Danish smørrebrød

By Lucinda Hutson
Photography by John Pozdro

I think I gained 15 pounds the summer I lived in the lovely seaside town of Hornbæk, about 30 miles north of Copenhagen, Denmark. I’d just graduated from the University of Texas at Austin, and was a governess for three young American boys whose parents had chosen the white sandy beaches of the Danish Riviera for their summer holiday.


While Mom and Dad made jaunts to the city, the beaches and the outer islands, I was left with three rambunctious kids and, fortunately, a refrigerator packed with Scandinavian delights: thick, velvety yogurt with homemade red currant jelly to top with ripe raspberries, double-cream Saga blue and buttery Havarti cheeses and rich creamery butter to spread (or slather) on whole-grain breads. Jars of pickled herring and packets of cured salmon and roasted meats from the corner store awaited me, too, as did the Danish pastries from the bakery up the street.

Denmark left many lasting impressions on me. I had never seen a chimney sweep before, and it was the summer of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. When a soot-faced man appeared at the door, I refused to let him in and hid with the children in the closet. We didn’t stay in there too long, though, because that refrigerator beckoned us with promises of eased nerves.

I also discovered the Danish custom of smørrebrød: a selection of open-faced sandwiches served as a light meal, passed on trays as hors d’oeuvres or savored as a midnight snack. Those tasty tidbits of thinly sliced firm rye or whole-grain bread lavishly spread with butter were served with a variety of toppings: folded slices of cheese, seafood or meats, sliced fresh vegetables and colorful garnishes. Sometimes they were small enough to just pop right into your mouth; other times they were more substantial.

My favorite sandwich was made with karrysild—herring in curry sauce—topped with finely chopped green apples and sweet gherkins. Yet the dill-cured salmon with chopped red onions and capers, the Danish anchovies atop thin slices of cold marinated red potatoes sprinkled with chopped chives and the piles of baby shrimp on tomato slices with crunchy asparagus spears also continually called my name. 

Most Danes walk into town to street markets and farmers markets daily, bringing home just what they need for the day. Little bunches of fresh herbs like peppery cress, aromatic dill, mint and tarragon—either from the gardens or purchased in small bouquets—give the finishing touches to meals. Candlelight and nosegays on the table mark the gracious and elegant way of living there.

We can peruse springtime delicacies in our own farmers markets for a Texas-style smørrebrød. Celebrate spring in the garden by passing around trays of beautifully garnished creations, or let guests make their own. Fill assorted bowls with colorful condiments and garnishes, and provide baskets of thinly sliced breads and crackers and crocks of butter. Arrange sliced meats, cheeses and vegetables on platters scattered with fresh herbs and flowers.

In the Danish tradition, ice-cold shots of akvavit—a distillate better known in Denmark as snaps (chill the bottle in the freezer)—or Danish Carlsberg Elephant Beer (a Euro-strong lager) accompany smørrebrøds. Both pack a potent punch, so imbibe judiciously!

Another lovely Danish custom worth sharing is that of the host honoring each guest individually by raising a glass to them, locking eyes and expressing welcome with a compliment, a personal remark or a hearty “skål!”—“here’s to you!”

Smørrebrød Fixin's

Find local and seasonal, sustainably produced ingredients at area farmers markets and ask for them at local groceries.

 

Bread

• Thin squares of firm rye, pumpernickel or whole-grain breads (cut into shapes, if desired) or toast
• Wasa flatbread or other thick whole-grain crackers

Butter

• Best-quality creamery butter, softened (flavor with freshly snipped herbs, shallots, dried spices and a splash of white wine or lemon juice)

Eggs

• Slices of hard-boiled eggs (or separately minced yolks and whites for garnish)
• Pickled quail eggs
• Danish Deviled Eggs (click here for recipe)

Cheeses

• Havarti (buttery flavor, often including fresh dill)
• Danbo (easy to slice, often flavored with caraway seeds)
• Double-cream Saga blue cheese (brie-like)
• Danablu (salty, creamy blue)
• Locally made Full Quiver cream cheese
• Your favorite local artisanal cheese

Note: Add a splash of brandy and walnuts or pecans to soft cheeses before spreading, and use chopped tart apples or pears for garnish.

Seafood

• Salmon gravlax, smoked salmon or trout
• Tiny boiled shrimp (Gulf shrimp where available)
• Pickled herring
• Pickled anchovies (whole)

Meats

• Roasted pork, lamb or beef slices
• Thin slices of ham
• Cold-cut meats
• Crumbled bacon or sausages
• Quail
• Your favorite pâté

Vegetables and Fruit

• Cold steamed or roasted new potato or beet slices
• Heirloom tomato slices
• Blanched and chilled asparagus
• Thinly sliced pickling cucumbers
• Chopped or thinly sliced green apple or pear
• Microgreens and sprouts
• Thin lemon slices or zest
• Grated carrots
• Garden-fresh baby lettuce and greens


Condiments

• Capers
• Finely chopped red onions or scallions
• Crispy fried or caramelized shallots
• Minced anchovies
• Finely chopped gherkins (or cut into a fan)
• Freshly grated horseradish (or mixed with freshly whipped cream)
• Thin slices of radishes
• Marinated cucumbers
• Pickled beets or red cabbage (great with roasted meats and prunes)
• Sour cream
• Homemade mayonnaise
• Homemade tartar sauce
• Mustard

Herbs and Edible Flowers

• Fresh dill, mint, tarragon, chives, lemon or caraway thyme
• Mustard, caraway or fennel seeds
• Nasturtium leaves and flowers
• Spicy watercress
• Sprigs of salad burnet
• Johnny-jump-ups
• Borage (lovely blue star-shaped spring flowers)
• Rose or calendula petals
• Chive or society garlic flowers