In little over a decade beginning in the early 2000s, Denmark raced from dining dowager to culinary darling. The trumpeted arrival of New Nordic cuisine wowed food critics and foodies alike, and in its wake Danish classics enjoyed resurgent popularity and modern interpretations. It's hardly surprising: Denmark has stellar local produce and skilled, ambitious chefs. Old recipes are being rediscovered and interest in traditional and modern food culture continues to soar. The result is an ever-evolving culinary landscape, ripe for delicious exploration.
New Nordic Cuisine
Despite some claims of overexposure, Denmark's New Nordic cuisine continues to garner lots of media attention and praise from food critics, bloggers and general gluttons across the globe. It is evolving, too, which all good trends should do.
The movement stems from 2004, when Nordic chefs attending a food symposium in Copenhagen created a 10-point manifesto defining the cuisine's aims. According to the manifesto, New Nordic is defined by seasonality, sustainability, local ingredients and produce, and the use of Nordic cooking methods to create food that originally and distinctly reflects Scandinavian culture, geography and history.
The movement threw the spotlight on Denmark’s fantastic raw ingredients, from excellent pork products, beef, game and seafood, to root vegetables, wild berries and herbs. It also serves as a showcase for rarer ingredients from the wider Nordic region, among them Greenlandic musk ox, horse mussels from the Faroe Islands, obscure berries from Finland, and truffles from the Swedish island of Gotland.
The world's most famous New Nordic restaurant was Noma, four times topping the list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants (2010–12 and again in 2014). In its heyday, owner-chef René Redzepi eschewed all nonindigenous produce in his creations, including olive oil and tomatoes. Redzepi is renowned for playing with modest, often-overlooked ingredients and consulting food historians, digging up long-lost traditions. Famously, he also forages in the wilderness for herbs and plants. At Noma, the ingredients were then skilfully prepared using traditional techniques (curing, smoking, pickling and preserving) alongside contemporary experiments that included, among other things, ants.
From 2014 to 2017, Noma took to the road and set up in new homes (in Tokyo, Sydney and Tulum in Mexico) for a short spell, embracing indigenous ingredients and methods in each location. At the end of 2016, Noma's Copenhagen restaurant closed. There are plans to reopen in a different format, in a different location in the capital – stay tuned.
In the meantime, a newer wave of Danish chefs (many of whom are Noma alumni) seem to be taking a less dogmatic approach, with their own seasonal, Nordic menus splashed with the odd foreign ingredient. Some are creating more casual restaurants, making New Nordic relatively affordable and more accessible.
A newer trend is super high-quality, contemporary ‘non-Danish’ food made with the same precision and design savvy that defines New Nordic. While some may argue that this compromises the very concept of New Nordic, others see it as the next step in the evolution of contemporary Danish cooking.
Essential Danish Food & Drink
Smørrebrød Rye or white bread topped with anything from beef tartare to egg and shrimp, the open sandwich is Denmark’s most famous culinary export.
Sild Smoked, cured, pickled or fried, herring is a local staple, best washed down with generous serves of akvavit (an alcoholic spirit commonly made with potatoes and spiced with caraway).
Kanelsnegle A calorific delight, the ‘cinnamon snail’ is a sweet, buttery pastry, sometimes laced with chocolate.
Koldskål A cold, sweet buttermilk soup eaten in summer, made with vanilla and traditionally served with crunchy biscuits such as kammerjunkere.
Beer Carlsberg may dominate, but Denmark’s expanding battalion of craft brewers include Mikkeller, Amager Bryghus and Bryghuset Møn.
Danish Staples & Specialities
Reindeer moss and hay-smoked quail eggs may be the norm on New Nordic menus, but traditional Danish tables serve up a much heartier cast of classics. Grab a fork and dig in to the following Danish faithfuls.
Traditional Danish grub has a soft spot for the carnivorous. Pork (flæsk or svinekød) is ubiquitous, served as flæskesteg (roast pork), mørbradbøf (pork tenderloin) and comfort-food favourite frikadeller – fried minced-pork meatballs commonly served with boiled potatoes and red cabbage. Watch nostalgia wash over Danish eyes at the mere mention of crispy flæskesvær (pork crackling or rind), eaten as a salty snack and now back in vogue on some of Copenhagen's trendiest bar menus. Equally wicked is æbleflæsk, a heady concoction of fried bacon, onions and apples served on rugbrød (rye bread), best paired with dark beer and snaps.
