The Bastard Son of Gastronomy

Somehow time had almost passed it over. The open sandwich tradition of Denmark –known as smørrebrød – was not a thing that ambitious chefs or fashionable restaurants would put on their menus.

That was until a young chef, looking for some more time with his kids, started out to save what is perhaps the first Danish addition to the world’s culinary map: the open rye bread sandwich. He has since then been joined by a band of culinary hard-hitters, and now smørrebrød is back in fashion in Copenhagen.

The open sandwich: A working class hero

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Photo: Claes Bech-Poulsen

Fast currents of new food trends and the arrival of a globalized consumer culture where every supermarket have shelves of Indonesian, Chinese and Italian foods left the once popular smørrebrød tradition almost retired and relegated to restaurants with little ambition and a retiree audience.

The open sandwich was the combination of a working class hero – the rye bread lunch sandwiches of farmers and workers – and the lavish dinners of the urban bourgeoisie and nobility. The urban wealthy made the sandwiches stylish in the latter part of the 19th century, drawing on an old tradition of serving meats and fish on slices of bread instead of plates.

Restaurants in the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen introduced menus with more than a hundred varieties of open sandwiches, mostly on dark rye bread, and these places became the watering holes for Copenhageners on the weekend. The sandwiches strutted with towering combinations of cold meats or pickled and fried fish, some more exotic than appetizing. The sandwich tradition was kept alive through the 20th century primarily by the working class, who adopted the tradition both as an inspiration for the everyday lunch box as well as the backbone of ordinary restaurants and beer joints.

The bastard son of gastronomy

It is long ago that it was the pastime of young families to eat open sandwich lunches in the flowery Tivoli Gardens. And the working class is now sitting down in offices without getting sufficient exercise to build up appetite for the rich sandwiches. Recently, the sandwiches had become synonymous with an antiquated and unhealthy, mayonnaise-loaded lifestyle. That was how the Danish chef Adam Aamann found it. More than anyone else, he has pioneered the resurrection of Denmark’s lunch tradition.

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Photo: Claes Bech-Poulsen

“I think the sandwich tradition had become excessively fatty and meaty; different kinds of meats stacked, few quality products, few vegetables, no herbs, too little fish and maybe a little general sloppiness – to little craftsmanship and too many pre-prepared ingredients” says Adam, who started a small take-away joint around a decade ago with modern interpretations of the classic open sandwiches. He added a fine-dining restaurant three years later. Not many people believed that lunch could be reinvented.

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Photo: Claes Bech-Poulsen

He laughs briefly at the word “modern”, an adjective loosely used by food writers to describe anything that stands out. “It’s quite funny”, he says. “To many people, modern means making your food from scratch; you would think it would be the other way around”.

“I wanted to take lunch seriously,” he says, referring to the fact that the midday meal is considered by many fancy chefs to be the bastard son of gastronomy: a laborious and inglorious meal that most top chefs only serve to pay the bills, with their real love being evening gourmet experiences.

The fish nation

Before the industrial and agricultural revolution that made pig the dominant species of Denmark, the main source of protein in many places was fish and the harvest of the rich seas. Denmark consists of more than 400 islands. “Denmark is fish nation,” Adam says. “The farm workers stipulated in their contracts that they could only get served salmon or herring six days a week. They had to demand one day without fish to avoid going nuts.”

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Photo: Claes Bech-Poulsen

“I try to establish a healthier and better balance between fish and meats. The true charm of the open sandwiches was always variation, “ he says, showing his own pickled herrings and pointing to the weever lying beside the fresh herrings on the table. “They’re totally cheap, and people abstain from them because of their poisonous fins, but I try to include them in my food. They’re great. The herring, which many only eat pickled, is also remarkable when fresh. Just rub them with some lemon juice and the acid will take care of the little bones really fast. Fry and eat with no hesitation. I think there is a tendency for many to stick to preserved fish products, and that’s a shame.”

A new Nordic food culture

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Photo: Claes Bech-Poulsen

Adam worked for years with Claus Meyer, a gastronomic entrepreneur who started numerous businesses based on the belief that Denmark and the other Nordic countries should explore their own nature and create a culture based on indigenous products. Adam too is focused on developing Nordic food, being of a generation of Danish cooks not looking south for inspiration, but utilizing what their own turf can deliver: “Actually, the open sandwiches is where the Danish kitchen is the strongest – our lunch tradition is our own. Most people can’t mention ten dinner dishes that are really Danish. It’s the whole other way around when it comes to the open sandwiches. The most popular combinations and their names are like cultural DNA; everybody knows them, even if many had stopped eating them,” Adam explains.

