stories

Pickled herring on rye and other unbreakable rules

left: original artwork, right: the tea towel itself (creased, stained and used)
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I moved to London in 2009, just before the Scandinavian food scene got to the main course. Despite the city being such a melting pot of cultures, I couldn’t find anything that resembled the Danish staples of pickled herring, remoulade and leverpostej that I was used to from home. Since I arrived in the UK, chefs like René Redzepi of Noma have led the new Nordic food revolution from the front. He and others put Denmark on the gastronomic map – and I absolutely love it. It pulls on my patriotic heartstrings. 

the open sandwich stacked high with all of your heart’s desires

There is a certain nostalgia about mealtime rituals that you cannot replicate unless you’re completely submerged in Danish-ness. My food roots are not as refined as a three Michelin star restaurant, and for me smørrebrød – the open sandwich stacked high with all of your heart’s desires – carries the same sentimental connotations as the roast dinner does in the UK. 

The ultimate Danish feast (and all I’m craving when I go home) is frokost. Now, frokost only means lunch, but lunch in my family is something spectacular. It gathers people around the table for big holidays, family get-togethers, or just your regular weekend treat. And of course, when the lost child returns home.  

Imagine a plethora of choices and different combinations that all go on top of dark, seeded rye bread. Pickled herring, breaded plaice, prawns, fish cakes, gravadlax, hot smoked salmon or mackerel, salted breaded herring, mackerel in tomato sauce, I could go on – and that’s just the fish. Then we come on to pâtés, terrines, meatballs, cured meats, cooked sliced meats and all the condiments and different pickles. 

There are not only rules for which condiments go with which meats, the order in which the different toppings should be eaten is also prescribed.

The list of frokost pålæg is endless, but the combinations are rigid and follow a very particular set of rules (the word pålæg literally means ‘put on’, used for frokost toppings on rye bread). Everything is laid out on the table, so you can pick and choose exactly how you want your meal to be. Across the table you’ll hear, ‘Mor, pass me the herring, please.’ Or ‘Maria, I’d love some pickled beetroot for my leverpostej.’ Even when my mum says it’s a small spread, it feels like a celebration. 

Around Christmas and Easter frokost turns into a six-hour session where you can easily forget your whereabouts and what time of day it is solely because of the onslaught of food. For an outsider this may seem like a cornucopia, and it can be very daunting where to even begin. It takes years to learn the ins and outs of which sauce or pickle is acceptable to put with which meat. 

When a friend from London came to Denmark with me, my mum obviously laid out the spread of everything she could get her hands on from the butchers, the fishmongers, and her own pantry. Quite unfairly of me, I hadn’t briefed my friend about the unbreakable rules. When asking how she should assemble her lunch, I said that she could do whatever she fancied, without even thinking. I didn’t even consider the fact that she had absolutely no clue of the unbreakable unwritten rules of frokost. It wasn’t until I saw the astonished looks of the rest of my family when she decided that pickled herring was best on a soft white roll – and with mayonnaise. 

when conversation is flying across the frokost table, we learn about acceptance and understanding of different communities through our shared love for consuming delectable meals.

For a foreigner, the ritual of frokost is like a dance you don’t know the steps to. Hands and arms are moving around each other in beautiful unison when reaching for just the right pålæg. There are not only rules for which condiments go with which meats, the order in which the different toppings should be eaten is also prescribed. You always start with fish – and if you’re having herring, that always goes before any other types. After the fish it’s a freestyle dance battle and you can have leverpostej before or after frikadelle; whichever takes your fancy first. As long as they are eaten with the right condiments and pickles. 

I love having different nationalities around the frokost table. It highlights the Danish rituals that only get questions once an outsider points out how strange it is. What is completely normal to me as it has been fork-fed to me since I was able to eat solid foods is suddenly something I have to explain. 

For me food is a way of bridging cultures. It starts conversations about both similarities and differences around food, and when conversation is flying across the frokost table, we learn about acceptance and understanding of different communities through our shared love for consuming delectable meals. After all, we’re all the same, regardless of how we stack our open sandwiches.