I swallow a slab of salty liquorice at Karamelleriet, an old-fashioned sweet shop, and wince. “That’s because you’ve got a ‘small normal’,” the shopkeeper remarks — a savage, if unusual, indictment of my palate. “But your taste buds can change,” he adds quickly. “You may learn to like it.”
Chastened, I’m determined to expand the parameters of what I deem tasty. Fortunately, I’m in the right place. Copenhagen isn’t a city for cautious, cagey diners. Across the Danish capital, chefs, brewers and distillers are pushing the boundaries and stretching the definition of normal.
I start at 108, a new Nordic restaurant dubbed ‘Noma’s little brother’ when it opened this summer. Head chef Kristian Baumann shows me round the kitchen and dining room before taking me to the cluster of shipping containers that house Noma and 108’s so-called fermentation labs: seven climate-controlled rooms containing buckets of fermenting fruit, vegetables, fish and meat.
Inside the first room, the air is humid and tangy. Shelves groan under the weight of large plastic tubs. Scrawled labels indicate the contents, which restaurant is responsible for them, and the date they began fermenting.
“This is where we make miso,” Baumann says, referring to the Japanese condiment typically produced using fermented soybeans. Not here, though: I spot miso made with mushrooms, chickpeas, pumpkin seeds and grasshoppers. Another room contains varieties of vinegar — kelp, mushroom, rose, celery — and the sauna-like 60C room houses the more hardcore foodstuffs: fermented squid, beef and cabbage.
Sensing my bewilderment, Baumann tells me to see ingredients as letters of the alphabet. “It’s up to the chef to arrange them into words,” he explains. “Consider elderflower: we can salt it, pickle it, make a syrup or oil out of it or even ferment it.”
My dinner later that evening showcases this philosophy. Cured mackerel gleams with celery vinegar; a selection of pickles (elderberry capers, nasturtium, rosehip) pep up a delicious lamb tartare; grilled monkfish glimmers with a mushroom-miso lacquer.
The next day, I discover another kind of fermentation at Brus, a brewpub launched by Tobias Emil Jensen and Tore Gynther, founders of microbrewery To Øl. I arrive to find Jensen making a Gose — a traditional German beer with a sour, salty taste produced by adding bacteria to the wort (the liquid extracted during the mashing process of brewing). Sacks of grain are dunked into a kettle of wort and left to steep for 24 hours at 40C, Jensen explains. Naturally occurring bacteria in the grain will convert the sugars in the wort into lactic acid, giving the Gose its distinctive sour flavour.
“I always describe a beer by its base parameters: colour, bitterness and alcohol — but that’s so simplified,” Jensen says. The pair use exotic ingredients, such as tropical fruit and coffee, and enjoy creating a fusion of flavours. “If I combine raspberry and strawberry, it leads to something bigger,” Jensen explains. “One plus one equals three.”
I hear something similar when I visit Henrik Brinks, master distiller at Copenhagen Distillery. He produces gin, aquavit and schnapps, all of which are made by taking a neutral spirit derived from an agricultural product and giving it the dominant flavour of one or more botanicals. “If that dominant flavour is juniper, it’ll be gin,” Brinks explains. “If it’s either dill or caraway, it’ll be aquavit.”
Everything else is schnapps, including the Christmas spirit he’s making when I visit the distillery. I peer into a bucket containing a murky mishmash of botanicals — hand-peeled oranges, juniper, long peppers, prunes and cardamom — which are left to macerate in alcohol for five days.
Rum or whisky producers can mask the inferiority of their spirit by maturing it in a cask. This isn’t the case with schnapps. “You’re completely naked when you distil schnapps,” Brinks says. “It’s all about balance and pairing different botanicals.”
I dip my finger into the cool, clear liquid as it begins to trickle out of the still. It tingles my tongue and warms my chest — the perfect balance of sweetness and spice, fire and ice.
Schnapps is best enjoyed alongside smørrebrød (buttered bread, typically topped with meats, fish, spreads or cheese), so Brinks sends me to Restaurant Palægade, which serves this iconic Danish dish for lunch.
Karina Pedersen, who leads the restaurant’s lunchtime kitchen, tells me smørrebrød’s reputation had taken a battering in recent years, due to many tourist traps using store-bought products — but eateries like Restaurant Palægade are now leading a return to the use of high-quality, homemade ingredients.
I spend the day in Restaurant Palægade’s kitchen and try plating a simple dish of smørrebrød, beginning by laying two fillets of plaice on a slice of buttered bread. “Tails pointing away from the customer,” Pedersen suggests. Having squeezed too little mayonnaise on the fillets, I misalign six shrimps. “Tails pointing in the same direction,” she chides — and then sends me packing before I can do any more damage.
A pedal-push away, I find a very different take on smørrebrød. At Bror, a split-level restaurant in the Latin Quarter, former Noma sous-chefs Victor Wågman and Sam Nutter specialise in using unusual animal parts, such as the head, skin, penis and testicles. “With a little bit of work and playfulness, you can achieve results that people actually consider delicious,” Wågman says with a wink.
Bull’s testicles are one of Bror’s standout snacks. Breaded and deep-fried, they have the ooze and crunch of a chicken nugget. The latest addition to the menu is cow’s uterus, which the chefs confit, glaze in a pan and serve on crisp rye bread. I wash it down with beer and schnapps — and consider having seconds. Who’s got a ‘small normal’ now?
Five Copenhagen food finds
Grisen: Danes love flaeskesteg (roast pork) sandwiches filled with crispy meat, red cabbage and gherkin — and this kitsch cafe does the city’s best.
John’s Hotdog Deli: Locals flock to John Jensen’s van outside Central Station — with good reason. He’s the three-time winner of Denmark’s national hotdog competition.
Leckerbaer: This sleek pastry shop dishes up beautiful, exquisitely imaginative Danish butter cookies, as well as cream puffs, biscuits and brownies.
Østerberg Ice Cream: Exotic flavours such as tamarind, jackfruit, sea buckthorn and yuzu make this the city’s premier ice cream parlour.
A taste of Copenhagen
Matt Orlando, formerly of Noma and the Fat Duck, has led a drive to reduce waste at Amass by 80% through recycling, composting and reuse — an idea that’s reflected on the menu, with dishes such as flatbread made from fermented potato peel. Berries, herbs and vegetables from the restaurant’s garden regularly feature in the chef’s cooking; recent highlights include pork with unripe apple, Swiss chard and almond; and fennel frond ice cream with wild blueberry, dried yoghurt and olive oil.
How much: Six courses cost £75 each, nine courses cost £100 each (without wine).
This new restaurant has a top-drawer approach to traditional Danish cuisine, with novel takes on classic dishes at night and imaginatively crafted smørrebrød at lunchtime. Start with a fish plate, such as herring pickled in apple, and follow it with something meatier, like beef tartar with dehydrated tomatoes.
How much: Lunch from £20 each (without wine).
Navigate the backstreets of Kødbyen (the city’s Meatpacking District) to Spisehuset and discover an ever-changing menu showcasing chef Johanne Vestergaard’s creativity. Eschewing an a la carte menu, the staff instead shuttles a series of beautiful dishes to the table.
How much: Three courses for £35 or five courses including cheese for £45 each.
Published in the November 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)