Morgenmad, aftensmad – and a smørrebrød in between: your classic Danish culinary adventure

<span>A contemporary take on smørrebrød at Copenhagen’s Restaurant Barr.</span><span>Photograph: Daniel Rasmussen</span>
A contemporary take on smørrebrød at Copenhagen’s Restaurant Barr.Photograph: Daniel Rasmussen

Beyond its reputation as a fine-dining destination, there is a dish in Denmark to entice every epicurean and bring more hygge into your life.

Even Danes will agree that the names of their dishes aren’t the easiest to pronounce. Most involve making a gurgling sound in the back of the throat when you have a go at saying them. But don’t fret if you can’t grasp the language, as English is widely spoken across the country and locals will happily teach you the correct pronunciation.

Morgenmad – for breakfast

Ask any Dane and they’ll tell you that their ordinary breakfast entails a decent spread of local cheese (sometimes with jam) and one more of the many things the country is famous for – fresh bread. While you’ll find fantastic sourdough and other baked goods available everywhere in the morning, in Denmark what you really want to get your hands on is some rye. Danes have been cultivating rye since Viking times and you’ll even see a loaf of this dark, rectangular nourishing bread as a part of the Christmas meal.

  • Bread, pastries, coffee – the Danes know how to breakfast. Photographs: Maria Nielsen; Daniel Rasmussen

No morning in Denmark is complete without a cup of coffee, and thankfully there are plenty of cafes dotted around the country that brew a seriously good one. If you’re after something truly unique and traditional, try the øllebrød (pronounced olay-poll) – “beer bread”. It’s one of the Danes’ best uses of leftover rye bread, which is mixed with a dark local beer such as Hvidtøl. The result is a hearty, tangy and bitter porridge, with a blend of rye and malt, and notes of cinnamon and orange. This breakfast is somewhat of a Marmite character, as locals either love or hate it. The recipe is said to have trickled down from medieval times. So instead of a pastry, try a bowl of øllebrød at Mad & Kaffe in Copenhagen.

Danish pastries
The common assumption is that Denmark is the land of pastries, with “Danish” displayed in cafes across the world. But for the Danes themselves, the pastries that many visitors believe to be “Danish” are actually called spandauer or wienerbrød, meaning Vienna bread, a nod to the fact these multi-layered, baked delights originated in Austria. Order a classic kanelsnegle, also called a cinnamon snail, and you’ll soon be back for more. You can grab pastries throughout the day from outstanding bakeries such as Hart Bageri or Bageriet Benji in Copenhagen, or, if you’re in Aarhus, head to La Cabra or Jumbo Bakery.

Frokost – lunch

Rye bread
Rye bread or rugbrød (pronounced houppa-boar … yes, really) is packed with grains and stays fresh for days. It is something most locals can’t live without, so prepare to see a lot of rugbrød on menus countrywide. There are no rules on how to eat it – you can buy a loaf from the supermarket, smear it with butter, cheese or jam or even load it up with ham or shrimp.

Literally translating to buttered bread, smørrebrød (pronounced smail-bhord) needs little introduction as it is often the first dish to spring to mind when Danish cuisine is mentioned. Though the concept of an open-faced sandwich has origins dating back to the Middle Ages, the smørrebrød is believed to be a farmer’s lunch, where leftovers from the previous night’s dinner are piled on to a slice of rye bread that acts as a plate. There are various versions of smørrebrød, but most involve meat or fish toppings, pickled vegetables (or pickled herring) and are garnished with herbs or sometimes caviar. Classic eateries such as Restaurant Schønnemann and Aamanns 1921 are great spots to try your first smørrebrød.

  • There are plenty of versions of smørrebrød to try. Photograph: Johny Kristensen

Stjerneskud – shooting stars
Stjerneskud (pronounced styaana-skuul) is also popularly listed as “shooting star” on menus. It is a part of the smørrebrød family and is an absolute favourite among Danes. Stjerneskud is an overloaded dish that’s perfect for lunch, where a slice of dense rye is topped with a fillet of fried plaice, lettuce, shrimp and caviar, and served with a tangy remoulade. To feel like a local, order a shooting star with a cold beer for lunch.

  • Heaven in a shell: Denmark’s oysters occupy a special place in a country renowned for its seafood. Photographs: Jacob Lisbygd; Freya McOmish; Mads Tolstrup

Denmark is blessed with a vast coastline by the North Sea that’s rich in seafood, especially oysters. They’re often a feature on restaurant menus, especially those from Limfjord, a shallow inlet in northern Jutland and an oyster hotspot. For a really fun dining experience, go on an oyster safari where you’ll find the best oysters in the region. Most oyster tours end with a glass of bubbly when you’re back on land, learning how to prepare your bounty and enjoy them. The Wadden Sea Centre runs regular oyster excursions and you’ll find several tours on the southern islands of Rømø and Mandø too.

  • You’ll see rugbrød and smørrebrød on menus nationwide – and for those looking for something savoury ahead of early evening drinks, try an organic hot dog. Photographs: LABAN Stories; Kam & Co; Daniel Rasmussen

Rød pølse – hot dogs
Walk around any city in Denmark and you’ll see carts or circular stands with photos of rød pølses. This isn’t any ordinary hot dog – the pølsevogn, or sausage wagons, have been a cultural icon in Denmark for more than 100 years. You’ll see locals and tourists enjoying their offerings and even the former Queen Margrethe II has been seen grabbing one on the go. Most stands offer the traditional Danish red sausages with remoulade, pickled cucumbers and crispy onions, but you’ll also find modern takes on hot dogs in Copenhagen, where they are served with spices and other toppings. Try John’s Hotdog Deli in Copenhagen and you’ll see why everybody loves them.

Aftensmad – dinner

  • A regional snaps is perfect for a toast, as well as cutting through a hearty dish of stegt flæsk (crispy pork belly). Photographs: Mikkel Heriba; Getty Images

Stegt flæsk
One may assume that the national dish of Denmark is a smørrebrød, but Danes prefer a classic, traditional pork dish called stegt flæsk med persillesovs which is crispy pork belly (sometimes also served as pork strips) with potatoes and a parsley sauce. It’s the ultimate comfort food for many Danes and the recipe is said to have originated in the 1800s. Some restaurants offer all-you-can-eat stegt flæsk and label it as stegt flæsk ad libitum (to one’s pleasure) on their menu. There are a plethora of eateries in bigger cities serving stegt flæsk, but if you find yourself near Billund, head down to Dolly’s by the harbour in Horsens for exceptional stegt flæsk. It’s a mouthful to pronounce, so try saying stekt-flesk, or just point at the dish on the menu and say crispy pork – they’ll get it.

There are other honourable mentions such as frikadeller – Danish meatballs, or the creamy chicken and asparagus tarteletter (tartlets), which are great for snacking or as a meal. You can also order regional snaps with your meal and if you’re a teetotaller there are plenty of non-alcoholic options – and say skål (pronounced skoll) for cheers.

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