This was my first time in Scandinavia and I came away with a good time and a desire to return. Copenhagen was modern, environmentally conscious, traditional but open to new ideas, grounded but not stodgy. We stayed in the Meat Packing District near the train station which was hip and young and the New Nordic movement has inspired experimentation in all the local places. The Danes are a bit more buttoned up than the Dutch, not so outward or relaxed, but they sure know how to drink into the late hours and eat delicious treats. Great pubs and hotdogs. And one of the oldest amusement parks in the world is crammed right into the center of the city and it’s very adult friendly.
I came to the city to eat at NOMA, currently the second best restaurant in the world, and to experience the food of Rene Redzepi. You can read my full NOMA experience in a dedicated post. But I have a strong interest in learning about the traditional Scandinavian cuisine as well. And the city has always captured my attention.
Walking around Copenhagen
Copenhagen is a great city that’s easily walkable, flat so it’s easy to ride a bike (and most everyone does) and very modern with an easy train system, metro, and buses at your disposal. We walked a lot. It’s a pretty big city. At the time of construction it boasted the longest pedestrian walks in the world (it’s still pretty damn long). It’s like a mile long outdoor mall that ends in the Nyhaven neighborhood which is the center of the tourist world and the backdrop of every photo you’ve probably seen of the city.
Denmark is a constitutional monarchy much like the UK. There’s a royal family line but there’s also a parliament that’s responsible for policy. There is a long tradition of a Kingdom of Denmark but the current version was re-united by the Viking kings Gorm the old and Harald Bluetooth in the 10th century. Originally the monarchy was elective and only become a hereditary monarchy in the 17th century. And then a constitutional monarchy in 1849 when the first constitution was written.
Quite near Nyhaven is Rosenborg Castle, the old regent residence until about 1710. It’s open for visitation complete with the original furnishings, elaborate decorations, paintings, the coronation thrones, and the royal treasury in the basement. It’s worth checking out if you’re nearby.
Tivoli Gardens, an amusement park and pleasure garden build right in the middle of Copenhagen, was created by Georg Carstensen in 1843 after convincing the then King Christian VIII that an entertained populous would be less involved in politics. The park served as Walt Disney’s inspiration for his theme park which copies much of Tivoli’s design and concept. We had planned to spend a whole day here but only managed to get in a few hours on our last day. Buy the unlimited pass which pays for itself after about 3-4 rides worth of tickets.
The park may not have as many brain melting roller coasters as some larger theme parks but the ones they do have are big enough for me. And there’s a few rides I didn’t have the balls to get on. In addition to the kid rides the park has plenty of spaces for adults to hang out, have drinks, and socialize. Actually the couple we met at NOMA had annual passes and had planned to visit the park after dinner.
NOMA is actually located just outside of Copenhagen in an area knows as Christiania. This is a community of around 1000 people created as an autonomous commune in 1971 on an abandoned military barracks outside of the city. Unlike in the US where communes were aggressively broken up and violently disrupted, Denmark left the community alone where it thrives to this day. However as the city has grown and surrounded the free community with expensive property development the relations with the city have become strained. It has an especially difficult relationship between the city’s open stance towards marijuana and the city’s hard stance on prohibition.
New Nordic Cuisine
In 2004 a group of chefs lead by Claus Meyer wrote the New Nordic Food Manifesto and started a food revolution, both within Scandinavia and around the world.
From the manifesto – ”As Nordic chefs we find that the time has now come for us to create a New Nordic Kitchen, which in virtue of its good taste and special character compares favorable with the standard of the greatest kitchens of the world”
The aims of the New Nordic Kitchen are:
- To express the purity, freshness, simplicity and ethics we wish to associate to our region.
- To reflect the changes of the seasons in the meal we make.
- To base our cooking on ingredients and produce whose characteristics are particularly in our climates, landscapes and waters.
- To combine the demand for good taste with modern knowledge of health and well-being.
- To promote Nordic products and the variety of Nordic producers – and to spread the word about their underlying cultures.
- To promote animal welfare and a sound production process in our seas, on our farmland and in the wild.
- To develop potentially new applications of traditional Nordic food products.
- To combine the best in Nordic cookery and culinary traditions with impulses from abroad.
- To combine local self-sufficiency with regional sharing of high-quality products.
- To join forces with consumer representatives, other cooking craftsmen, agriculture, fishing, food, retail and wholesales industries, researchers, teachers, politicians and authorities on this project for the benefit and advantage of everyone in the Nordic countries.
