by lyle e davis
For a guy who has begun following a healthy diet, begun to exercise, and is trying to lose weight . . . this assignment was a tough one.
The assignment? Describe smørrebrød. (Most of us Yanks probably call it smorgasborg).
Regular readers of The Paper will recall several weeks ago we profiled a fella named Frode Suhr, a true Danish national hero who was a member of the Danish Underground and Resistance. (See “The Making of a Spy”
Well, Frode seemed to have liked our story about him so he invited Evelyn Madison and I to join him and his lovely wife, Doris M. Suhr, for a bona fide real Danish lunch.
Now, I’m mostly Scandinavian, about 60% Norwegian, 35% Danish, and 5% Welsh (the Welsh is where the Davis comes in). I’ve been to both Norway and Denmark but I have never, ever eaten a finer meal than the smørrebrød prepared for us by Doris M. Suhr.
And nothing surprised us more than to learn the delightful tradition that is smørrebrød. What a tasty tradition!
Consider this: A traditional Danish lunch will normally last two to four hours. There will likely be about 30-40-50 sandwiches. (While that may be impressive to you, consider that a world reknown Danish restaurant and smørrebrød house, Oskar Davidsen, in Aalborg, Denmark, has a menu of 150 sandwiches, up to 180 sandwiches for special occasions.. (Yes, I said 180 sandwiches. Their menu is three feet long).
So, I’m suggesting, as we did, that you try something new and either eat . . . or better yet, make smørrebrød!
If you do, I guarantee you success, applause and praise. And a pleasantly full tummy.
And so you say: What is Smørrebrød?
Smørrebrød (or Smørrebrød) is a Danish National food that’s served at celebrations, special occasions or just about any time, any place. It is definitely the best food there is in Denmark….very pretty, a piece of art, really. And when you make Smørrebrød, you don’t have to go to a specialty store and buy special equipment like when you make sushi - or a wok for Chinese food, or a pizza pan, etc. You do have to do lots and lots of shopping, but all the ingredients may be purchased at an ordinary supermarket, And you don’t have to be of Danish heritage (or a Viking) to eat and enjoy Smørrebrød.
You are served one group of food at a time. The sequence is a seafood arrangment, followed by meat dishes and we finish with a cheese and fruit arrangement.
We start with a delicious spiced herring served with onion rings and capers on dark pumpernickel bread (the type without seeds). You are served the traditional Danish Aalborg Schnapps, ice cold in one ounce glasses. You do not sip this, you down it in one drink. That is the custom.
Evelyn and I seldom drink but we wanted to follow the proper tradition. In the process, I became a fan of Schnapps. You will also be served a dark beer, which you will likely drink with your meat dishes.
Examples of the fish part of the lunch: Mackerel in tomato sauce on rye bread. Tiny anchovies rest on slices of hard boiled egg on rye bread; caviar on egg cake on white toasted bread; shrimp with lemon slice on white bread. Real Crab salad with black olives on white bread. Smoked Norwegian Salmon with shredded celery root on white bread. Russian salad has herring, beets and macaroni, and is served on black bread.
One drinks both Schnapps and beer during the fish serving. Once you advance to the meat dishes, the Schnapps disappears and you focus on the beers (usually several different types. We had Carlsberg, imported from Denmark).
Next, let’s have some large white asparagus, rolled into ham with Italian salad, on white bread. The sun-dried Posciutto or Rosemary ham is served with canteloup or white asparagus on French white bread; jellied beef tongue with olives on white bread with sweet red beets; hot miniature sausages, which you seek out in a cauldron with tiny toothpicks, then eat with a spicy mustard.
Getting hungry? That’s the idea. Not only is the tummy and appetite pleased . . . but the eye as well.
Doris Suhr made huge platters of smørrebrød delights. Beautiful to look at, even more lovely to eat.
Oh, I learned a lesson. Frode Suhr tactfully taught me that it is not good manners to take more than one item from a smørrebrød tray at a time. Eat all you want, but just take one item as at time, then help yourself to a second and third helping as long as the food remains. That way, someone who is particularly fond of a certain type sandwich has at least a chance at it. Also, just take one sandwich at a time. That’s why the plates are small (naturally, I had taken one of each type of sandwich - before I learned the proper custom).
When the cheese and fruit section appears, it’s time for the Schnapps to reappear. Ice cold Schnapps just goes perfectly with cheeses and fruits. At the end, often after three or four hours, coffee, liquor or a brandy is served.
The important thing about Smørrebrød is to forget about the diet you were on yesterday, it can continue tomorrow.
(It is interesting to note that in Denmark the government gives a free monthly bottle to all senior citizens. Schnapps, also known as Aquavit, is said to keep the blood pressure down.)
OK. Now you say you want to learn how to make Smørrebrød? OK . . . here’s the drill:
Things to buy:
• Rye bread (a pumpernickel kind of bread or Danish rye)
• White bread (French bread or sour dough bread)
• Butter (at least a pound or two)
• Roast Beef
• Corned beef (Pastrami)
• Cheese (Danish Havarti, Brie, etc..)
