The sandwich is all things to all people. From the doner kebab of Turkey to the vada pav of India, the Mexican cemita (made from a brioche-like egg and lard bun), to the commanding Portuguese Francesinha, a soggy meaty number smothered in cheese and egg and covered with a beer-and-whisky-based sauce. But it is the Danes who have turned a simple bread-based lunch into something of an art form.
Wander the streets of Copenhagen and you’re never more than a cinnamon bun’s throw from a café or restaurant offering a glistening array of open sandwiches (known as smørrebrød) so enticing and vibrantly coloured they would give a Parisian patisserie a run for its money.
The Danes love for the open-faced sandwich begins with bread – and not just any bread, either. Rugbrød (rye bread) is a national obsession. Made from the dark, slightly sour rye grain with a sourdough starter to help it rise a little, rye offers a dense, savoury – and acquired – taste. In Roman times, rye was rarely used, but it stirred enough feeling in Pliny the Elder for him to write dismissively that, “it is a very poor food and only serves to avert starvation.” He had obviously never tasted a rugbrød smørrebrød slathered in cured or pickled fish, meat, pâté or pickled vegetables and served for lunch.
Rye arrived in Denmark, Finland and parts of Sweden in the Bronze Age (between 1700-500 BC). As a grain, it is particularly suited to damp, cold climates and acidic soils, which meant it flourished in Eastern and Northern Europe. Thanks to its complex root system, rye can also withstand periods of drought more effectively than other grains.
The Vikings were early adopters, using the grain to make flatbreads and circular unleavened loaves with a hole in the middle that allowed them to hang their bread on a rope or pole. They also made more familiar sourdough rye loaves.
It was during the sixteenth century that the open-faced sandwich came into its own in Denmark. Workers would take rye bread, meat, fish and cheese with them into the fields for lunch, and as plates were expensive, thin slices of dense rye bread provided an effective substitute with the added benefit that they could be eaten afterwards (no washing up!). Since then smørrebrød has come to embody both the Danish love of rye bread and of a good lunch.
In the right hands, smørrebrød is more than just a slice of bread short of a full sandwich. They can look like modernist works of art: heaped with meat, fish, cheese and eggs drizzled with mustard or mayonnaise sauces and then topped with caviar and a garnish of gleaming tomato slices and slivers of cucumber, they are as beautiful as they are delicious.
There is also a fine art to eating these delectable sandwiches. You don’t just grab one piled with beef and get going; there’s order and etiquette to be followed. Most people tend to have two or three, starting with pickled herring sprinkled with onions, dill or capers. This herring ‘course’ is then followed by another fish or shellfish sandwich – crayfish tails in mayonnaise, say, or fried fish – before you reach for a meatier choice to round off your meal.
Today, one of Denmark’s most famous and long-running rye bread meccas is a Copenhagen restaurant called Ida Davidsen, opened in 1888 by the eponymous Ida’s wine merchant great-grandfather Oskar. He started offering smørrebrød with wine until the open sandwiches became more famous than the drink. At its height, Oskar Davidsen’s restaurant offered 178 different variations on the open sandwich, on a list that stretched to more than 140cm long. Ida’s restaurant now features 250 options and is a legend in its own lunchtime.
Referring to smørrebrød as “the first big contribution Denmark made to cooking,” celebrated Danish chef René Redzepi has said that it is not “just a sandwich; it’s a whole cuisine.”