You take a piece of bread -preferably rye bread- spread on a layer of butter, top it with meat or fish, and finally some garnish. You’re now ready to dig into a wonderful gastronomic experience.
In its essentials, it seems utterly simple. However, there is nothing simple about smørrebrød, the famous Danish open-faced sandwiches. At least not if you want the full taste experience of a perfect piece of smørrebrød, a dish that can vary in style and taste but is always founded on the same simple concepts. Like any other great dish, smørrebrød is all about the balance of tastes.
Take for instance the classic piece with roast beef, garnished with pickles, deep-fried onions and some grated horseradish. The meat is raised to a new level by the crunchiness and acidy of the pickles, the power of the horseradish and the sweetness of the onions - and of course, the dark and malty flavors from a sourdough-based rye bread.
Quite simple, yet still very hard to make the perfect way, as chef Adam Aamann, in many people’s eyes the most important innovator of the smørrebrød tradition, told me when I interviewed him a couple of years ago.
“How to choose the best piece for roast beef? I use rump instead of the traditionally used top round, which in my opinion gets too dry when cooked. In addition, I try to make the ultimate version of spicy pickles and mayonnaise. We figured out the best way to do the crispiest onions was to slice them very thin, then blanch in milk before drying and finally deep-frying.”
Whether restaurants are trying to make smørrebrød the traditional way or take a more experimental approach, the search for perfection is what is making the culinary scene of smørrebrød boom with chefs using the best ingredients available and putting as much effort into making smørrebrød as one would with any other dish. But it hasn’t always been that way, and the ride to the current state has been a bumpy one.
The word smørrebrød translates literally as “buttered bread,” and for hundreds of years that was exactly what it was:
a slice of bread covered with fat. But in the late 19th century, the dish as we know it today began to emerge. Traditional Danish dishes such as duck roast were reinterpreted and put on top of a slice of bread as a luxury serving for the bourgeoisie. A place like the exclusive Nimb Hotel in Tivoli Gardens was among the first to serve the modern version of the dish. More down-to-earth restaurants followed, slowly popularizing smørrebrød among the working class as well.
The first golden era of smørrebrød ended in the 1970s with a marked decrease in overall quality. Semi-manufactured products found their way into restaurants, and the dish began going out of style. Then, for a couple of decades, great smørrebrød was hard to find other than in a few dedicated restaurants trying to keep the tradition alive.
All that changed in 2006 when Adam Aamann started to reinterpret the smørrebrød tradition in a contemporary way. His restaurants became very popular and got great reviews, paving the way for several new restaurants focusing on this Danish gem -a gem that once again shone so brightly that rumor has it the Michelin guide will soon award the first star to a smørrebrød restaurant.
That has not happened yet, but this February the first Bib Gourmand (a mention for budget-friendly restaurants serving very good food) was awarded to Selma, an experimental smørrebrød restaurant in Copenhagen. At the same time, Lonely Planet put the Danish specialty on its “Ultimate Eats” list.
Both these accomplishments are impressive milestones for the international acknowledgement of smørrebrød says Ole Troelsø, food critic and author of several books on the specialty: “I’ve been following the evolution of smørrebrød in Denmark for many years and now we see quality better than ever. With a restaurant like Selma, we see a very personal, gastronomic restaurant serving smørrebrød with produce that is even better than the other good places. And a great thing about smørrebrød is that it is affordable -more tourists in Copenhagen can afford good smørrebrød, even at the best places.”