Four Days in Copenhagen

Kristen Frederickson

Kristen Frederickson › What part of liv­ing bliss­fully in New York and own­ing an art gallery ...

Hamlet's Castle, plus goulash.

We just spent four food-filled days in Copenhagen.

I am one of the very few people I know who not only doesn’t mind cooking dinner every single night, but actually gets a nervous feeling in my stomach when I can’t. I love it all: the food shopping every day, the cozy feeling of the family around the kitchen, feeding cats and doing homework as I cook, gathering around the table with candles lit and plenty to talk about.

Never is this truer than when we’re on vacation (or “holiday” as we say here in England). I will never forget when we traveled to Venice and stayed in a gorgeous, high-ceilinged hotel room, thinking I’d enjoy the break from cooking, and then I found all the tucked-away food markets, bursting with exotic vegetables, meat and super-fresh seafood and couldn’t cook. Never again!

So when we planned our school-holiday trip to Copenhagen for the last week in October, I knew I wanted to stay in a flat with even the simplest, smallest kitchen, and that’s pretty much what I got. I think the people we rented it from must live on yogurt and capers. There was no paring knife!  No hot pads, only one saucepan.  Sigh. Never mind, it was a kitchen. So my Copenhagen adventure could include some cooking games.

Copenhagen is the most expensive place I have ever been. Even coming from London, and before that New York, I still got sticker-shock every time I had to spend money. Food was no exception: both buying raw ingredients to cook and sitting down to a restaurant meal were mind-bogglingly pricey. All we could do was grin and bear it, and then enjoy the fabulous quality of everything on offer.

I cannot speak highly enough of the quality of Danish produce!

The first late afternoon, after a wonderful boat ride all through the pristine canals of Copenhagen, we walked wearily home to our neighborhood of Nyhavn (“new harbor”) and popped into a local supermarket, Irma. It is the oldest supermarket family in Denmark (and the second oldest in the world), founded in 1870, and operates on strictly fair-trade principles, featuring many organic choices and sourcing nearly every ingredient within Denmark. We came away with a package of Danish sirloin steaks, a punnet of Danish mushrooms, and a jar of surprisingly delicious creamy sauce with brandy, and that was dinner.

The next morning found us at the very top of the food ladder, at the glittering, gloriously impressive Torvehallerne, Danish for “food market,” in the heart of Copenhagen (it’s a very small, eminently walkable city). Bursting with prepared food shops, fruit and veg shops, cheese, butter and cream shops, butchers, florists, bakeries and bars, if you have the cash, you can buy just about anything here. There are two glassy buildings (one generally full of meat and cheese and veg, the other full of baked goods and desserts, coffee and chocolates). I was remarkably restrained and, after sampling every sort of cheese there was, bought a block of nutty, rich Havarti (which I did not realize was Danish!) from Unika, two of the firmest and most fragrant garlic bulbs ever from an olive and olive oil concern called Stigs, and three heavenly pork (I adore the Danish word “svine” for “pig”) meatballs in a rich, light herb sauce, from Slagter Lund butcher. How hard it was to resist all the smoked fish, charcuterie, the single servings of Potatoes Anna, the spiny European lobsters! But we were there only for four days.

Starving from everything we had seen at the market, we repaired to the nearby La Petanque, named for the boules-like outdoor grass game, home of the best crepes in Copenhagen, so they say. And they were indeed completely delicious–John and I shared one with spinach and goat cheese and one with cumin-scented grilled chicken and sour cream–with a lacy, crisp texture. Avery had a traditional Croque Monsieur and finished up with crepes Suzette, naturally, flaming away.

Another trip to Irma that afternoon and we were ready for our second Danish dinner, breakfast! Inspired by the restaurants outside our flat offering luxurious brunches, I fried deep-yolked Danish eggs, melted some of that precious Havarti, fried up some sausages, and piled them all up with the meatballs from Torvehallerne on divine wholemeal rolls from a nearby bakery (Denmark is justifiably famous for its bread), Nyhavn Brød and Café. The result was quite simply heavenly, the best of all possible ingredients.

The following day we took a guided tour of famous crime-drama scenes in Copenhagen (don’t ask, a family obsession) and were unable to resist the temptation of one of the local specialties for lunch: giant hot dogs! From a street cart (there are many), Avery chose bacon-wrapped, and John and me the super-size with all the condiments: a super hot mustard, really good ketchup and mayonnaise. Not gourmet, perhaps, but we had to do it.

That evening, after an afternoon of exorbitant clothes-shopping for Avery’s upcoming birthday, our tired feet took us once more to Irma where we came home with thick local pork chops and potatoes. The resulting dauphinoise, made with Danish cream and more of our Havarti, were the best ever. I cannot speak highly enough of the quality of Danish produce!

The next day took us to Kronborg, the castle that inspired Shakespeare to write Hamlet (Avery’s favorite play). And here we had a lunch that could not be rivaled for deliciousness, and also a sort of Alice in Wonderland experience. This took place in the tiny café in the grounds of the castle, graced with the stylish simplicity that is so Danish. Fragrant, calming candles burned everywhere, people sat quietly drinking cappuccinos and waiting for the castle tour to start. We sat down. Nothing happened. I went into the coffee bar to look for a waiter, but saw no one. “There’s a bell,” John hissed. “Ring it.” So I did. Nothing happened. As we were about to give up, finally a lovely lady came through swing doors from the kitchen and asked, “Would you like lunch?” “Yes, very much. Can we see a menu?” “There is no menu. There is goulash.” “Goulash?” “Yes, only goulash.” “Three goulashes, then.”

We sat down to wait. And wait, and wait. Perhaps the candles had been too calming? As the minutes ticked by leading up to our tour we realized we would have to absolutely bolt our goulash, if it ever came. And when it did, oh my, delicious! Slow-cooked tender beef in a tomatoey, rich broth studded with tender carrots. That was all. But it was perfection in its way. Just don’t be in a hurry. “Only goulash.”

After we were thoroughly soaked on our walk back to the train station that afternoon, we were ready to go out for dinner and let someone else do all the work. We repaired to nearby Ravage, a very new restaurant just a hop from our flat, specializing in classic bistro fare. Avery and I shared the softest, most tender beef fillet ever known to man, with a huge portion of crisp, fluffy thick-cut French fries. John had Mussels Mariniere and more of the French fries, which we all dipped in freshly-made Bearnaise sauce, rich with tarragon. Heaven!

On our last day in Copenhagen, our goal was simple: “smørrebrød.” This is a Danish cultural phenomenon that means literally “butter bread,” but that translation doesn’t begin to cover the lavishness of this dish. There are “smørrebrød” restaurants everywhere, with sometimes dozens of dishes listed, but the basic concept is an open-faced sandwich on some really serious rye bread, piled with combinations of ingredients that were mind-boggling.

Finally we decided to have our “smørrebrød” from the iconic Ida Davidsen restaurant near our flat. After much deliberation (and in complete ignorance as to the choking cost of what we were about to eat), we came away with two sandwiches to share, and headed home to sample them.

And dear readers, you know me. I’ll eat almost anything and I would have said that my palate was too jaded to be shocked by any taste sensation. Yet I was not at all prepared for the utter foreignness of these dishes. Shrimp, poached eggs and julienned cucumber under a light blanket of mayonnaise! Salami, goat cheese, radish, chives and a lingonberry compote! Our taste buds reeled. Interesting, elegant, important to have experienced, but very pricey, and really, really intensely foreign.

In other words, it was completely Copenhagen on a plate.

Tell us about your foreign eating adventures.

Photo credit: Avery Curran