While studying in Aarhus, Denmark for three weeks this summer I pondered the possible titles for this upcoming blog post:
"Starving in Denmark" (so expensive to eat there, which is why the photo above is of a cheap meal I made at home), "The Land of Leggings" (de rigueur fashion element for women of all ages), "World Wide Web" (so many spiders and their webs!), or "Allergies my Allergies" (they owned me and my puffy face).
But, since this is a food blog it made more sense for the title to refer to the two regional food items I loved most on the trip:
1. Red Pesto
This condiment is popular in Denmark! I found it at our school cafeteria next to the mayo and mustard. Thinking it was spicy harissa I took a bit for a burger and it sure was something else. A chef walking by seemed surprised for my red pesto lust, then kindly gave me the recipe: "It's just dried tomatoes, olive oil, salt & pepper." This thick red puree is like a Danish foodie ketchup that I never knew existed and now can't live without! Though to locals it's just "(yawn) red pesto," to me it's a new toy.
American recipes for red pesto start as a recipe for green pesto (basil/nuts/olive oil) just with sun-dried tomato pieces added in. The Danish kind is not that at all. I attempted to make it at home using paper-towel-drained canned San Marzano plum tomatoes even though the few online Danish recipes I saw contained sun-dried tomatoes, because I imagined sun-dried would kill my food processor and when the chef said dried tomatoes he could have meant fresh tomatoes that were dried. Well I got that wrong. My resulting "red pesto" was like a thick fresh tomato sauce that kept weeping tomato water. Still good but not like what I had. I'll try sun-dried next time.
9/17 addendum: After a month I finally figured out the red pesto recipe (see photo). Anyone interested just lemme know.
2. The mysteries of stegt flæsk vs. flæskesteg
Before coming to Denmark I thought of an old food magazine article—"Danish Christmas"—in which a beautiful pork roast with a crackling top was served to a family in a modern country home. This article left an impression, so I really wanted to try this dish during my stay. Lovely Danish classmate Julie (pronounced yule-yah) said the dish I was looking for was called "stegt flæsk med persillesovs," literally translated via my laptop to "fried bacon with parsley sauce." Hmm it made sense, since the top of the pork looked fried like bacon.
Menus across the city did not often list this dish and if they did it cost $40 which was too much (the town didn't take kindly to U.S. credit cards). One day a man giving us a media house tour said the best traditional Danish restaurant in town was the only place the Danish royal prince dines at when he visits Aarhus. Score! A plan was made, though when I mentioned this to my professor he said it was only a Monday-Friday lunch place—so only open when we were in class. Sigh. That's when local classmate Jarle suggested Raadhuus Kaféen instead. So housemate Kami and I ended up there on my third-to-last night in town, and they served the dish I was seeking for $25.
Everyone in Aarhus, Denmark knows English, but in spite of that our waitress had trouble translating the dish for me. I asked if it was fatty. She said yes but I can cut it off. No problem. Then just as I thought we understood each other she said, "We also have it as a roast. Would you prefer that?" (She was apparently not a big fan of stegt flæsk med persillesovs!) This confused me even more because I thought I was getting a roast in the first place. In any case, I had to get what Julie recommended, which for weeks had been living on a slip of paper in my wallet so there would be no misunderstanding.
The dish set before me truly amazed me because it was in fact fried bacon, a big fat dish of it! I felt terribly rebellious for eating so much thick fried crunchy bacon, topped with cream sauce no less! It was glorious and made me very happy. My vegetarian dining companion was supportive even though she thought I was a little crazy. The next day I told Julie about my good fortune at Raadhuus Kaféen, plus the part that I thought I had ordered a roast. She explained, "Ah, there are two versions of the dish. One is a roast, and one is like you had it (because I showed her a picture)." Ah. All right then.
Once home I looked for that old article about the pork roast and crackling. Couldn't find the original but this one shows what I imagined quite well if you scroll down through the photos to the recipe. The name of this dish is flæskesteg (sorta the same as stegt flæsk just reversed + "e" - "t"). Translated it means roast pork. So I translated stegt flæsk again in LA, the dish I ate, and this time it also translated to "roast pork" instead of "fried bacon." Can I get a consistent desktop translator please?? In the end I guess you have to be Danish to thoroughly understand how to order the version you want. Even though I didn't get the literal roast pork, lucking out with the fried bacon was okay by me! For more info on the fried bacon version click here.
3. Additional food and beverage highlights of Aarhus
These crunchy rye crackers were made at local bakery Det Gyldne Brød (not too hard to translate that one ;). Not only did this wonderful place take Amex and sell cheap coffee, they also made these satisfying regional Danish crackers blanketed with dense layers of sesame or poppy seeds (in either black or tan). These sturdy, toothsome crackers beat the pants off of dry and dull WASA bread.
