Danishes and Elderberry at Andersen bakery, Copenhagen

Danishes

Long before my first visit to Copenhagen, my mother traveled there to accompany my sister on an audition. Mom was delighted to report that the Øresund area had a thriving food culture and that the breakfast pastries in Denmark were some of the best she’d ever tasted. “They’re hard to describe,” she said. “There was fruit filling, and the pastry was light, but not overly crispy. It was almost like a… danish!” There was a pause, then everyone (including Mom) burst out laughing at the silliness of this minor eureka moment.

It makes perfect sense that the pastries in question would be called danishes. They are to Danes what croissants are to the French, and they can be found in every bakery and cold breakfast spread in Copenhagen. Oddly enough, despite their popularity, Denmark hesitates to claim these pastries as their own. The Danish call it wienerbrød, which translates as “bread of Vienna”, because locals credit Austria with the invention of this breakfast staple . Meanwhile, Austrians return the volley by referring to these pastries as Kopenhagener Plunder or Dänischer Plunder.

Figuring that a danish by any other name probably tastes just as sweet, Scott and I headed to Andersen Bakery to try them for ourselves. One of Copenhagen’s top bakeries, Andersen is named for the city’s native son, Hans Christian Andersen, and its history is almost a fairy tale in itself.

Once upon a time, a Japanese baker named Shunsuke Takaki visited Copenhagen and fell in love with the beautiful Danish pastries. He was so taken by their loveliness that when he returned to his home in the faraway land of Japan, he opened his own Danish bakery in Hiroshima. As the years passed he opened more Andersen Bakery locations, and soon the land was filled with the magical aroma of fresh bread. He ruled over these bakeries wisely, but his heart always yearned for the country where he was first inspired. Years later, Takaki’s son and daughter fulfilled their father’s dream and opened three Andersen bakeries in Copenhagen, followed by another in San Francisco.

The story ends, as every fairy tale should, with much rejoicing. Takaki’s dream is manifest in a gleaming bakery with long rows of golden and jewel-colored delights, and just one bite of Andersen’s fabled danish was enough to make me feel like I could live happily ever after. The wienerbrød’s base was an unusually tender puff pastry that had all the flaky, airy qualities you’d expect on top of an almost strudel-like chewiness. The icing was just the way I like it: not overly sweet, but perfectly set without a trace of hardness. Of the two danishes we ordered, the raspberry one was filled with an intensely flavorful seedless jam that was well balanced in sweetness and acidity. The vanilla cream version was equally impressive with generous flecks of raw vanilla bean sprinkled throughout its velvety custard filling.

Danish detail

Almost as enticing as its pastry selection was Andersen’s array of warm beverages. I ordered hyldeblomst saft, which the menu board helpfully translated as “elderflower water”. Unlike in Canada, where you only find elderberry in cocktails and Monty Python and the Holy Grail, this wild woodland blossom is a staple of the Scandinavian flavor profile. My drink was served warm with lemon, and while its flavor was certainly floral, it was more like chamomile flower than rose or jasmine. After the vivid and balanced flavors of the pastries, the elderflower water was shockingly sweet, which made me wonder why it was served with a spoon. It certainly didn’t need any added sugar, and the floral notes would not have stood up to milk. Nevertheless, the spoon was there, and having nowhere else to put it, I left it in the glass where it made breakfast interesting by poking me in the eye a few times.

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If you’re in Copenhagen, I’d definitely recommend stopping in at Andersen Bakery for breakfast. The danishes are unquestionably delicious, and if you have a sweet tooth, give the hyldeblomst saft a chance. Despite its sweetness, it really is very good; so much so that next time someone tells me my father smells of elderberry, I will take it as a compliment.

Andersen Tivoli/Nimb
Bernstorffsgade 5, København
Tel: 033 75 07 35

Now go away, or I shall taunt you a second time.

Taunting

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The fog in Copenhagen

Chapel Fog

It’s a funny time of year when the weather can’t seem to make up its mind whether it’s the end of winter or the beginning of spring. The first brave little flowers and buds appear only to bend their heads to rain, cold and wind. Fortunately, with these grey days comes one of my favorite things: fog.

Scott and I recently spent a few days in Copenhagen where the white, heavy mist made the city seem like a gorgeous, eerie dream. The weird effect that fog has on sound only reinforced this impression: close-by noises were dampened so that they seemed very far away, while distant sounds were strangely amplified. The tapping of my boot heels on cobblestones and the soft, solemn lapping of water on the ancient seawall were swallowed whole in the haze, while ships’ bells clanging and rigging clanking out in the harbor sounded close enough to touch. It was like walking in a Hans Christian Andersen version of Silent Hill. In other words: fantastic.

As much as I love a foggy day, and despite having a Vancouverite’s tolerance for gloom, I was apprehensive about the prospect of all-day darkness when we first arrived in Sweden. I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find that some of the loveliest Scandinavian customs are inspired by the sunless days I’d so dreaded. Candles burn day and night in restaurants and hotel lobbies. Lanterns flicker outside the doors of shops and houses, while windows twinkle with lights all through the evening. In Copenhagen in particular, there are lanterns and lamps almost everywhere you look.   