• Smoked Salmon
• Pickled Herring
• Liver (or just buy liverwurst or pate)
Canned Food (1 can each of)
•Olives (black and green)
•Peas and carrots
• Boston (Butter) lettuce (lots)
• Cucumbers (English)
• Green and red pepper
• Radishes (lots)
• Schnapps (aquavit)
What To Do
Do the shopping a couple of days ahead of making the sandwiches. All the items can be purchased in a supermarket except for maybe the schnapps, which is the crowning glory of Smørrebrød. The schnapps can usually be found in a well- stocked liquor store or Trader Joes or an upscale grocery store.
Try to find a nice imported liver pâté or go to a fancy delicatessen for liverwurst. Here you may also find all the cold cuts and the pickled herring. Also ahead of time you should boil a few eggs (hardboiled as well as making røregg (a form of scrambled egg).
One The Day of the Party
The trick to making smørrebrød is to work fast once you get started. You have to have all the ingredients ready - So here goes:
Open all the cans of vegetables and drain. Keep each kind separated. Wash the lettuce and spin-dry. It is important that the lettuce is crisp, clean and dry. Slice the cucumbers in thin slices; also slice tomatoes, olives, lemons, oranges and onions. (Keep onions separate). Fry the bacon and drain. Fry some onions. Make Italiensk Salat (peas and carrots in mayonnaise) and Remulade.
Now on your kitchen table have everything ready to work with quickly. Rye bread, butter (at room temperature), cold cuts, and all the vegetables. If there is not enough room on the table, use the sink and surrounding counters, just as long as everything is within reach. Now you are ready to start: The trick is speed. Work fast.
1. Butter the rye bread, slice by slice and cut each in half. Calculate about 3 or 4 pieces for each person. 10 guests x 3 = 30 half slices = 15 whole slices (add a couple more slices to be on the safe side. Distribute these evenly on the platters. Allow plenty of room around them. You may mix in a few buttered slices of white bread also on the platters. Make sure you use lots of butter and cover the whole surface of the bread lavishly.
2. Now place a small piece of lettuce on the end of each slice of bread and top it with cold cuts – each slice with its own kind: ham, salami, beef, pork, etc. The liverwurst may be sliced in the form in which it was baked so it will not break. Use the white bread for the cheese and the smoked salmon, but wait with the scrimp till later. Some slices may be with tomatoes and eggs (tomatoes first, then eggs on top).
3. Now, the fun part: You are ready to do your artwork – the finishing touch. Use the chopped vegetables to decorate with – just like you would a cake. Anything goes – really – as long as it is pretty and the flavors don’t clash. The Danes have traditional ways of decorating their smørrebrød. Here are some suggestions:
Stir your peas and carrots with a little mayonnaise and place a heaping spoonful on top of the ham topped yet with a couple of slices of twisted orange. Place some red cabbage on the pork with perhaps some orange slices. The liverwurst should be decorated with fried crisp bacon, pickled beets or cucumbers and mushrooms. All this should be arranged in a decorative manner. The salami is good with sliced onions and some black olives on top. Place some twisted fresh cucumber slices on the egg and tomato. The smoked salmon looks and tastes good with scrambled egg (røregg) and add a little green here, either basil or parsley or other fresh herb. On the cheese place some sliced green and red pepper. The other cold cuts may be decorated with olives, beets, cabbage, fried or raw onions, etc. Keep the various slices mixed on the trays. The goal is to make things look decorative, inviting and appetizing. To add a final touch: place whole radishes in between the slices of smørrebrød to cover up any open spaces. Parsley and a large "starred” tomato with parsley may also be placed on each tray – all to make it pretty.
4. When all done, quickly cover the trays loosely with plastic wrap. Be careful not to destroy your artwork. Place the trays in the refrigerator until ready to serve your guests. You may safely store the smørrebrød a couple of hours before serving.
5. The shrimp should be done separately. Here is how: Butter white bread lavishly and cut in half. Place on a pretty tray. Now top with a nice whole leaf of lettuce, preferably one that will form a little “cup.” No bread may be seen. Now pile shrimp on top of the lettuce (a handful). Decorate with a tablespoon of mayonnaise and two slices of thin twisted lemon. A little parsley here and there will add beauty. Cover the tray and place in the refrigerator.
6. The pickled herring is also usually served separately. Either the herring can be placed in a little dish surrounded by buttered small slices of rye bread or the bread may be covered with the fish topped with onion slices and capers or beets.
7. That’s all. You are done. Undoubtedly you have a big old mess to clean up. But it is easy. Whatever you didn’t use, just throw it all together and store it for a salad the next day.
Figure 2-3 slices of meat or cheese for each piece of smørrebrød (half a slice of bread). A pound of shrimp will cover about 4-5 pieces of Smørrebrød.
