The Highs and Lows of Smørrebrød
Some recent work trips have kept me away from writing, but, luckily, not from eating. When the purpose of a trip is not pleasure, often times the dining side gets thrown by the wayside in the name of expediency and convenience. It’s kind of like a road trip. While it sounds really easy from the outset to pack balanced, tupperwared meals and canteens of green tea, how often have you found yourself at the gas station convenience store with a big bag of salt and vinegar chips and a black, tar-like coffee? My last year’s worth of work-related trips, despite some European food capitals appearing on the roster, included dining experiences as varied as reheated pizza from a 7-11 in Stockholm, three days of subsisting purely on bread and cheese in Paris and overpriced fair food in Milan that might just pass as Italian in, say, Tenaha, TX.
Yes, yes, poor me, you must think. And you’re right; it’s not as bad as it sounds. As much as paying to eat bad food infuriates me, I admit that among these experiences, I have managed to eat some very nice things. The key is to know that a little bit of research goes a long way. Take Copenhagen, where I had the chance to visit for a design festival during the end of August. If you’ve heard anything about Copenhagen and food, it’s probably been something to the effect of “oooh, NOMA is there!” or “it’s soooo expensive!”. And both are precisely correct. With NOMA being the top-rated restaurant in the world two years running, and Denmark enjoying a boom of ‘New Nordic’ cuisine standards that draw chefs from around the world, Copenhagen is certainly the IT place for food lovers. Since Copenhagen really does live up to the ‘it’s soooo expensive’ reputation, I knew I couldn’t afford to truly partake and deem the hype justified or not.
Which brings me to Tip Number One for dining out of town: Google. Believe it or not, this ubiquitous search engine holds the key to all the ‘best of’ lists for just about any city around the world. Do yourself a favor: the day before you leave (or on your smart phone at your home airport, to avoid roaming fees) run a quick google search for the best restaurants, cafes, to-go and coffee shops of your destination. Avoid big, corporate-created lists like Trip Advisor or Fodors. Instead, focus in on a newspaper or magazine that you like and trust and see what they have to say. Or, find a local’s guide- a bit of digging will provide loads of rouge travel and food writers that are sure to share your own (good) taste. Note down a few spots that look good, and are near to where you will be staying. Paper and pen also work beautifully here. You never know when that smart phone will die or decide not to connect to foreign networks.
Tip Number Two: locate a nearby supermarket. True, not so seductive while travelling, but useful to cost-save and pick up a few staples that are a hassle to eat while on-the-go. Take Copenhagen, for instance. Upon emerging from the Metro and before arriving at my AirBnB, I spied just across the street a supermarket. I decided to pop in for five minutes and pick up some cheese, crackers, fruit and yogurt, which would prove later to be immensely appreciated as a late evening snack and for breakfast the next morning. I’ve always thought it’s even fun to browse grocery stores in new cities. You get a sense of what the locals actually eat, how differently their packaging looks and the real price of food staples as compared to restaurants and to-go establishments.
Tip Number Three: Instead of a hotel opt for a private apartment stay, AirBnB, etc. This is essential for getting an insider’s view into a city and for saving money on food. Nearly every AirBnB place, whether a private apartment or a shared one, will have a kitchen, giving you at least the option to cook and store food there. Even if you never do, just having the ability to boil your own water in the morning for tea makes you feel at home. Plus, any good AirBnB owner will provide you with a list of their favorite neighborhood locales, a kind of mini-guide to their city.
This is exactly how I came upon Aamanns Etablissement, where I lunched on Danish Smørrebrød one afternoon. Even before arriving in Copenhagen, I knew of the Smørrebrød, or open-faced sandwich, tradition as a mid-day staple all over Denmark. I thought little of it, however, as the similar custom I experienced while in Norway a few summers ago was actually pretty dull: a slice of bread with butter and a couple pieces of cheese, or maybe some canned fish. Fine, but it got boring fast. What I experienced in Denmark, however, was a whole new level of Smørrebrød. Granted, as a Michelin-recommended restaurant, Aamanns being my virgin Danish Smørrebrød experience perhaps biased my opinion of the dish.
The tradition of Smørrebrød began in the late 1800s, popularized as a basic meal for the working-class. It also proved to be something that worked all year round; with a thin slice of hearty sourdough rye bread as its base, a layer of butter, a slice of cured meat and some pickled vegetables, the ingredients could be obtained throughout the long Danish winters. Aamanns had the goal, with its casual deli and corresponding restaurant, Aamanns Etablissement, to offer a contemporary take on the traditional Smørrebrød experience. Focusing on locally-sourced ingredients, Aamanns takes the open-faced sandwich to a truly gourmet level with its perfect flavor and texture compliments.
We tried the dish of three seasonal herrings, which included: fried herring in wheat beer, fresh herring cured with mustard seeds and dill, and marinated herring with dill and Västerbotten cheese. Here one can sense, in a single sampler dish, the range that is possible with herring prepared and topped in three different ways, and offered a micro-glimpse into the Danish palate. This was followed with Smørrebrød topped with slices of potatoes, crumbled bacon, hazelnuts, cress, ramsons capers, and radish/chive mayonnaise. The cress was tiny and delicate, the mini-capers as well, and the bacon and hazelnuts provided the perfect crisp texture in contrast to the potatoes and mayonnaise. While this delicate meal did not come cheap, following my Tip Number Two of grocery shopping and eating in while travelling helps to compensate for a nice meal out. I also felt justified in the small splurge when, the next day at an opening, I was surprised and utterly delighted by a free buffet of Smørrebrød catered by none other than Aamanns. There, I ate even more inspiring and fishy varieties of open-faced sandwiches to my heart’s content. Washed down by free champagne, it was a version of ‘bread and butter’ that the working class of 19th century Copenhagen could not have imagined. Is it my catholic upbringing telling me that frugality somehow pays off in the end?
The fabulous thing about Smørrebrød is that you can go as basic or as fancy as you want. While not everyone wants to spend their afternoon frying herring in wheat beer and gathering micro-capers from the fields, it’s pretty simple to keep a hearty loaf of sourdough rye bread on hand (sliced thinly!), some good quality butter, a bit of cured meat or cheese, and some pickled beets. Likewise, some leftover boiled potatoes can be cut up and topped with mayonnaise combined with chopped fresh herbs, whichever you have lying around. Or, if you happen to be located in New York City, you will be happy to learn that in 2012 Aamanns opened a Manhattan outpost, where you can sample all these Danish delicacies with American dollars on the other side of the Atlantic.