My interest in traditional Danish lunch dishes and, of course, smørrebrød (open rye bread sandwiches) originally derives from a heartfelt love for the combinations of these servings and how much culinary sense they make.
All the classics – like a simple fried herring in vinegar with new onions and whipped crème fraiche or smoked fish with scrambled eggs and lots of fresh chives – are so complete and well-balanced when served on whole grain rye bread that even people from other cultures who haven’t been raised with smørrebrød immediately get the point and are able to just focus on enjoying the meal.
With that said, I have on many of my journeys also observed a red thread between the traditional kitchens of different countries. Though the ingredients aren’t the same, you don’t have to be a professor in ethnology to realise why wasabi and pickled ginger give the exact same kick to a cold noodle salad with steamed chicken breast as I miss if a sharp horse radish crème isn’t added to my corned beef.
The increased focus on producers and food products, and the wide applause of Scandinavia’s style of food the last decade haven’t revolutionised home cooking. But the curiosity and awareness of our many wild herbs and mushrooms, and the use of vinegars, fresh juices and beer in the kitchen has spread to most of the Danish homes. In addition to this, many of the low-status ingredients like curly kale, swede and fresh mackerels have become fashionable foods.
Another deeply rooted Danish lunch tradition is the schnapps. Schnapps is an integrated part of Danish identity and is the glue that keeps the traditional feast together – Christmas, Easter, Pentecost and Sunday lunches. Yet for a couple of decades, up until now, schnapps has lived in the shadows. Probably because strong alcohol for lunch has been hard to combine with Denmark’s smoking ban, focus on health and general ascetic tendencies. Luckily, the reservation towards schnapps is on its way out, and more restaurants have started to make their own versions based on local herbs and traditions. Foraging has become a popular sport, and small, interesting producers have started to pop up all over, like Esrum Sø Mikrodestilleri and Aqua Vitae Sydfyn who, unlike the rest of us, distil directly from herbs or fruits.
It wasn’t until I opened Aamanns Etablissement six years ago I realized the wide potential of the flavoured schnapps if we were willing to give it attention, care and dared to try new things. Since then, our experience with this Danish liquid delicacy has grown considerably as I have been able to follow the development of taste of the different infusions and the subsequent maturing – and, not least, get feedback from our guests. By customizing the schnapps we serve for our menus, we have experienced an increased interest from our guests who do not let everyday life and daily chores hinder a gastro-alcoholic experience. The most satisfying thing is to introduce people who are convinced that they don’t like schnapps to the magic.
For this purpose – making people see the magic – a woodruff schnapps is one of the most convincing ones. Woodruff is one of the three most hyped Nordic herbs together with ramson and yellow wood sorrel. But woodruff is not pseudo garlic or green, unripe lemons – it has its own unique aroma with notes of almond, forest floor, moss, kiwi and magic. I love this herb and I really don’t get why it hasn’t been put on the shelves of the supermarkets yet, where I’m sure it could knock basil off its perch because it actually goes a lot better with Danish products as kale, potatoes and all the root vegetables.
Back to the schnapps
Woodruff schnapps gives a mild, light, sweet and extremely seducing aromatic schnapps. In addition, it’s incredibly easy to make. There is something very special and expressive about the flavoured schnapps you make yourself. It’s an enjoyment beyond the taste and the smell because you are a part of the whole process; the foraging, the preparation and the unpredictables that influence the taste variations in the final results.
Woodruff is gathered in spring and early part of the summer after the anemones have ceased flowering, and it is often here, where the anemones live in deciduous forest and half-shade, that you’ll be in luck. You should pick your woodruff between May-August.
25-30 woodruff stems
70 cl Brøndums Snaps Klar (clear schnapps) or a clear, neutral vodka.
Fill up a bottle with woodruff and pour over the schnapps/vodka. Let it infuse at a dark and cool spot in 4-5 days (At 10-15 C: 4 days, 5-8 C: 5 days).
Filter the schnapps and store it dark and cool.
The first 6-8 weeks, the woodruff schnapps has a fresh, chlorophyll-ish character with almond or marzipan notes. It tastes like spring, so it is very well-suited for a lunch filled with herbs and the first vegetables of the season – like a classic potato-on-rye-bread with lots of chives, radishes and smoked cheese or an asparagus salad in a creamy vinaigrette with poached eggs.
When the schnapps after a few months has reached a balanced body with strong almond notes, it is ready to be served with heavier fall dishes as well.