Beef (bøf or okse) is also popular, ranging from cheaper comfort-food dishes using mince to expensive cuts of steak, often served with Béarnaise sauce. Hakkebøf is a dish of minced-beef burger, usually covered with fried onions and served with boiled potatoes, brown sauce and beets. Also finding its way back onto menus is pariserbøf, a rare-beef patty topped with capers, raw egg yolk, beets, onions and horseradish.
Fish & Seafood
Expansive coastlines mean no shortage of excellent seafood options. Herring (sild) is a staple. Often served marinated in numerous ways, including in sherry, mustard, orange or curry, it's also commonly served smoked, fried or charred. Cured or smoked salmon (laks) is also prolific, a favourite dish being gravad laks, cured or salted salmon marinated in dill and served with a sweet mustard sauce.
Then there's stegt rødspætte, fried breaded plaice, often served with parsley potatoes; kogt torsk, poached cod married with mustard sauce and boiled potatoes; and the ubiquitous fiskefrikadeller, pan-fried fish patties served with thick remoulade or tartar sauce and fresh lemon wedges. Equally iconic is the majestic stjerneskud. Literally 'Shooting Star', it's a belt-busting combination of both steamed and fried fish fillets, topped with smoked salmon, shrimp and caviar, and served on buttered bread.
The Danes are great fish smokers, and the wonderfully woody flavour of smoked seafood is one of Scandinavia's most distinctive culinary highs. You’ll find smokehouses (called røgeri) all around Denmark's coast, preserving herring, eel, shrimp and other fresh seafood. The most renowned are on Bornholm.
Across on the northern tip of Jutland, Skagen is a top spot to feast on fresh shrimp (rejer) and lobster (hummer).
Although the earliest recorded mention of smørrebrød is in the 13th-century Hákonar Saga, the elaborate Danish open sandwich known today stems back to the late 19th century. As the number of posh-nosh restaurants grew in Copenhagen, the city's modest beer and wine cellars began sprucing up their bread and butter standard with fancy new toppings, in turn creating Denmark's most celebrated culinary export.
The basic smørrebrød is a slice of rye bread topped with any number of ingredients, from roast beef or pork, to juicy shrimps, pickled herring, liver pâté or fried fish fillet. The garnishes are equally variable, with the sculptured final product often looking too good to eat. In the laws of Danish smørrebrød, smoked salmon is served on white bread, and herring on rye bread. Whatever the combination, the iconic dish is best paired with akvavit and an invigorating beer.
Smørrebrød is a lunchtime staple in countless restaurants and cafes, the most famous of which is Copenhagen's Schønnemann, a celebrated 19th-century veteran whose offerings span the classical to the modern, with twists like cold-smoked venison leg paired with porcini remoulade and beetroot chips.
Generally speaking, smørrebrød is cheapest in bakeries or specialised smørrebrød takeaway shops found near train stations and office buildings. Try to pronounce smørrebrød as ‘smuhr-bruth’, but don’t feel bad if your pronunciation doesn’t match a native Dane’s (it never will).
Another distinctively Danish presentation is the koldt bord (cold table), a buffet-style spread of cold foods – such as cold sliced meats, smoked fish, cheeses, vegetables, salads, condiments, breads and crackers – plus usually a few hot dishes such as frikadeller and breaded, fried fish (usually plaice). The cornerstone of the koldt bord though is herring, which comes in pickled, marinated and curried versions.
Denmark is Valhalla for lovers of all things flaky, sticky and sweet, and its bakeries are a constant source of temptation.
Ironically, what is commonly known as a 'Danish pastry' abroad is known to the Danes as a wienerbrød (Viennese bread), and nearly every second street corner has a bageri (bakery) with different varieties. As legend has it, the naming of the pastry can be traced to a Danish baker who moved to Austria in the 18th century, where he perfected the treats of flaky, butter-laden pastry. True to their collective sweet tooth, Danes eat them for breakfast.