Lantern

Other ways to rage against the dying of the light include painting buildings in cheerful egg tempera-like colors.

Nyhavn17

Or, if it’s the cold that bothers you most, you can drape yourself in fur from head to toe. Copenhagen is well known for its fur, and there are animal hide coats, hats, capes, and blankets absolutely everywhere. One morning, I saw Cruella DeVille brought to life in a full-length black-spotted white rabbit-fur coat, sporting a perfect platinum bob, red lipstick and deep frown lines.

Though fur really isn’t my thing, I can see how it would be a good defense against the insidious, wet cold of a coastal Danish winter. How else could you enjoy a Carlsberg on the patio in March?

Fur Chair Covers

Far lovelier to me than the ubiquitous pelts were the nautical and military influences that dominate Copenhagen’s art and architecture. The old city is heavily fortified with stone and earthworks, and even its churches have sailing ships and cannons carved in bas-relief into their walls. This makes sense when you consider that the city has spent nine hundred years alternately trading with and being attacked by its neighbors.

Nyhavn

We stayed at the Admiral Hotel, a lovely old place that looked like a fort on the outside and a ship on the inside. There were nautical features everywhere in the building, and even the wall in our room had plaster marks where an oval-shaped hatch used to be. Coming into our room late in the evening and seeing this patch job, I thoughtlessly wondered aloud whether the building might be a converted ship. Definitely not my finest moment, though wine and jet lag share some of the blame for this spectacular foolishness. Scott looked at me incredulously before breaking out in a wide grin and saying in his best pirate voice, “Arrr, old bricky. Why’d she sink?”

Admiral Hotel

The hotel was, of course, not a converted ship. Rather, it started life in the 18th century as a warehouse on the harbor, which gave it a front row seat to a string of British attacks during the Napoleonic Wars. It’s amazing to me that despite centuries of friendly and unfriendly exchange with all of Northern Europe, Copenhagen’s culture remains so distinctly its own. For all its bitterly cold weather, the friendly people and places make it one of the warmest cities I’ve had the pleasure of visiting.

I’m glad I got the opportunity to see Copenhagen beneath its beautiful wet blanket of fog. As we head into spring, I’ll no doubt be back to explore the vintage fairgrounds at Tivoli, or to partake in the local custom of finding a perfect seaside bench for brownbagging it on a warm night. Meanwhile, I’ll just have to make like those early flowers and turn up my collar to the wind, knowing that the sun will return soon. Copenhagen’s graffiti says it, and I believe it.

Dont Worry

SMAK Malmö Konsthall

SMAK salad bar

I am convinced that the people of Malmö are some of the friendliest in the world. I formed this hypothesis during a day trip to the city, where interactions with the locals were improbably pleasant, even for Sweden. The bright-eyed girl serving pastries at Ambrosia Cafe & Konditori chatted happily for ten minutes about life, marriage, and the unique challenges of working at a bakery in a tourist city. (One of these was having to switch between speaking Swedish, English and French, which she did with admirable ease.) When Scott and I went to get SIM cards, the smiling lady who sold them was so intent on providing the best phone plan that she sent us down the street to another store. There, we met yet another amiable woman who waxed lyrical about the joys of spring and recommended we visit a cemetery where we would find snowdrops and crocuses by the thousands.

Flowers

With so much good will floating around, I shouldn’t have been surprised by the warm reception we got at SMAK, the excellent restaurant housed in Malmo Konsthall art museum. I’d sent an email late the night before, hoping to secure a last-minute reservation, but I hadn’t had a chance to check my inbox that morning for a reply. As soon as we walked into the busy space, the beaming (and possibly clairvoyant) greeter called out “Ah, Sarah!”, and ushered us to a table marked by a lovely hand-written card. After settling in for a moment to take in the shining surfaces and merry daytime candlelight, we stood to begin our meal.

Back in Canada, there aren’t many enjoyable dining experiences that involve carrying around one’s own tray. (Vancouver’s wonderful Art Gallery Cafe is a notable exception.) In Sweden, it’s pretty much the norm. Most lunch places offer a choice between three or four main courses with self-serve salad bar, bread station, coffee, and sometimes even cookies to end the meal. So after a quick trip to the counter to grab trays, pick up cutlery and order our mains, we moved on to what might just be the best salad spread I’ve ever tasted.  

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The dishes were deceptively simple. A carrot salad flavored with ginger, orange, dijon might not seem like anything to write home about, but the precise balance of flavors was like nothing I’d tasted before. Another salad featured large, chewy durum wheat grains called Ebly (which were a joy to discover), and was likewise skillfully seasoned with paprika, garlic and coriander. Even the green salad, a fresh, peppery mix of arugula, thinly sliced radish and citrus vinaigrette, was exceptional. The bread station was piled high with rustic loaves that bore the scorch marks of an artisanal oven, and the thick crusts gave way to rich softness inside.

