rice cakes and great gluten-free bread we found. I also tried it with hummus, avocado, and tomato which is fantastic.
I'm sure Denmark and the rest of Scandinavia is alive with food traditions I have yet to discover. Maybe some day we'll see more Swedish bakeries and Finnish cafes opening in Canada.