Where Danish means lunch


smørrebrødNew York Times writes about smørrebrød (free registration req.), usually explained to English speaking people as "open faced sandwiches", which doesn't really come that close. This article does it more justice. (Yeah, there is actually bread under the mountain of food in the photo).

Where Danish Means Lunch
By R. W. APPLE Jr.

LEAVE it to the Danes, those past masters of form and color, to turn sandwiches into still lifes.

At Ida Davidsen's snug little basement restaurant, a couple of blocks from Amalienborg, the royal palace, they build small works of art out of fish, meat, cheese, eggs and vegetables, flavored with dill or lemony mayonnaise or mustard made with beer and brandy. Some are based on humble ingredients like sardines, potatoes or salami. Others use caviar, lobster or prime beef.

It is hard to imagine anything less like a New Yorker's jaw-stretching corned beef on rye or a ballpark frank than a meticulously made smorrebrod, or open-faced sandwich, with its components chosen not only for the way their tastes complement one another but also for the picture they present.

Between 300 and 400 sandwiches a day emerge from the kitchen. Not one of them is ugly or sloppy. Not one is gloppy or greasy. This is Denmark, the homeland of Georg Jensen and Arne Jacobsen, where careful craftsmanship is the norm and not the exception.

Some smorrebrod are complex. An extravaganza featuring Danish (pork) liver pâté begins with a buttered slice of rye bread. Two slices of pâté go atop that, and they in turn are topped with three slices of tomato, arranged diagonally. A ribbon of pale green cucumber salad, made with vinegar, crosses the tomatoes, next to a ribbon of crunchy fried onions.

''Red and green, sweet and tart, soft and crisp,'' Ms. Davidsen said. ''Here you have contrasts in color, flavor and texture in a single sandwich.''

Other sandwiches are simpler -- a mound of maybe three dozen tiny pink shrimp, for example, piled with precision on a buttered slice of white sourdough bread. A turn or two of the pepper mill provides all the seasoning that is needed. But there is art even here; the shrimp are peeled each morning, and they are stacked so the head of each faces in the same direction.

Ms. Davidsen is the guardian angel of Danish smorrebrod. She is the great-granddaughter of Oskar Davidsen, a wine merchant who began serving innovative sandwiches in 1888 in his shop on the outskirts of Copenhagen. By 1900, Oskar Davidsen was offering 178 varieties of smorrebrod almost every day, most of them available on any of four kinds of bread. The menu was a yard and a half long.

Ms. Davidsen's grandfather, Vagn Aage Davidsen, began the practice of creating new sandwiches and naming them for well-known figures. The Hans Christian Andersen, one of his creations (and one of the gems on today's menu), uses ingredients mentioned in Andersen tales -- bacon, liver pâté, tomatoes, jellied consommé with port and coarsely grated horseradish. It adds up to a kind of supercharged BLT.

Many of Ms. Davidsen's creations center around products smoked by her husband, Adam Siesbye, at their country house, including duck (served with a mayonnaise-bound beet, cabbage and leek salad on rye), salmon, tuna and even pastrami (eaten with sauerkraut, pickles and that boozy mustard).

When my wife, Betsey, and I ate our way through a fair portion of the current repertory on two visits this summer, we were particularly taken with the smoked tuna, sliced translucently thin and served with a poached egg, spinach and lemon zest -- a fabulous combination. Another winner was a tangle that Ms. Davidsen calls the Fireman's Nightcap: smoked potatoes, bacon and chicken salad on rye, showered with crisp-fried carrot matchsticks.

SMORREBROD dates from the 1600's, when farm families took baskets filled with bread, butter, sausage and smoked fish into the fields. There they made their own open-faced sandwiches. As Denmark slowly became more urban, sandwich making moved to the kitchen, and preparations became more elaborate. But the renowned Danish pork products -- bacon, ham and salami -- remained prime ingredients, along with preserved anchovies, herring, eel and salmon.

For a time, a couple of decades ago, the national taste for smorrebrod seemed to be dying. But today many Danes eat smorrebrod for lunch several times a week, either at restaurants or at their workplaces, buying sandwiches at carryouts or bringing them from home in specially fitted lunchboxes. They are sold on trains and ferries. And at home, smorrebrod are often served when friends are invited by for the evening, especially in the summer.

''For us,'' Ms. Davidsen remarked, ''smorrebrod can provide a vehicle for leftovers, the way pasta sometimes does for the Italians and crepes sometimes do for the French. You look in the refrigerator, and there's a cooked pork chop. You slice it up, sauté some onions, boil an apple with sugar and lemon, slice that, and put everything together with bread, butter and a bit of leftover gravy. A delicious lunch.''

The word smorrebrod is derived from the Danish words for bread and butter, and those are the two essential ingredients of every Danish sandwich. The Danes bake excellent bread as well as their much better-known breakfast pastries, and their butter is so good that it is widely sold across northern Europe.

Custom decrees that the butter should be spread smoothly and evenly, right to the edge of the bread.

