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The renaissance of the open sandwich

In recent years, Danish chefs have gained fame worldwide by reinterpreting the popular ordic kitchen with fresh, local ingredients. Restaurants offering herring, roast pork and open sandwiches are now popping up all over the world – even though it is an “acquired taste”.

By Markus Bernsen, Focus Denmark no. 3

open face sandwich In recent years, the open sandwich has regained its popularity. Here it is seen with eggs and shrimps.

This autumn, it is the smartest meal in Manhattan, but for several hundred years it was only farmers who ate open sandwiches. It was absolutely uncool to sink one’s teeth into an open sandwich of rye bread topped with roast pork and red cabbage, smoked herrings and egg or one of many other combinations of cheap Danish ingredients.

For farmers, open sandwiches were practical; the combination of granary bread and leftover meat from yesterday’s dinner was very filling, and the thick slice of rye bread at the base  functioned as a plate, so that the meal could be brought out into the field and eaten with one’s fingers. Some farmers were lucky enough to get a piece of bread with cheese, lard, onion and jelly for dessert. And the luckiest poured a drop of rum over the sandwich before they ate it.

In the 1880s, open sandwiches also became popular among Denmark’s bourgeoisie and a regular item on the menus of inns and pubs in the cities. In Tivoli amusement park in Copenhagen, restaurants started serving “luxury open sandwiches”, a taller and more extravagant version of the traditional farmer’s lunch.

Classic Danish open sandwiches such as pariserbøf (minced beef patty, fried egg, onion, capers and pickled beetroot on rye bread) and stjerneskud (two types of fish fillet, breaded and steamed, with shrimps, caviar and tomato slices on white bread) originate from Tivoli. Guests marked their open sandwich choices on an order card, and a culture emerged around this food, which existed nowhere else in the world. At the turn of the century, the famed Danish restaurant owner Oskar Davidsen had 177 different choices on his open sandwich order card.

open sandwich with herring
Open sandwich with herring at Aamanns restaurant in Copenhagen.
Photo: Camilla Stephan/Polfoto.

Venturing overseas

The popularity of the open sandwich declined in the 1970s when foreign food became interesting. Pizza, shawarma and later sushi began to oust open sandwiches as fast, hand-held meals. Danes  ever forgot the many combinations of meat and vegetables and the correct way of serving them, but the younger generation associated them with something old-fashioned that belonged to their grandparents’ era.

In recent years however, it has regained its popularity. The traditional, authentic kitchen has returned to the whole of Europe, and the open sandwich has seen a renaissance. The trend ained momentum when Danish gourmet chefs started rediscovering the Nordic kitchen at restaurants such as Geranium and Noma, which for the last three years has been judged the world’s best.

Now the time has come for the Nordic kitchen to venture overseas. In September 2012, Danish chef Adam Aamann opened Aamanns Copenhagen restaurant in the middle of Manhattan. With two restaurants in Copenhagen, Aamann has been part of reinventing open sandwiches by using fresh, local ingredients and combining them in new ways.

The core of Adam Aamann’s kitchen is the same as it was in the Danish kitchen a hundred years ago: marinated herring, delicate shellfish, herbs and root vegetables – fresh, sharp tastes of sea and soil. Many believe there is a good reason why Danish food has never spread far beyond the country’s borders: herring, aquavit and the open sandwich are what are called “an acquired taste”, something  you have to grow up with to appreciate.

Opening a restaurant in New York is not the easiest undertaking because the city’s citizens have a huge choice of restaurants with every imaginable cuisine from every corner of the world. Can they really be persuaded to eat Danish open sandwiches?

“I am often asked that question,” says Adam Aamann. “Many Danes do not believe that Americans will eat rye bread, but I just say: Where was the pizza in the US before the 1960s? Where was sushi before the 1980s? We meet many Americans who visit Denmark and love our open sandwiches. You can say that it is our only independent contribution to international gastronomy. That is actually something very unique.”

adam aamund
Danish chef Adam Aamann has been part of reinventing open sandwiches. Here he is seen in his kitchen in Copenhagen with his daughter. Photo: Dennis Lehmann/Scanpi x.


The rise of New Nordic

Danes have started to realise the country’s new position in gastronomy. They can see that foreign tourists are visiting Copenhagen exclusively for the food. Previously, Scandinavia had no chance of attracting “foodies”, who went to Paris, London and Italy. American tourists travelling through Europe used to say that the farther north you travelled, the worse the food became. The choice in Danish supermarkets has also changed. On the shelves are new versions of traditional Danish products:

Bread as it was made 100 years ago and marmalade as grandmother made it. All signs of a trend that has far from peaked, thinks Mette Gammicchia, team leader at the Danish Agriculture and Food Council:
“Most Danish supermarkets sell root vegetables, spelt and old types of flour. Every time a new restaurant opens it is either a French bistro or something New Nordic. It is becoming more mainstream, and I think we have only seen the beginning.”

