All because of rye bread, I had to buy a second suitcase. In Denmark, it’s typical to have rye bread once, twice, three times a day. For breakfast, Danes smear a slice with butter, then add cheese or jam, or both. Rye bread is packed into kids’ school lunch boxes or in a sack for lunch at work. At dinnertime, rye bread is in the breadbasket not just in homes, but at cafés, too. At the end of the day, leftover rye bread may be broken into a bowl and drenched with remaining beer from the table, and cooked the next morning as porridge. Or it’s crumbled and toasted, and eaten like granola.
Danish rye bread isn’t the airy loaf we’re accustomed to in the US, nor is it the dark pumpernickel we find in the supermarket, although it has the same square shape. Made with cracked rye berries, rye flour, and rye sourdough starter, the oatmeal-like batter is spread into long rectangular pans and baked for hours. To slice the dense, grain-rich bread, many families have a special tool on their kitchen counters that looks like a V-shaped paper cutter with a heavy handle that goes thunk! as the blade whacks off thin slices. My cousin gave me her generations-old rye bread recipe, and of course I had to buy the right pan, a long, rectangular, metal thing that wouldn’t squeeze into my suitcase. All for a taste of Denmark in my home!
Why do Danes eat the same thing all the time? Rye bread has been a foundation for Danish meals for hundreds of years. An outdoor farm museum had the exact same bread slicer I’d seen in many homes, but it was from the 1800s! Then and now it’s the base for smørrebrød (open sandwiches) topped with the same local, tried-and-true options: pickled herring, roast beef with fried onions, liver pate, salmon, chicken salad, sliced potatoes. Same-old, same-old? My cousins poked fun at me, “You Americans need so many choices. You always want something new.” I think they’re right. Can we be satisfied daily with a same local, traditional food that sustained our ancestors? What food would that be?
While keeping old traditions, Danes also embrace the New Nordic cuisine movement. In 2004, chefs came together to write the New Nordic Manifesto , a statement of principles combining traditional foods with health, sustainability, and pride in all things local. It’s supported by the Nordic Council of Ministers, an inter-governmental agency representing Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. Four years ago they added a focus on kids: “Every Nordic child has the right to learn how to cook good healthy food.”
We had a taste of this new spin on traditional foods at Amass in Copenhagen. Chef Matt Orlando (formerly Chef de Cuisine at Noma) uses local Nordic ingredients, including those from their on-site garden, to make spectacular dishes that are light, healthy, beautiful, and environmentally sustainable. We ate beach grasses, local fish called zander, knotweed leaves, fermented potatoes, and yogurt aged 7 months.
Blending traditional foods with the New Nordic philosophy, the café at the Viking Ships Museum prepares modern dishes with ingredients available to the Vikings in 750-1000 AD. Rye and beer had been around since the Stone Age, but wherever the Vikings traveled, they brought back from their voyages tasty new plants and animals to add to their diet. I’m doing likewise: On my adventure, I’m bringing home an earthy rye bread recipe and a bulky pan!