Besides his work in the kitchen, Adam has written several books with modern recipes for lunch and on how to flavor snaps [schnapps], the strong Danish spirit that traditionally has accompanied smørrebrød at lunch. But the love affair with the lunch sandwiches was also a practical choice:

“As a chef you work late hours and weekends, and you’re never home. I had young children, and I needed to find a work-life balance a little more humane. So I figured there might be a niche exploring lunch,” he says. Necessity seems to be the mother of invention.

Dark sour bread

The whole-grain rye bread is the foundation of Adam’s kitchen, and to a large extent the popular Danish food culture. To many outside of the Nordic region, the dark sourdough bread is a coarse and hard experience. The sun-depraved northerners probably needed to develop a taste for it since quality wheat was in shortage. Maybe rye bread was another child of necessity, along with the heavy use of cured and smoked fish and meats, pickling and other preserves, designed to endure long, cold winters. But ultimately, it ended up creating its own culinary language. According to Adam, the wonders of rye is likely to spread, though, since it’s healthier than wheat flour, which is blamed for weight problems in western civilization:

“All over the world people are looking for substitutes to wheat. Much white bread is only an edible spoon, but there is a whole other and deeper flavor in the rye bread. It’s healthy and rich in fibers. I use malts to make it deeper, rounder and darker. The sandwich tradition comes with a bread culture that I believe is massively underrated outside of Denmark, but it will spread also because of the nutritional value of the bread,” he says.

Making something of everyday food

Alongside Adams take-away deli and restaurant, several new places have picked up the sandwich tradition. This has started a new trend in Copenhagen where traditional lunch is one of the most sought-after experiences. Top chefs have started working with the open sandwiches, and the Michelin guide now recommends lunch restaurants as good value dining experiences, Bib Gourmands, in their prestigious guide. Aamann’s was the first place primarily known for its lunch to get that honor.

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Photo: Claes Bech-Poulsen

Copenhagen is currently associated with top gastronomy in places such as Noma and Bocuse d’Or winner Rasmus Kofod’s Geranium , but Aamann’s success shows that the food revolution of Denmark and the Nordic region is much deeper than the emergence of gourmet kitchens: “Denmark needs a bistronomy, an improvement also of the regular cuisine. And that is coming along. But it would be great if we were to install some pride in our own food culture, and maintain the traditions that we have,” Adam says. He hopes retailers will start to take Danish produce more serious and market the open sandwich lunch as a special culinary experience.

“After all,” he says, “the open sandwiches are a great part of our identity. We should make something out of it.”

Facts of Lunch

Rye bread sandwiches has been around for quite a while in some form or another. Already in the sagas of the Icelandic Vikings, rye bread almost identical to the one known today is described, based on sourdough and whole grain rye flour.

Around the year 920, the Arab Ibn Fadlen made a description of the traveling diet of the Vikings who ate an early version of the dark bread sandwiches. The sandwiches were made of onion and cold meats on bread. The bread was based on the same ingredients as today’s rye bread; rye, barley and wheat.

In medieval Denmark, farmers ate rye bread sandwiches with fat or butter, occasionally with smoked and salted fish of meats. The male farm workers were issued a bottle of snaps along with their sandwiches.

During the 16th century a tradition developed where slices of bread were used instead of plates, which were very expensive and a rare possession. The king, Christian II, abolished the use of bread plates at special occasions around 1520 because he now had enough plates to serve all at parties.

In the Nimb restaurant in the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, the army officers’ association often dined and held meetings. The staff introduced a list at which the officers could write their open sandwich requests. This is seen today in many traditional lunch restaurants – there is so many varieties and combinations that the waiters simply gives you a list to check of which combination you want since it’s too demanding to do remember or write down the often complex orders. The most famous lunch order list is from Oscar Davidsen’s lunch restaurant in Copenhagen, which in 1933 featured 178 kinds of open sandwiches. Oscar Davidsen’s descendants still run a traditional smørrebrød restaurant.

A traditional open sandwich lunch can be a demanding task to devour. A normal sequence of sandwiches often looks something like this:

– Cold fish, normally at least two kinds of pickled herring. Small hand-peeled shrimps are a summertime delicacy highly valued.

– Fried fish, often plaice with pickles and mayonnaise

– Cold meats, normally tartar, roast beef, smoked sausage, chicken salad or occasionally some combinations based on vegetables like potatoes and onion or tomato and eggs.

– Warm meats, like pies of pates or roasted fresh sausages

If sweets are served, they often depend on the season; traditional apple cakes in winter, rhubarb trifle in spring and thick strawberry soup in the summer.


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Kasper Fogh

Kasper Fogh

Writer, Aorta

Very interested in all that breaks new land in the attempt to create a better, more delicious ad sustainable food culture.

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