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Creating the Perfect Danish Open Sandwich

Food — By Jane Graham on August 23, 2010 at 8:44 pm
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An interview with Oscar Davidsen of Ida Davidsen Smørrebrød Restaurant.

‘It all begins with a slice of good rye bread, and some spread. It doesn’t matter if the bread is spread with butter, margarine or pig fat, that’s up to the eater – what matters is what happens next. And that is entirely up to the sandwich’s creator’.

So explains Oscar Davidsen of Ida Davidsen lunch restaurant in Copenhagen, the fifth generation of the Davidsen clan to share the honor of making magic out of rye. Together with his mother Ida and sister Mia, Oscar is responsible for the day-to-day operations of this world famous smørrebrød restaurant started by another Oskar Davidsen (that time with a ‘k’) more than 100 years ago – Oscar is his great-great grandson.

For many decades the restaurant was to be found on Åboulevarden, close to the Lakes, moving to the nearby Søpavillionen building in 1964: Today’s Restaurant Ida Davidsen opened in 1974.

Here on Store Kongensgade in the grand Frederiksstaden area of the city, the traditional Danish open sandwich is the only dish on the menu. Not that this means that the menu is short – far from it, the number of different sandwiches (around 250) is so extensive that the only lunch cards to be seen are the ones from fifty years ago, displayed out of historical curiosity only. The longest is over four-and-a-half-feet long, a size that has propelled it into the Guinness Book of Records.

Unique to its home country of Denmark, Oscar Davidsen traces the concept of ‘smørrebrød’ right back to Viking times – perhaps as the perfect cure for shaking off a hangover! Encompassing everything from a slab of cold ham on rye thrown into a workman’s lunchbox to the artistic creations of family smørrebrød masters like himself, the bread and butter is merely the springboard for what comes next.

Oscar Davidsen doesn’t hesitate when asked why the dish has remained so popular. ‘The thing about smørrebrød is that you can always eat it, no matter what time of day. It’s just so versatile! You can make it in the morning and eat it later. You can leave it in the refrigerator and it will stay fresh.’

Aside from its great shelf life, rye bread is also incredibly filling. For most Danes, white bread (or ‘Franskbrød’ – French bread – as it is known) is bought solely for the breakfast table, as a sweet treat topped with fruit jelly or slices of chocolate. Rye bread, on the other hand, has provided the backbone for Danish lunches for centuries – and despite a modern influx of international breads like bagels, pita and ciabatta, the dense and chewy rugbrød has remained popular in both restaurants and lunchboxes.

One of a handful of traditional lunch restaurants that continue to operate in Copenhagen, Ida Davidsen’s has been responsible for promoting this uniquely Danish lunch specialty all over the world. Like a New York sandwich joint, celebrities come to dine here and leave having given their name to a particular dish: There’s the Victor Borge (salmon, caviar, crayfish tails, shrimp, lime and dill mayo), several members of Danish Royalty and even the Michael Laudrup (roast pork, tomato, beetroot and aspic).

While long, thin lunch cards sit in frames outside as memories of the restaurant’s long and illustrious history, there are no current menus. Instead, the guest is invited over to the counter, where the smørrebrød present themselves in a tremendous show of color and design. The serving staff gladly describe each dish by name and topping, reeling them off at an impressive pace and rhythm. With some 250 sandwiches in the restaurant’s repertoire, the choice is always overwhelming.

The fact that Denmark is generally known for its subdued palette of greys and browns only makes the colors of  Ida Davidsen’s counter top more vivid. If Cezanne had been a Dane and not a Frenchman, perhaps he would have painted this instead of oranges. The tiny globes of caviar glow like rubies, while long sticks of asparagus make a sharp edge of fresh green. The white rims of the hard-boiled eggs have been cut into perfect triangles. Everything is defined and sharp; nothing drips or oozes. Each sandwich is its own perfect little island.

Classic smørrebrød dishes tell stories with their names, or paint pictures with the colors and patterns they create across the rye. ‘Sol over Gudhjem,’ a dish of smoked herring, chives and raw egg yolk, paints a metaphor of the sun rising over a village on the Danish Island of Bornholm. ‘Dyrlægens Natmad’ (vet’s midnight snack) consists of liver pate, thin slices of salt beef, aspic and two or three onion rings. ‘Stjerneskud‘, or ‘shooting star’, is a colorful display of breaded fish fillet, pink prawns, green lettuce and asparagus, red tomato and caviar – all on a slice of white bread.

-And Oscar Davidsen’s personal favorite sandwich? There are too many choices to pick just one, he says, but mentions roast beef and tartar as a simple classic.

For more information on Restaurant Ida Davidsen, visit http://www.idadavidsen.dk

Photos courtesy of Restaurant Ida Davidsen (top) and Angermann (showing the restaurant’s window display).

Tags: Copenhagen restaurants, Danish cuisine, open sandwiches, smørrebrød

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