Somehow time had almost passed it over. The open sandwich tradition of Denmark –known as smørrebrød - was not a thing that ambitious chefs or fashionable restaurants would put on their menus. That was until a young chef, looking for some more time with his kids, started out to save what is perhaps the only Danish addition to the world’s culinary map: the open, rye bread sandwich lunch. He has been joined by a band of culinary hard-hitters and now smørrebrød is back in fashion in Copenhagen.
The open sandwich: A working class hero
Fast currents of new food trends and the arrival of a globalized consumer culture, where every supermarket have shelves of Indonesian, Chinese and Italian foods, left the once popular smørrebrød tradition almost retired and relegated to restaurants with little ambition and a retiree audience.
The bastard son of gastronomy
It is long ago that it was the pastime of young families to eat open sandwich lunches in the flowery Tivoli Gardens. And the working class is now sitting down in offices without getting sufficient exercise to build up appetite for the rich sandwiches. Recently, the sandwiches had become synonymous with an antiquated and unhealthy, mayonnaise-loaded lifestyle. That was how Adam Aamann found it. More than anybody else he has pioneered the resurrection of Denmark’s perhaps lunch tradition”.
“I think the sandwich tradition had become excessively fatty and meaty, different kinds of meats stacked, few quality products, few vegetables, no herbs, too little fish and maybe a little general sloppiness – to little craftsmanship and too many pre-prepared ingredients” says Adam, who started a small take-away joint five years ago with modern interpretations of the classic open sandwiches. He added a fine-dining restaurant three years later. Not many people believed that lunch could be reinvented.
Photo: Adam Aamann at the staircase of his deli, pioneering the restoration of lunch.
He laughs briefly at the word “modern”, an adjective loosely used by food writers to describe anything that stands out. “It’s quite funny”, he says. “To many people modern means making your food from scratch; you would think it would be the other way around”.
“I wanted to take lunch seriously,” he says, referring to the fact that the midday meal is considered by many fancy chefs to be the bastard son of gastronomy: a laborious and inglorious meal, that most top chefs only serve to pay the bills, with their real love being evening gourmet experiences.
The fish nation
The lumbsucker with cornichon, crisps, capers, mayo and tarragon - on rye of course.
“As a chef you work late hours and weekends, and you’re never home. I had young children, and I needed to find a work-life balance a little more humane. So I figured that it might be a niche exploring lunch,” he says. Necessity seems to be the mother of invention.
Dark sour bread
The whole-grain rye bread is the foundation of Adam’s kitchen, and to a large extent the popular Danish food culture. To many outside of the Nordic region, the dark sourdough bread is a coarse and hard experience. The sun-depraved northerners probably needed to develop a taste for it, since quality wheat was in shortage. Maybe rye bread were another child of necessity, along with the heavy use of cured and smoked fish and meats, pickling and other preserves, designed to endure long, cold winters, but ultimately it ended up creating it’s own culinary language. According to Adam, the wonders of rye is likely to spread, though, since it’s healthier than wheat flour, which is being blamed for weight problems in western civilization.
“All over the world people are looking for substitutes to wheat. Much white bread is only an edible spoon, but here is a whole other and deeper flavor in the rye bread. It’s healthy and rich in fibers. I use malts to make it deeper, rounder and darker. The sandwich tradition comes with a bread culture, that I believe is massively underrated outside Denmark, but it will spread also because of the nutritional value of the bread,” he says.
Making something of everyday food
Roast beef, mustard pickles made from root crops, fried onion rings and horseradish.
Alongside Adams take-away deli and restaurant, several new places have picked up the sandwich tradition. This has started a new trend in Copenhagen where traditional lunch is one of the most sought-after experiences. Top chefs have started working with the open sandwiches, and the Michelin guide now recommends lunch restaurants as good value dining experiences, Bib Gourmands, in their prestigious guide. Aamann's was the first place primarily known for its lunch to get that honor.
Copenhagen is currently associated with top gastronomy in places such as Noma, the world’s best restaurant, Bocuse d’Or winner Rasmus Kofod’s Geranium, but Aamann’s success shows that the food revolution of Denmark and the Nordic region is much deeper than the emergence of gourmet kitchens: “Denmark needs a bistronomy, an improvement also of the regular cuisine. And that is coming along. But it would be great if we were to install some pride in our own food culture, and maintain the traditions that we have,” Adam says. He hopes retailers will start to take Danish produce more serious, and market the open sandwich lunch as a special culinary experience.
“After all,” he says, “the open sandwiches are a great part of our identity. We should make something out of it.”