This new focus on seasonality, fresh local ingredients, connection to local tradition, and integration of personal values throughout the supply chain have since become the global standard for new restaurants around the world and have changed the world of eating in ways unthought of by the original movement.
NOMA, created by Claus Meyer and another signatory Rene Redzepi, has become the poster child of this movement. Awarded the Best Restaurant in the World 2010-2012 and 2014 (currently #2 in 2019) and with two Michelin stars, there is no doubt that this movement is more than idealism. To see my full NOMA experience, read my dedicated post. Here’s a small sample of that experience.
NOMA by the way is a shortening of the words Nordisk and Mad (danish for food) so Nordic Food.
Restaurant 108 is an up and coming new nordic restaraunt situated quite near NOMA just across a pedestrian bridge from Nyhaven. The chef Kristian Baumann who trained at NOMA and was sous chef at Relæ has already received a Michelin star after only a year of being open is ranked 89th best restaurant in the world by the 50 Best list. We scored a lunch reservation very last minute and rushed over for a table. The modern mix of industrial and folk-earth decor was the perfect backdrop for a great lunch. We could only order the reduced tasting menu as we had a late reservation but the three course selection was a great introduction. Exemplifying the standards of the new Nordic manifesto the food was a labor intensive study in local seasonality and ethical production.
Traditional Nordic Cuisine
Traditional Nordic cuisine centers heavily on seafood, especially preserved fish like herring, pork, and pickles. A common preparation is Danish smørrebrød where a small slice of dense rye bread is bread is spread with butter and topped with a protein like pickled herring, garnished with onions and herbs, and served open face. Smørrebrød was omnipresent at all of the traditional restaurants, especially at lunch where it seemed to be basically what you were supposed to eat (I was told this was what filled the lunchboxes of children across Denmark). The variety of these preparations though was enormous and even though I seemed to try several every day I was there I didn’t come close to scratching the surface. A lesser talked about Danish ingredient is pork which also features heavily on traditional menus. Pigs outnumber Danes 5 to 1 and they are quite delicious.
We discovered Fleisch a block from our apartment in the trendy Meat Packing district. Trendy, expensive, but delicious, the space marries a butchery and casual fine dining experience. Their snaps menu was quite good as well. We tried the walnut and the dill and fennel akvavit.
Det Lille Apotek
The oldest restuarant in Copenhagen, it was converted from a pharmacy in 1720. This low ceiling basement restaurant is an encyclopedia of all the traditional Nordic dishes and the decor hasn’t changed at all in over 100 years. It boasts a long list of writers and artist who used to frequent the place by lamplight and it’s easy to imagine it looking exactly the same. The environment is casual and cozy and there’s nothing fussy about the food. It’s not what I would call inexpensive but compared to the other restaurants I thought the prices were a steal. And the portions are quite large. We ordered the smaller sampler meal and couldn’t finish it.
Apoteket’s Evening Platter:
2 kinds of pickled herring with onions and capers
Warm fillet of plaice with homemade remoulade and lemon
Warm roast pork with pickled cabbage
Warm liver pâté with bacon and mushrooms
Homemade meatball with cucumber salad
Rye bread, white bread, lard and butter
This is a great little pub tucked in basement on the banks of the Nyhaven pier. It’s dark and charming, old wood and metal tables. I liked everything about this place down to the fish over the door. I ordered a local beer and a shot of Gammel Dansk a traditional Danish bitter but according to our local friends, no one really drinks it anymore. But hey, why not. I’ve already tried the bitters everywhere else we’ve gone.
Opened in 1877 and moved to its current location in 1901, Schønnemann has been serving traditional Danish food for many generations. The menu is essentially page after page of every kind of smørrebrød you could possibly imagine. With over 120 kinds of snaps on thier drink menu. It’s located right by the Rosenborg Castle so if you plan it right they work well together. It’s really expensive for a small to average sized open faced sandwich but every place we went seemed to be more than we were comfortable with. So if you reset your expectations on price the food is quite good.
I loved their liquor sizes: “small/embarrassing ca. 2 cl. regular/adequate ca. 4 cl. large/reasonable ca. 6 cl.”
We also got two snaps:
Lysholmer Linie (1821) – Aged in sherry casks aboard a ship for 6 months that crosses the equator twice.
Hr. Skov Blåbær – Havtorn Snaps – /blueberry and sea-buckthorn
Graffiti in Copenhagen
I was happy to see quite a bit of good graffiti in Copenhagen, pretty much everywhere. I had feared the locals were too socially conscious to break the law but some kind of artwork seemed to be sprayed on every available wall across town.