Not that Denmark's pastry selection ends there. Other famous treats include kanelsnegle, a luscious cinnamon scroll sometimes laced with thick, gooey chocolate, and the equally popular tebirkes, a flaky, croissant-like pastry filled with a marzipan spread and sprinkled with poppy seeds.
Traditionally, the favourite fast food is a pølse (hot dog) from one of the wagons dotted around town – all churning out precisely the same frankfurters, buns and dressings. Late at night, after a couple of beers, we have to admit that a hot dog covered with fake mustard and ketchup can be damned hard to resist.
Dinner with Danes
Three agencies offer visitors the chance to spend an evening in the home of locals, sampling traditional Danish food and hygge, and learning about Denmark straight from the horse’s mouth. The hosts are mainly in Copenhagen, and the agencies usually attempt to match you with people of similar ages and interests.
The price is around 450kr to 520kr for two or three courses, wine and coffee (discounts for children, depending on age). If you’re interested, fill in an online request, preferably a month in advance.
The agencies are as follows:
Dine with the Danes (www.facebook.com/DineWithTheDanes; email@example.com)
Meet Gay Copenhagen (www.meetgaycopenhagen.dk)
Meet the Danes (www.meetthedanes.dk)
Where to Eat & Drink
From René Redzepi and Rasmus Kofoed, to Nicolai Nørregaard and Thorsten Schmidt, a wave of contemporary Danish chefs continues to transform seasonal ingredients into evocative, idiosyncratic dishes that capture the flavours, textures, colours and moods of the region.
While much of the ingenuity remains centred in Copenhagen, a number of destination restaurants dot the country, from urban hotspots like Gastromé in Aarhus, to eat-and-slumber castles and manor houses, among them Henne Kirkeby Kro in remote west-coast Jutland and Falsled Kro in Funen. In 2015 Michelin began awarding stars to restaurants outside the capital, and in the process they compiled a bucket list for foodies happy to travel outside Copenhagen.
That said, you can eat badly in Denmark, particularly in the provinces, where dry schnitzels, rubbery pizzas and inauthentic pasta remain the chief outsourced foodstuff for the masses. To help avoid such disappointment, here are a few tips: in coastal areas, look for a traditional røgeri (smokehouse), where you can get great, inexpensive seafood. In many villages, you can often find classic Danish home cooking in a traditional kro (inn). Also, hit a bageri (bakery) – the Danes are master bakers, especially when it comes to rugbrød (rye bread).
Wherever you dine, be aware that kitchens close relatively early in Denmark compared with other European countries, so aim to eat before 10pm (9pm in smaller towns). For many restaurants and cafes, the closure of the kitchen signals a move into ‘bar mode’, with drinks available until late (along with live music or a DJ in some venues).
Dining out can be expensive in Denmark, with coveted, high-end nosh spots often more costly than comparable restaurants in Paris and London. Keep in mind that alcohol is also spectacularly costly in fashionable places, and can easily double the price of your meal.
In Copenhagen, a number of top-end restaurants (or their alumni chefs) have launched relatively cheaper, more casual spin-offs serving innovative New Nordic food. Among the best are Höst, Bror and 108.
Aside from smokehouses, bakeries and cafes, there are other options for a feed that won't hurt your wallet too much. Torvehallerne KBH has had quite an impact on hungry folks in the capital, and a similar gourmet market hall has opened in Aarhus, plus a smaller version in Rønne on Bornholm. Food halls that are a permanent home to street-food kitchens are also a huge hit in Copenhagen and Aarhus.
Thai and Chinese restaurants are common, though rarely authentic. Pizza is another option, though few serve the wood-fired perfection you may be hoping for, while simple Lebanese and Turkish eateries selling inexpensive shawarma (a filling pitta-bread sandwich of shaved meat) are another option. Equally common (if not particularly healthy) are the pølsevogn: wheeled carts peddling a variety of hot dogs.