The classic flavoured schnapps is based on herbs, berries and other plants to which fully distilled, neutral alcohol is added. This gives a unique drink which in its smell, taste and colour captures the essence of the plants chosen. The essence can, like with good wine, be used actively in the pairing of food and drink. In schnapps, some of the season’s fleeting tastes and smells of the short-living plants are enclosed and preserved. The delight in being able to lean back and enjoy these herbs and plants – like spring rhubarb or summer’s elderflower – concentrated in a small glass in January speaks for itself…
You can make flavoured schnapps all year round; from early spring when the first shoots appear from the ground, through summer and fall, where the different berries ripen while flowers and herbs fight for the best spots. Even in winter when most plants have faded, you can produce nice, warming flavoured schnapps with nuts, apples, dried fruit and spices.
It is important to make your flavoured schnapps from a neutral tasting alcohol. Often clear schnapps has been added caraway seeds or similar, which almost never go well with flavoured schnapps. I use Brøndums Snaps Klar, which is made especially for production of flavoured schnapps and has a completely neutral and pure taste. You can also use an un-flavoured vodka or rectified alcohol at 40 %. Be careful about higher percentages than 40 as they might draw out more bitterness and ruin the taste.
To bring out the most intense taste, it is important to gather herbs, berries and fruit at the right time. Wild herbs are usually best in the beginning of their season and flowers usually when they are newly blown, while fruits and berries have the most intense flavour when they are fully ripen. Some berries, like rowanberries or sloe, need to be frozen in order to make the carbohydrates sweet and pleasant. This means that foraging should take place after the frost has set in, but you can also cheat and freeze the berries right after picking. Herbs and berries which have grown close to the ground need to be thoroughly cleaned for dirt and soil particles, while you should avoid washing flowers like elderflower, hip and maple as their aroma will disappear.
This is the time when the plants transfuse taste into the schnapps. During infusion, the plants release a lot of flavour and smell, and it is therefore important to draw out the good flavour agents and avoid the bad. If the infusion time is too long, the final result will often be a bitter schnapps with unpleasant after-taste – exactly as when tea steep for too long. It can be a good idea to make a note in your calendar in order to remember when to end the infusion.
To make a successful schnapps essence, you need to make a good batch of flavour giving plants and to cover all of it with alcohol. It is always a good idea to taste the schnapps while the mixture infuses, so you’ll have an idea of when the taste is right. The longer the infusion time, the stronger the taste. After the infusion, you can always dilute it with your neutral schnapps or vodka until you reach the just the right proportions.
When you are satisfied with the taste of your schnapps, you remove the plants from the mixture. You remove it by pouring it through first a strainer and afterwards through a firmly wrung cotton cloth, possibly a couple of times to make the schnapps as clear as possible.
The sediment of the different types of flavoured schnapps varies – a schnapps on porous blackberries settles more sediment than a schnapps made on firm ingredients like horseradish, lemon and apple.
You should be even more careful with how you store your homemade schnapps than you are with the spirits you buy as these are meant to endure changing conditions. Certain types of especially delicate flavoured schnapps, like asparagus and maple flower, are very sensitive to warm temperatures and can end up with an unpleasant after-taste or even completely ruined.
Flavoured schnapps should always be kept in a dark and cool place, both during and after infusion. Direct sunlight affects taste and colour, and normal indoor temperatures will usually give a herb based schnapps a bland taste. If you are a house owner, a cool basement with a constant temperature around 15° C would be the best place to store your herbal treasures. If not, a wine cooler or a normal fridge will work.
Usually schnapps is best in the first year after its infusion as the flavour will become insipid in the same way as industrially produced schnapps will after opening. Exceptions are the more bitter types of schnapps, like those made from extracts of sloe, rowanberries and walnut, which have the ability to keep their flavour for several years.
Serving and enjoying
What is the best way to serve schnapps? It has for many years been a widespread misconception that schnapps should be served ice cold directly from the freezer. If you don’t want to taste your schnapps and only drink it for the alcohol percentages, then this might be a good idea, but if you make your own and care about taste and development – don’t freeze it. A rule of thumb is to keep it between 8-18° C so it doesn’t get either too hot or too cold.
Like wines, schnapps benefits from being served at a temperature that matches the type. The more aromatic types with flowers, berries or fruits are best at around 8-10° C. The cool temperature tames the strong flavour and smell, and it will give you a fresher drink. To get this temperature, grab the bottle from your fridge and serve right away. Schnapps on herbs and greens are less protruding, and the taste and smell are best brought out at around 12° C. Schnapps on spices and bitters, like rowanberries, sloe and walnut have the same qualities as whisky, cognac and calvados with solid aromas and rich in tannin, so a temperature around 16-18° C is therefore perfect. A lower temperature might bring out the wrong aromas and flavours with these types of schnapps, and you risk that they will seem dry and shut.