SMAK bread station

The relaxed, friendly service was perfectly on point, leaving just enough time to enjoy the salads at our leisure before the main courses arrived. Scott’s dish was a gorgeous beet terrine topped with walnuts, goat cheese, mizuna, pear and red onion. I wish I’d gotten a better picture of this plate, because it was as beautiful as it was delicious.

SMAK beet terrine

My main course was baked cod with carrots, pickled mustard seeds, beetroot sprouts and a creamy, mussel-infused sauce. While I could go on at length about the sweet, flaky fish or the luscious sauce, the real show-stoppers were the pickled mustard seeds. They brought all the richness of dijon without any of the sharpness, and combined it with an almost caviar-like texture.

Cod

The overall experience was so impressive. I suspect the chef moonlights as a classical composer, because the menu was put together with all the skill and artistry of a piano sonata. The distinct flavors of the ingredients came together in perfect harmony, and themes introduced early in the meal reappeared as variations later on. Despite the unique character of each dish, there was a discernible tone to the whole meal that spoke of restrained and rigorous attention to seasonal ingredients.

At the end of this outstanding meal, I was almost relieved to find that SMAK’s coffee station didn’t include any sweet treats. (Almost.) A hot drink was the perfect end to our lunch, and Scott liked the coffee so much he had two cups. The restaurant is situated directly beside the main exhibit space, so we were treated to an after-lunch stroll among a selection of featured paintings, photographs and sculptures from the City of Malmö’s art collection.

Malmö konsthall

There were a couple of great pieces on display, including Andres Serrano’s stunning Black Supper. I was also happy to see this jolly little guy:

Malmö konsthall bonhomme

And just when I thought the fun was over, right outside the front door of the museum was a playground with stylish steel monkey bars in a variety of artsy shapes, squiggles, and curlicues.

Playground

Monkey bars

I didn’t actually climb the monkey bars, though I was sorely tempted. Instead I made the grown-up choice and took Scott’s arm to walk back towards the rusty-red roofs of the old town.

If you are in Malmö, SMAK is an absolute must. I can’t think of a better way to spend a lunch hour.

SMAK Malmö Konsthall
S:t Johannesgatan 7, Malmö
Tel: 040-50 50 35

Sæglópur and the Øresund bridge

I took an early train to Copenhagen on the first leg of what felt like a very long journey to Las Vegas. It was strange walking down the dark, silent streets of our little town knowing that I’d be in the permaglare of the strip just 21 hours later.

As the train drifted south,  there was cloud cover over Skåne in the early morning light, and the matchstick forests and still lakes looked like a monochrome photo in the sunrise. I was enjoying a gorgeous soundtrack to the sleepy woodland scenery courtesy of Scott’s Bose noise-cancelling headphones, which he kindly loaned me for the trip. I put on some Fleet Foxes with the vague idea that songs about spring might somehow help bring it on in this part of the world.

Skane Winter by Mark Bowman

There is so much to love about travelling with headphones. Dampening the hissing and buzzing of trains and planes is just the beginning. Music adds dimension to what the eyes see, so that everything – landscapes, faces, birds flying – touches a deeper emotion. And sometimes, if you’re lucky, the randomness of song and scenery come together to amplify the meaning of both in a moment of perfect beauty.

I experienced just such a moment as the train reached the southernmost tip of Sweden and plunged into the subterranean darkness of Malmö station.

Andy Delcambre - flickr

As we sat in the tunnel, waiting for passengers to come and go, this came on my iPod:

Some god of electronics must have put Sæglópur on my playlist because for seven minutes, that music was the animating force of everything in my universe. The stark piano chords with their touch of delay echoed through the shadows of the tunnel. The sweet, lonely voice called from the darkness as the train began to pull away and emerged into the overcast morning, picking up speed toward the Øresund bridge.

And then something happened that made my heart detonate. At the precise instant that the song broke into its orchestral fullness (that’s at 1:54 for those of you playing along at home), the earth fell away and I was flying over the slate waters of the Baltic sea. In that same moment, the sun burst from behind the clouds scattering diamonds over every whitecap.

Øresund Bridge, image by Lars Ove Törnebohm

It was literally breathtaking, and I can only imagine what my fellow passengers made of the lady gasping and clutching her chest. In a sense, I really was experiencing a cardiac episode, and it was the best episode ever.

The Øresund bridge is a marvel of modern engineering, linking Sweden and Denmark over an 8 kilometer stretch of water that connects the Baltic and North seas. It’s one of the world’s most beautiful roads with its panorama of sea and sky, flanked by the distant gleam of cities on either side. Every time I cross it, I’m moved by the sight of its gray, melancholy waters and the lonely, capsized boat in the middleground.

Oresund ship by Kristoffer Stigson

I was especially affected that morning,with Sæglópur (Icelandic for “lost at sea”) winding down into its quiet, concluding chords as we touched the Danish shore. I felt like I’d been in my very own live version of Dark Side of the Rainbow, minus the munchkins. I arrived at Kastrup airport and headed for Vegas, knowing that none of Sin City’s glitz and glitter could ever touch the perfection of Sigur Rós and a break in the clouds over the Øresund strait.