Smørrebrød can be taken to a potluck party in which case you may want to omit the herring. But do add a few shrimp pieces (may be mixed in on the same platter at a potluck) I guarantee it will be a success.
But the best would be to throw a Danish party. All you have to do now after making all the smørrebrød and placed the platters in the refrigerator is to have the table set – don’t forget the knives and forks and tiny glasses for the schnapps - drinks cooled – schnapps should be on ice and you are ready to go.
Sliced Cucumber Salad (Agurke Salat)
Sliced cucumber salad is called agurke salat (a-gorka sal-at). It can be served as a side dish or on open faced sandwiches (Smørrebrød).
Smørrebrød sandwiches are as much art as they are a delicacy.
There are two important steps when preparing this cucumber salad. First, slice the cucumbers paper thin. Second, salt them to remove, “the burp” from them. Other than that, the rest is easy.
You can make a big batch at a time and eat them all week long, even using the vinegar mixture a second time and just slice and salt some more cucumbers.
3 large cucumbers
1 cup of white wine vinegar
½ cup water
½ cup sugar
1 teaspoon of coriander seeds
salt & pepper, to taste
How to Make Sliced Cucumber Salad
You can leave the peel on or you can peel them if you like. They might be too flimsy if you cut them paper-thin. You can use a food processor to slice them or a mandolin, or, if you have a lot of patience, slice them by hand but be sure they are paper thin.
Next, put them out on some paper towels and sprinkle them with salt. Let them sit there for about 10 minutes.
After they have been salted, put them in a colander and wash all the salt off with cold water. If you don’t get most of the salt off, the final result will be way too salty. Gently squeeze the sliced cucumbers in your hands to get rid of as much water as possible. You can let them drain in the colander while you make the vinegar mixture.
Prepare the Vinegar Mixture
In a medium sized bowl that you are going to serve the cucumbers in, add the vinegar with the water, then the sugar and coriander seeds. Mix well until the sugar is dissolved.
Add the cucumbers and coriander seeds and mix together with your hands or spoon if you don’t like to get your hands dirty. Cover and refrigerate for a few hours so the cucumbers pick up all the flavor of the sugared vinegar.
This is really simple to make and goes especially well with pork.
A Typical Danish Day
We'll start with breakfast. The Danes seem to be very much into breakfast, with large platters of breads, pastries, cheeses, jams, meats, and fruit. That's a lot. And for those of us who are total wimps, there's always nutella, and there's sometimes just plain (thinly-sliced) chocolate to put on bread with butter! Basically, breakfast is good.
Lunch is really variable. Traditional Danish food would be smørrebrød, which is an open-faced sandwich, usually with butter, a meat (or fish,) some kind of cheese, and a vegetable. One interesting note is that the Danes tend to be quite fond of rye-bread versus wheat or (god forbid,) white bread. Other than smørrebrød, Danes eat pretty much anything for lunch. Regular sandwiches, pizza, pastas, etc. Again, its good.
Dinner is also pretty good... sometimes you can find some really strange stuff, but mostly its quite 'normal' according to Americans. The traditional Danish meat is called frikadella, and its small meatballs made usually with ground pork, some flour, chopped onions, and some other stuff. It was surprisingly good! Now we get to my favorite meal, dessert.
First off, Haribo. Is wonderful, and terrible for your teeth. There are so many kinds of Haribo here that it is difficult to figure out which kind to buy first! There's no doubt that Denmark's open sandwiches called Smørrebrød are the most famous feature of the Danish kitchen. They're also a staple of the Norwegian diet, stemming from when Denmark ruled Norway in the 19th Century. The sandwiches have hundreds of variations, with chefs coming up with new versions all the time.
While there's an endless variety of good breads used to make these open-faced sandwiches, the Danes usually make them with dark rye bread. Chefs prefer wholegrain breads for their firmness so that they can cut the slices as thin as possible. When they use white bread, they usually toast it.
(Danish open sandwich (smørrebrød) on dark rye bread (almost covered) with breaded fish, salad, cucumber, shrimps, black-colored lumpfish roe (sort stenbiderrogn) and tomato.)
Crunchy cucumber, fresh dill and gravlax top thinly sliced rye bread for a delightful Danish appetizer. Smørrebrød—which translates in Danish to "buttered bread"—are endlessly creative open-face sandwiches, meant to be eaten with a knife and fork as a light meal. Doris M. Suhr makes appetizer-size smørrebrød, perfect for entertaining.
So there . . . now we hope we have whetted your appetite and stimulated your curiousity to the point that you will read up more on the many recipes for making your own smørrebrød.
Sadly, we could find no Danish restaurants in all of San Diego County that featured smørrebrød.
We found the Danish Bakery in Carlsbad. They bake the pumpernickel bread that Danes like to use, and they also make lovely Danish pastries and cakes, but no smørrebrød.
If I were a younger man I believe I’d take Doris M. Suhr by the hand and ask her if she would be the head of a beautiful new restaurant. I betch the patrons would flock in day after day. Guess what the specialty would be?