Foreign countries have also started looking at the food culture from which Noma has blossomed – the popular Nordic kitchen. In London, three Danish chefs have opened restaurant Madsen, which serves traditional Danish food: herring, roast pork and old-fashioned meatballs made from veal and pork, served with red cabbage, gravy and marinated cucumber salad.

In New York, Adam Aamann joins the Danish chef Mads Refslund, who has a past at Noma. Refslund has opened Acme, a high-end restaurant with Nordic tones which received glowing praise in the New York Times.

In recent years, The Royal Café has opened branches in Tokyo and Beijing. The café’s bakery makes traditional Danish cakes and small, bite-size “smushi”, a fusion of open sandwich and sushi.

Danish restaurant chains have also seized the opportunity and are currently opening branches in Australia, Sweden and London. In Australia, the producers of the popular programme MasterChef are considering holding next year’s final in Copenhagen, which has gradually become known as one of the world’s new gastronomic centres.

The Royal Café serves small, bite-size The Royal Café serves small, bite-size "smushi", a fashion of open sandwich and sushi. Photo: The Royal Café.

Danish specialities in Japan

Before the new wave of Danish  restaurants abroad, export successes from the Danish pantry were few and far between. But there were some:
Butter cookies, small biscuits made  using Danish butter, are popular worldwide. In many countries a special type of puff pastry is called a “Danish”, even though the pastry rarely resembles or tastes like Danish ones.

Danish hot dog stands have also proved popular abroad, and are a familiar sight in countries as far-flung as Russia and South Korea. Danish hot dog stands are designed as mobile covered cabins, offering a large selection of hot dogs that can be served with fried onions, marinated cucumber salad, ketchup, mustard and other sauces.

Simple, traditional Danish foods such as meatballs and roast pork with crackling and red cabbage have also started attracting attention abroad.

In 2010, Japan’s Andersen Bakery chain employed Danish chef Mads Wolff to teach their staff how to make Danish specialities. For two years, Wolff travelled around the chain’s 450 shops. He made banquets for weddings and receptions, and taught the Japanese chefs to make Danish roast pork, open sandwiches and cookies. He introduced the Danish Christmas speciality biscuit klejnen to Andersen Bakery’s selection of frozen bakery products. Today, klejnen is sold in supermarkets all over Japan.

While Mads Wolff was living in Japan, several restaurants fitted out with Danish design and serving Danish dishes were opened. Danish cuisine had become fashionable.

“Naturally, not everyone in Japan has heard about the New Nordic kitchen,” says Wolff. “But if they are involved in food, they probably have heard about it. Stories are written about it in magazines, it is fashionable. Most Japanese are interested in the Nordic region and Scandinavia, and when they get the chance to taste Danish food they usually like it.”

Danish gourmet chefs have rediscovered the Nordic kitchen
at restaurants such as Geranium. Photo: Jako b Boserup /Scanpi x.

Booming trade and cherry wine

In the wake of Danish chefs abroad, Danish ingredients have followed, with golden opportunities for many Danish food manufacturers.

Danish stands at food fairs worldwide attract considerable attention, and Danish producers have started bringing Danish gourmet chefs with them when they go abroad.

Last year, exports of Danish food increased by more than seven percent compared to the previous year, the most important items being pork and dairy products. Part of the growth is taking place on the Russian and Chinese markets, which are becoming increasingly interested in the high quality of Danish food.

The Nordic kitchen is often associated with organic ingredients, and Danish organic produce is seeing strong growth: in five years, exports of Danish organic products have increased by 300 percent.
This year alone, China has made trade agreements with a large number of Danish producers, from a multimillion agreement with dairy giant Arla Foods to a shipment of cherry wine from a small Danish vineyard.

Several local Danish producers have suddenly gained access to the world market. These include cheese manufacturers such as Knuthenlund Estate, which has won gold medals for its produce. A member of the Saudi royal family is considering buying a large consignment of Danish cheese, while earlier this year Japan’s biggest cheese wholesaler flew to Denmark to meet producers.

In Great Britain, the supermarket chain Sainsbury’s is thinking of introducing rye bread, elderflower juice, cheeses, redcurrant and rhubarb organic ice creams, and other foods from small Danish producers.