Many French dishes are buried under sauces; Danish food, by contrast, is less inhibited. Take smorrebrod, the open-faced feats (not to mention feasts) on a single slice of rye. “ A nice deli in Copenhagen will have beautiful displays of the sandwiches, perfectly laid out on trays, one next to the other,” Marcus Schioler, a Montreal-based half-Dane who writes the blog danishsandwich.com, says, calling the effect “ this visual landscape of food that’s really cool-looking. One tray will be all shrimp and the next tray will be all pâté with mushrooms and pickled beets and next to it will be another with deli meat. It’s spectacular.”
In Danish, smorrebrod (roughly pronounced “ smerlburl”) literally means “ buttered bread,” although the toppings matter as much as the base. “ It’s all designed to be as appealing to look at as it is to eat,” Schioler says, noting that strict culinary traditions dictate ingredient combos, usually encompassing a thoughtful mélange of salty, sour, sweet, smooth and crunchy elements.
“ There are different rules for Danish open-faced sandwiches than there are for sandwiches here [ in North America],” Schioler adds. “ You don’t mix ham and cheese, for example.”
Traditionally, a smorrebrod feast has different stages, starting with seafood toppings such as pickled herring, fried fish fillets or tiny Nordic shrimp (a version of which can found frozen at every IKEA food market) and segueing into meats such as roast beef, frikadeller (meat patties) or rullepolse (rolled pork belly seasoned with allspice). In every case, there is careful layering: a generous smear of butter or lard, the main topping and, at the very top, a complicated and diverse selection of garnishes and greens, pickles and preserves.
How many toppings you use is also a key to smorrebrod success.
Too many and the sandwich is unwieldy. Not enough and the base of dense rye bread dominates each bite. Because of this, Schioler tends to pre-make his smorrebrod when hosting so guests don’t have to figure out the process themselves.
He also provides utensils. “ You have to eat it with a fork and knife,” he says. “ You don’t eat it any other way. It’s one of the funniest things you’ll see non-Danes do. They’ll pick it up and eat it as if it’s a canapé.”
What doesn’t ever vary is the conviviality engendered by smorrebrod, recipes for which can be found on the following pages. “ You tend to drink a fair amount of schnapps and beer to wash them down,” Schioler says, laughing. “ It tends to be a jolly affair.”