Danes rarely eat breakfast out. They do, however, embrace brunch with gusto. Many cafes and restaurants put on lavish buffets on weekends, running from about 10am to 2pm and generally priced between 120kr and 200kr (higher prices will include refillable tea or coffee, possibly a glass of champagne).
On weekdays, numerous eateries offer a ‘brunch plate’ (brunch tallerken) on their menu. Served from 10am through lunch, these often consist of samplings of brunch classics, from muesli and yoghurt, to cold cuts, bread, cheese and something sweet (pastry or pancakes), all served on the one plate.
Vegetarians & Vegans
Despite the countrywide adoration of all things pork, vegetarians should be able to get by comfortably throughout Denmark (although in smaller towns the options will be limited). Danish cafes commonly serve a variety of salads, and vegetarians can usually find something suitable at the smørrebrød counter. Most restaurants will have at least one herbivorous dish on the menu, or be able to whip something up on request.
Vegans will face more of a challenge; options for eating out (and kitchens that can accommodate vegan requests) will be more common in bigger cities compared with regional areas.
The Danes are enthusiastic drinkers, with beer (øl), wine (vin) and spirits served in most restaurants and cafes. Alcohol is available at grocery shops during normal shopping hours, with prices quite reasonable compared with those in other Scandinavian countries.
The Danes are prodigious producers and consumers of beer. The oldest trace of beer in Denmark dates back to 2800 BC, with Copenhagen's first brewing guild established in 1525. Copenhagen-based Carlsberg Breweries markets the Carlsberg and Tuborg labels, and is one of the world’s largest brewery groups. It’s also the largest exporter of beer in Europe.
While the best-selling beers in Denmark are pilsners, a lager with an alcohol content of 4.6%, there are scores of other beers to choose from. These range from light beers with an alcohol content of 1.7% to hearty stouts that kick in at 8%. Essential beer terms you should know include the following:
øl – beer
pilsner – lager
lyst øl – light beer
lagerøl – dark lager
fadøl – draught
porter – stout
In the last decade, locals have developed a growing taste for microbrews and craft beers, and there are now more than 170 small breweries around the country (up from 21 in 2002). Indeed, any Danish town worth its salt will have its own bryghus (brewery or brew pub), and these are often innovators producing a wide variety of styles.
A growing number of bars, pubs and restaurants proudly list their boutique bottled offerings and changing draught beers, with obscure local drops getting a run next to the better-known brands. A growing number of bars cater to the more discerning beer-drinkers; then of course there's the country’s largest beer festival, Ølfestival, held in May in Copenhagen, with over 800 brews on offer.
Emerging in the past decade, alongside the boom in craft brews, are nomad or contract brewers, and the world's best-known proponent, with a cult-like following, is Mikkel Borg Bjergsø, founder of Mikkeller (www.mikkeller.dk).
Based in Copenhagen but without its own physical brewery, Mikkeller collaborates with global breweries: Mikkeller devises the recipes, then uses others' facilities. Something of a mad professor, Bjergsø (formerly a high-school science teacher) explores beer genres by using the best raw material available – anything from kopi luwak coffee to chipotle chilli.
You can sample the innovative flavours (plus other obscure global brews) at Mikkeller's flagship bar in Copenhagen's Vesterbro, or at numerous Mikkeller bars, bottle shops and restaurants in the capital and also now in Aarhus. Mikkeller Bar outposts can now be found in cities from Barcelona to Seoul. And Mikkeller certainly started something: two of Bjergsø's students have created their own acclaimed nomadic brewing practice, known as To Øl (Two Beers; www.to-ol.dk).
Despite its northerly latitude, Denmark is home to a niche winemaking industry. It has its own industry association, Danske Vingårde (Danish Vineyards), and over 50 winegrowers, including Zealand's Kelleris Vingaard (www.kellerisvingaard.dk), Dyrehøj Vingård (www.dyrehoj-vingaard.dk) and Ørnberg (www.oernberg-vin.dk). Jutland's Skærsøgaard Vin (http://dansk-vin.dk) has won recognition for its sparkling, white and dessert wines.
