“If you want to have lots of children, then eat these,” says oyster hunter Iver Gram as he slurps another freshly shucked glob. “How many have you had?” I ask — intrigued to know whether oysters really have fertility benefits. “Oh, many. I’ve lost count,” he replies — his answer meeting with audible gasps from my fellow oyster pickers.
Thankfully, Iver hasn’t lost track of how many mini Ivers are running around Denmark and has simply misunderstood the question. Realising the confusion, he laughs and points out it’s actually oysters he’s lost count of — not kids. With so many molluscs strewn across the surrounding mud flats, it’s easy to see why he’s gorged here for decades.
We’re standing on the southern shores of Denmark’s wild western coast on a carry-as-many-as-you-can-eat oyster safari. A short drive from the town of Tønder has brought us to this thin, flat strip of Jutland coastline, which, with a scattering of small islands, forms part of the sprawling Wadden Sea National Park, the world’s largest unbroken system of intertidal sand and mud flats.
The retreating tidal waters have exposed a vast seabed world of scuttling hermit crabs, worm trails and giant oysters — over a ton per hectare, according to Iver. Gathering oysters here was once an act of treason — the whole coastline belonged to a tight-fisted king who reserved the right to consume them for himself alone. Thankfully, those days are long gone.
After the Wadden Sea’s native molluscs all but disappeared due to overfishing, fast-growing Pacific oysters were introduced in the 1960s as part of a commercial venture. But, environmentally, the scheme backfired when numbers of the Pacific variety began multiplying at an alarming rate — its thick, razor-sharp shell preventing seabirds from eating them. As a result, humans are now its only real predator. As I squelch across the tidal flats in search of alien-looking husks, I’m not only satisfying an epicurean hunger but also doing my bit to restore balance to the fragile coastal ecosystem. Well, that’s what I tell myself as I load up with as many specimens as I can stomach. Finding the oysters is simply a case of donning waders, rolling up my sleeves and rummaging around in the muddy pools — selecting only shells that are firmly closed while trying not to get stuck in the quicksand.
With buckets full to the brim, we head back to the reeds and shrubs of the shoreline to feast on the fruits of our labour, scrubbing off any mud and dirt before attempting the artful skill of shucking. One careful swish of his blade and Iver cracks open the first giant mollusc, revealing what he calls ‘virgin water’, before gobbling down the briny beige mass inside.
In Copenhagen, I’d be paying a fortune for oysters this fresh, but here I’m filling my boots for 175kr (£16). “Skol,” shouts Iver, making a toast to our banquet before knocking back a glug of fizz and prising open several more fist-sized shells. It’s not the first time I’ve raised a glass to nature this weekend. Today it’s oysters but yesterday it was a vast swarm of starlings.
Under the Black Sun
Every spring and autumn, more than a million European starlings make a migratory pit stop in the marshlands of southwest Jutland, creating one of Denmark’s most impressive natural spectacles — the Sort Sol (‘Black Sun’). After days spent fuelling up for their journey by grazing on insects, masses of the speckled black birds congregate from all corners of the sky at dusk to perform an impressive aerial ballet, with flocks almost eclipsing the sun as it sets.
The precise whereabouts of this curious twilight ritual is hard to predict, as starlings regularly change locations in an effort to outwit birds of prey like buzzards and falcons. Teams of guides track the starlings to pinpoint the likely spot for their evening soiree before giving the call to waiting tour groups, eager to catch sight of the phenomenon on a Black Sun safari.
It’s on such a tour that I find myself, once again nestled among spiky reeds and shrubs with a glass of wine in hand to toast Denmark’s great outdoors. As the autumn sun slowly sinks in the sky, everyone from birdwatchers to picnicking families and curious tourists make their way from the village of Møgeltønder to sit in a marshy field on the other side of the German border, waiting silently for the action to happen.
Just as restlessness is kicking in, an agitated figure to my left jabs a finger up to the sky, singling out a small swarm of black dots in the pale blue distance. I’ve barely focused my gaze when a hushed voice announces there’s a second group coming from behind. Then another group appears, and another before suddenly thousands of birds are joining together in all directions, as if the marshland itself was sucking starlings out of the sky.