Custom decrees, furthermore, that smorrebrod should be be eaten in a fixed order, like the dishes in a Swedish smorgasbord. Pickled herring comes first, often topped with onions or dill or capers or all three. At Slotskaelderen Hos Gitte Kik, another of Copenhagen's top smorrebrod restaurants, across the street from Parliament, Lene Just offered us our choice of seven or eight kinds of herring. Only when we picked one did she place several pieces on a piece of pumpernickel; if made in advance, she explained, the sandwich would get too soggy.

After that, a fish- or shellfish-based sandwich -- perhaps crayfish tails with dill mayonnaise, if they are in season, or fried plaice, the mild-tasting Baltic flatfish adored by the Scandinavians, with rémoulade sauce. And after that, something meaty, like sliced tongue with Russian salad. That makes three, which is what most men eat for lunch; the average for women is two.

Ms. Just, whose restaurant has been in business since 1797, sized me up and suggested a fourth, ''to round things off.'' With only the feeblest protest, I succumbed, and she brought over a little number with the subtlety of a sledgehammer: slices of strong, mature cheese, reminiscent of Limburger, arrayed with onion rings and a strip of beef aspic on a slice of sourdough bread spread with pork dripping. A tot of rum had been poured over the ensemble.

Betsey took a bite, muttered, ''This thing needs a Listerine chaser,'' and reached for another taste.

BUT back to smorrebrod ritual. The prescribed accompaniment to a meal of Danish sandwiches is a large glass of Danish beer and a small glass of Danish aquavit, which is always taken neat and ice cold. And thereby hangs a cautionary tale.

I was visiting Denmark for the first time, overseen by my parents, sometime in the 1960's. We went to the Soepavillonen (Sea Pavilion), an elaborate smorrebrod temple operated by Ida Davidsen's parents. I ate and ate, drank and drank, tossing back aquavit as if it were iced tea. My parents seemed impressed by my capacity until I fell down a flight of stairs as we were leaving, landing with a thud at my mother's feet. She was not amused.

That restaurant closed in 1974 (not, as far as I know, because of my antics). By that time, Ms. Davidsen had spent four years, ''when Hollywood was Hollywood,'' working in California at Kenneth Hansen's Scandia, then the leading Nordic restaurant in the United States, making smorrebrod for Danny Kaye, Elizabeth Taylor and friends.

Now it was her turn to hoist the family's banner, and she and her husband opened their little place on Store Kongensgade here. With two children to raise -- Oskar, now 35, and Mia, now 33, both of whom work with her -- Ms. Davidsen decided to open only five days a week, and only for lunch, although she serves ''lunch'' from 9 a.m. on, and there are usually passengers from the Norwegian ships that dock nearby waiting outside for a pick-me-up when she unlocks her door.

I was surprised, the first time I went there a couple of decades ago, that the restaurant wasn't airier. Why, I asked her, did she choose a space with small windows and low ceilings?

''We have bright, beautiful summers,'' she told us, ''but the winters are long and dark. We get up in the dark, and we get home from the office in the dark, so you use bright colors, you light a lot of candles and you try to make rooms hygge, meaning cozy.''

If the gloom is particularly Stygian, you could do much worse than pay a lunchtime call on Ms. Davidsen. She is at work most business days in her clogs, chef's whites and a towering toque, with her red plastic eyeglasses on a pearl chain around her neck. Blond, round-faced and rosy-cheeked, seldom without a smile on her face, she is the personification of sunshine.

By noon most days, every seat is filled. Local businessmen, shoppers and tourists vie for places, and foreigners get an exceptionally warm greeting. Either Ida (she pronounces her name EE-da, not EYE-da) or Oskar explains the composition of the sandwiches displayed in glass cases to each customer, and those who find the nomenclature hard to manage can order by pointing.

The lunchtime feasts need not be expensive, even if there is a dollop of caviar or a smidgen of smoked salmon on one of your smorrebrod. Our parade of delicacies, irrigated by Carlsberg and aquavit (in more judicious quantities this time), cost $78.

Some of the very best smorrebrod depend on ingredients with short seasons. So be sure to inquire about the availability of crayfish, lobster and the sweet little fjord shrimp. And if you are lucky enough to find yourself in Copenhagen in late April or in May, when the first delectable new potatoes are dug, do not fail to order a sliced potato sandwich with apples, thyme and onions.

Sound strange? Well, it's Ida Davidsen's favorite smorrebrod, and the favorite of many other Danes, too. Competition among restaurants to serve it is so fierce that the year's first sack of spuds can fetch as much as $65 a pound.

This is the second of three articles on the food of Scandinavia.


this year I do a formation to became cook, and have a great intesting for danish open sandwiches. I want to find a book about this subject. I thank you for that.

Hi, What a wonderful article. I am trying to duplicate some of these sandwiches for some Swedish friends. Question....Do you leave the crust on the bread or cut if off? I know it won't be perfect, but I want to come close. Also which breads go with which meat, fish, etc. Many thanks. Diane Oberg


You leave the crust on the bread. :-) Often you use dark rye bread where, when it's fresh, the crust really is just a slightly harder version of what's inside.

Good luck!

- ask

I enjoyed the article enormously, I remember eating the open sandwiches on Fano when I was a very small child in 1959!I revisited our island in 2003 and our family had a huge party and we ate smorrebrod!!

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This page contains a single entry by Ask Bjørn Hansen published on October 29, 2002 12:56 AM.

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