Surprise surprise, it’s not only Copenhagen that carries Denmark’s foodie flag. In fact most of the produce landing in the kitchens of some of the world’s top restaurants (yes I know, Noma’s just been relegated to no. 3 in the World’s Best list, but watch out for Geranium, hot behind) comes from Jutland, that fist of land thrusting towards Norway and lapped by the waves of the North Sea.
Jutland is bucolic to say the least, also varied, from forests of birch and beech to vast fir tree plantations (Happy Christmas folks), wild, heather clad heath, a huge lake and miles and miles of blinding white sand and dunes along the coast. Hares and rabbits, pheasants and deer make it heaven for hunters, while herds of well-treated cattle placidly munch lush, herbal pastures. Salt marshes are the enclave of sheep – producing the leanest of lamb.
Not far from the Legoland capital and airport of Billund, I visited a dairy run by husband and wife, Vagn and Hanne Borg, which makes some of Denmark’s best artisan cheese, mainly destined for Copenhagen’s restaurants. Here at Christianminde, the fit, smiling Jesper, a trained cheese maker and the third of the tiny team, told me about the bio-dynamic milk they use, never stopping working as he spoke.
“The cows keep their horns, so don’t suffer any emotional distress,” he told me enthusiastically. “They graze in fields where up to eight different herbs grow. Otherwise they feed on hay”. Their creamy milk, gently pasteurised at low temperatures, makes an incredibly dense, flavoursome cheese called Hodde, similar to an aged French Comté. The dairy also produces a pungent soft cheese with a natural rind, sometimes decorated with elderflower.
Artisan cheeses (or ‘New Nordic’ cheeses) are a recent phenomenon in Denmark, kicking off barely four years ago, and only produced in small quantities. Luckily one infinitesimal quantity still remains in my fridge in London… Have a whiff of the ageing rooms below..
Later, in the low-key resort town of Blaavand (‘blue water’) at Denmark’s westernmost point, I sampled a creamy, tangy blue cheese, Gjesing, made from 90% cow and 10% sheep’s milk, as well as Malt Ost, a top of the range, extra extra mature Cheddar taste-alike spiked with veins of beer. In fact the flavour and crumbly texture were so fantastic that the addition of beer was hardly necessary. Just look at it below…
This was at Hr. Skov, an ace deli and café (fast becoming a Danish habit) run by Henny and Claus, a husband and wife team. The shelves displayed anything and everything your heart or stomach might desire, including gourmet liquorice, local honey, preserves, craft beers of rosehip and barley, and some truly excellent imported wines.
When I went for a walk on the beach to digest, I suddenly came across German bunkers dressed as mules. I later learned that these were the work of the British artist, Bill Woodrow – an inventive touch to the sandy, blustery landscape.
From Blaavand it’s just over 30km south to the port of Esbjerg, from where a dinky little car-ferry spirits you across the water to the intriguing Fano Island. This turned out to be a secret enclave of foodie delight – from more gourmet delis to producers, foragers and a cossetting, 300-year old country inn (Sonderho Kro) to sleep it all off in.
Smoked salmon (laks) is the latest Fano product, although the fish itself is farmed in Norway. The quality is superb, as it is gently and you might say lovingly smoked over beech chips, before being hand-salted and sliced. Nothing slimy or over-oaked, nor over-smoked – what a delight.
Fano Laks is the mom-and-pop business where 66-year old Henning, dad, obsessively oversees all aspects of smoking and drying while mum does the accounts, and daughter Anna cheerfully handles marketing. “All the employees should be dead!” she announced, showing me into a large, luminous workshop where a dozen or so elderly workers stood hand-slicing (using the Japanese method) and packaging. This highlighted another of Denmark’s plus-points, the number of people in their 60s working in the food and hospitality businesses – so no bored retirement here.
Not surprisingly, the smoked salmon is a runaway success, supplying Copenhagen restaurants and exports; production has risen from 200kg to two tons in its 7 year existence. So much for retirement eh Henning?
Fano also has its own supply of oysters, the Pacific variety, which bizarrely arrived in these Nordic climes decades ago as ballast in merchant ships. The shells were dumped, then propagated. The result? Oyster safaris led by a Viking forager, Jesper (again) at low tide on the mud-flats. In the background looms the industrial port of Esbjerg, to the side, one of Denmark’s many offshore wind farms. I incidentally learned that 39% of Danish energy is from renewables, with no nuclear at all.
Jesper’s safari ends in total gourmet bliss beside the dunes, consuming as many fresh oysters as you like, the smaller ones with a slice of strawberry, a squirt of lime and twist of black pepper, the larger ones barbecued according to his excellent personal recipes (parmesan and Parma ham or feta, red pesto and chilli). A gluttonous treat – as was the copious amount of Luxembourgeois white wine from the back of his magic van (also source of wellies, buckets, barbecue and tableware).
What a cool society! Contented cows, ageing yet fulfilled workers, no litter anywhere, friendly, relaxed people, reasonable prices, renewables … and authentically slow food to die for.
Watch out for my next instalment, a blog on where to eat and stay.