Saturday, September 13, 2008

Ode to a smørrebrød maiden

When it comes to open-faced sandwiches, the Scandinavians are hard to beat. According to Wikipedia, in the United States, a sandwich must have at minimum two slices of bread to be legally considered "sandwich." Too bad for them. In Denmark, smørrebrød (pronounced smur-er-BREWTH) is literally "butter-bread": a thin slice of dense, whole-grain rye bread covered with butter, then adorned with a selection of traditional toppings (roast beef, shrimp, mackerel in tomato sauce, pickled herring, liver, breaded fried sole filets, and others). The butter, applied thickly, prevents the bread from becoming soggy.

The smørrebrød maker is loyal to tradition, as certain toppings are always combined with specific condiments. The frickadeller (Danish meatball) smørrebrød comes with red cabbage. The roast beef is topped with pickled cucumber and crisp, deep fried onion pieces. Soft white bread is used for the shrimp salad, beautiful pink shrimp topped with a dollop of mayonnaise, roe, a lemon slice and a sprig of dill. Smørrebrød are eaten with a knife and fork, and washed down with shots of Aquavit, a strong dill-flavoured schnapps. These shots are sipped in unison: someone at the table lifts her glass and taps the edge of table with her fingers, waiting until everyone has their glass ready in the air before shouting "skol!"

The smørrebrød shops in Copenhagen proudly display their beautifully assembled butter breads in their windows in neat, abundant rows. The smørrebrød makers, typically women, are called smørrebrød jungfru, or "smørrebrød maiden." They are akin to the sushi chef, as the smørrebrød maker is trained in the craft of smørrebrød and makes nothing else.

According to Birgitte Toft, a smørrebrød specialist at the Manhattan restaurant Aquavit, smørrebrød must be piled high with toppings: ''One important rule is that the bread must not show. It must be completely covered with ingredients to suggest abundance. It has to look much bigger than it is.''

We ate our smørrebrød this afternoon at Sunset Villa, a Danish association village in Crieff, Ontario. My husband's father is Danish, born and raised on Bornholm before arriving in Canada as a teenager in the early 1960's. Both of his parents, recently deceased, now reside in the mausoleum at Sunset Villa, and we visit them periodically, always enjoying a smørrebrød luncheon in their honour.

This New York Times article includes lists of the different traditional smørrebrød combinations as well as recipe for Danish liver pate.

Photo: This smørrebrød is made with smoked mackerel in tomato sauce, lettuce, chives, cucumber and sour cream.

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