Curiously, it's not global warming driving the industry's growth, but the development of grape varieties that bud and mature early, making them ideal for the region's short growing season. Among these are the commonly used hybrid grape Rondo and the Regent, the latter producing richly coloured wines that are vigorous and intense. That said, it's Denmark's white and sparkling wines that show the most promise, with common white grape varieties including the Riesling-like Johanitter.
Even more notable, however, are the apple-based wines made by Jutland's innovative Cold Hand Winery (www.coldhandwinery.dk). Among these is the award-winning Malus X – Feminan, a beautifully balanced dessert wine.
Currently, the vast majority of Denmark's home-grown drops are sold on the local market, with a few showcased at modern Danish restaurants in Copenhagen, as well as at Copenhagen's gourmet food market Torvehallerne KBH.
The most popular spirit in Denmark is the Aalborg-produced akvavit. There are several dozen types, the most common of which is made from potatoes and spiced with caraway seeds. In Denmark akvavit is not sipped but is swallowed straight down as a shot, usually followed by a chaser of beer.
Christmas in Denmark
Not only does the traditional Danish Christmas (jul) ooze hygge (cosiness), it explodes with festive grub.
The biggest festivities are on Christmas Eve, when gift-giving and songs sung around the Christmas tree are fuelled with akvavit and specially brewed Yuletide beers. The culinary centrepiece is roast pork, duck or goose, served with red cabbage and boiled potatoes cooked in butter and sugar. After the meal it's time for warming rice pudding (called risalamande and served with cherry sauce). Inside the pudding lies a single whole almond, and the person who finds the almond in his or her bowl gets a prize, such as a sweet made of marzipan. Come 25 December, the leftovers from Christmas Eve make for an excellent koldt bord (cold table) lunch.
Of course, the Yuletide treats begin well before Christmas Eve and Day, with common Advent bites including brunkager and pebernødder (spice cookies), golden klejner (deep-fried knotted dough) and æbleskiver – small, spherical pancakes traditionally served with gløgg (mulled wine).
Pants on Bottles
Most soft drinks and nondraught beers are sold in bottles (glass or plastic) or cans – you pay a refundable deposit (the pant) on top of the price, and you get the pant as a cash refund when you return the empty vessels to a supermarket with a reverse vending machine. That 1.50kr per small plastic bottle won’t make you rich, but it will help the environment. More info is at www.danskretursystem.dk.
Sip, Sup & Slumber: Denmark's Top Gourmet Retreats
The only thing better than a long, indulgent dinner is a long, indulgent dinner with a beautiful room or suite waiting just steps away from your table. The following castles and inns combine atmospheric slumber and inspired, seasonal menus for a getaway worth any detour.
Dragsholm Slot Take an ancient castle, add ex-Noma chef Claus Henriksen, and you have this celebrated culinary retreat on the edge of fertile Lammefjorden in northwest Zealand.
Falsled Kro A former smugglers' inn in southern Funen, Falsled Kro sees top-tier local produce shine brightly in strictly seasonal dishes like lightly smoked and salted cod with caviar, horseradish and apple.
Henne Kirkeby Kro Snuggle up at this hip, revamped inn in western Jutland's heathlands. At your table are the clean, contemporary New Nordic flavours of expat Brit, chef Paul Cunningham.
Molskroen Close to Aarhus in seaside Ebeltoft, Molskroen serves up Gallic-inspired, Scandi-refined brilliance like lobster smoked in herbs or sole with champagne sauce and black truffle.
Ruths Hotel Skagen's light-washed maritime beauty meets New Nordic ingenuity at Ruths, where the ebb and flow of regional produce (especially seafood) dictates the elegant creations.
Denmark has a great range of eating options. Booking isn't required for more casual places, but popular options in the big cities and high-end restaurants should be booked ahead of time.
Restaurants Denmark's restaurants range from low-key and family-oriented to Michelin-starred. Check websites of the latest hyped restaurants for online booking options.
Cafes Generally open all day (brunch is popular). Some morph into ‘bar mode’ after dinner, with drinks available until late.
Bakeries Old-school or contemporary, these are morning magnets for locals seeking fresh bread and pastries. Bakery-cafes offer lunchtime salads, sandwiches and coffee, the latter of varying standard.