Several flocks have joined together to form a giant black wave, creating spirals, spheres and arches in a fluid, seemingly, choreographed routine that obscures the light of the fading sun. While appearing playful, these strange aerial acrobatics are actually an act of survival, as predators find it difficult to target one starling amid a swirling cloud of thousands. On evenings when prowling raptors are out in force, the starlings’ patterns appear more dramatic and intense but tonight’s threat is minimal, it seems, as the half-million-strong gathering performs a gentle to-ing and fro-ing across the horizon. After a mesmerising 30-minute show, and with the sunlight dwindling, the dancing starlings descend into the marsh to sleep en masse, huddled together against the cold night ahead.
As the final bird disappears into the reeds, the crowds of entertained onlookers quietly pack up their picnics and head back into town. Tomorrow night will bring another hypnotic performance, perhaps in a new location, before the starlings bring the curtain down and journey onwards to the breeding grounds of France, Britain, Belgium and the Netherlands.
Raising a glass to nature seems to be a Jutland tradition, so when I hear the region produces its own wine, I head straight for the tiny island of Årø, just offshore from the historic village of Årøsund. It’s fair to say Denmark isn’t famous for wine, but for the past 12 years a small, tenacious vineyard on Årø has been producing some remarkably accomplished varieties. With more hours of summer sun than on the mainland and little autumn frost, conditions here are just about conducive to growing grapes.
“Growing wine in Denmark is on the edge of what’s possible,” says Jakob Lei, the new owner of Årø Vingård, while swirling a glass of blended Orion and Chardonnay. “It’s challenging but the rewards are great.”
Jakob is in the process of taking over the vineyard from Svend Aage Hansen. In 2004, inspired by a handful of small-scale Danish producers, he set about producing a few bottles for personal consumption, which soon grew to several hundred. The vineyard now produces around 8,000 a year — reds, whites, roses and sparkling — which even attracted the attention of Queen Margrethe II of Denmark, who paid a visit in 2013.
Svend and Jakob take great pride in presenting their wines during a morning tasting. Sitting on plastic chairs in a modest, vine-covered greenhouse, they explain that their aim has always been to drink some wine and have a good time rather than indulge any serious commercial ambitions. Saying that, the tiny vineyard sees around 20,000 visitors a year and Jakob is busy expanding the current facility so that it can potentially double its output when it reopens this summer.
Jakob acknowledges Denmark will never be able to compete with the great wine nations of Southern Europe, but that doesn’t bother him. Danish wine is made with different grape varieties, he explains, ensuring its own distinct character, and experimentation is favoured over the sort of dogmatic traditional approach the historic wine estates are known for. A testament to this inventive spirit is the vineyard’s Tang Vin, a wine made from seaweed fermented with apple juice that Jakob insists pairs perfectly with seafood. He pours a glass and I’m more than a little dubious, as it smells exactly like the waters I’ve crossed to get here. But the taste is a revelation — a crisp, mellow sweetness with a slight salty aftertaste. With Svend and Jakob, I raise my glass for another ‘skol’ and once again toast Jutland’s natural riches.
Billund is the nearest airport to South Jutland and is served by daily flights from London with British Airways and Ryanair. SAS operates a frequent domestic service between Copenhagen and Billund. The region is also easily reached from Copenhagen by car, with the drive to Sønderborg or Tønder taking around 3h 45m.
Average flight time: 1h 45m.
Car hire is the most practical way to explore the region but there’s also a reliable network of express buses and a frequent DSB train service serves Sønderborg, Tønder and other major towns and cities. Bus or train journeys can be planned at rejseplanen.dk. A number of car/ferry routes operate in South Jutland, including to islands such as Årø.
When to go
Summer is high season, with temperatures in the mid-20Cs, long daylight hours and crowds flocking to the region’s wealth of beaches. Spring and autumn, meanwhile, are the times to witness the Black Sun starling migrations, while the oyster-harvesting season typically starts in mid-October and runs until the end of April.
Need to know
Currency: Danish krone (DKK). £1 = 9.20kr.
International dial code: 00 45.
Time: GMT +1.
How to do it
Best Served Scandinavia offers a four-night Taste of South Denmark self-drive tour from £690 per person, including return flights from Gatwick to Copenhagen, car hire and B&B accommodation.
Sort Safari offers three-hour Black Sun tours for 185kr (£17.52)per person, including an English-speaking tour guide and transfers between Tønder and the Ballum marshlands. Three-hour oyster-picking tours cost 175kr (£16.57) each.
Published in the June 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)