• Danish Butter Cookies
The best I experienced here were made with brown butter, nuts and vanilla and were only offered after paying a hefty admission to Den Gamle By or The Old Town. The bake shop was filled with lots of delicious cookies and just as many angry bees (they must have had good taste). The butter cookies are in the photo in front along with traditional crispy sugar pretzels in back. These cookies were soooo good I had to keep going back for more.
• Nils' cookies
My German housemate Nils surprised us all one night when we discovered a tabletop full of his homemade chocolate chip cookies. Not sure what to expect from this young Ph.D. student, I was actually awed at the tasty and uniquely textured cookies he produced. With so much praise (and 2nds, 3rds and 4ths) Nils kindly gave me the recipe, which he got from a friend. I figured the simple secret must be that he made them with high-butterfat Danish butter, something I can easily buy at Whole Foods.
8/21 addendum: Now I know why my expectations were so topsy turvy with these chocolate chip cookies... it's because they are actually an oaty shortbread cookie with chocolate chips. I figured this out while gathering the ingredients and seeing there was no egg or cup of sugar in the recipe like regular chocolate chips. The butter binds it, the oats add texture and bulk, and the chips flavor it. Wunderbar!
• Sigfred's Kaffebar
This is the Intelligentsia (Los Angeles) or Stumptown (Portland) of Aarhus, Denmark. Artisinal coffee beverages made with light roasted beans for SO MUCH MORE MONEY THAN STARBUCKS OMG (small latte for $7 anyone?). I couldn't afford this luxury more than twice, and they didn't take U.S. credit cards like Det Gyldne Brød, though I have to say it was one of the smoothest cups I've ever had.
• Turc Kebab
There must be a lot of Turkish immigrants in Aarhus, because Turkish street food ran rampant in this town. On a lazy Saturday I took a chance at this place to buy a rolle kylling (chicken roll) for 35 kroner (I told you, $6.76 is a high price for street food). Had to get this chicken thing two times because it was delicious! Unlike other stands that have cold chopped chicken in a bin, this guy caramelized his chicken in a sauté pan all day until the wrap was constructed. Beyond regular toppings like lettuce, tomato and onion, you could also add fried onions, hot sauce or the magnificent green garlic sauce. Who cares if I only got one napkin and probably stained my jeans with the dripping juices...this was one great lunch!
• Summerbird Chocolates
A Danish chocolatier that is light on added sugar and heavy on creativity and marzipan. When a nice salesman at a department counter heard I'd never tasted Summerbird he offered a free tasting along with coffee to cleanse the palate! That was definitely a trip highlight. Summerbird highlights include their flavored coated almonds (which come in pretty colors like silver, purple and yellow), chocolate filled eggs, and especially their original chocolate tapas and chocolate sushi box collections.
• Det Gronne Hjorne (The Green Corner)
After my first week of starving I discovered this Turkish all-you-can-eat place for only $19 per person + free water!! (a Denmark rarity). Housemate Kami and I went twice because we liked it so much. Then on my second-to-last night I attended a pre-paid school event where students go out for dinner and drinks. They announced the destination-to-be on the day of and I read it was Det Gronne Hjorne. Ugh... Good for two meals, but not the place for every restaurant meal in a city! Some school friends and I found this quite amusing.
• Danish Pastry
Sorry Aarhus, your Danish pastries were nice and so much better than the American kind at home, but alas they were no match for the pastries of Copenhagen experienced in 2005. When I asked why this was, someone explained the royal family likes to live among the citizens, so they drop in at various Copenhagen eating establishments unannounced. This is why every restaurant and royal pastry shop in the country's capital must always be at their best. That's good for Copenhagen, but left my need to experience a second euphoric Danish pastry experience, per my Danish Danish post, a little unfulfilled. The forms were similar, but the taste was not as special. Note: the marzipan hazelnut square in the photo from Fremtidensbager was distinct and delightful.
• Die Kleine Bierstube
My only trip regret is that I went to this fantastic German beer hall and restaurant on my very last night in town and not sooner. The atmosphere was perfectly Scandinavian in blonde wood (like the original Aquavit in NYC) and homey biergarten decor. And so many kinds of fresh German beer—wheat, lager, dunkel—flowed at the right price. On my last night I went there for hefeweizen-on-tap and good conversation with housemate István. Die Kleine Bierstube was so gratifying I would be there every night if one existed at home (sorry Red Lion). If I had a personal trainer and chauffeur that is ;).
Until we eat again,