The smÿrrebrÿd of my childhood

Tracey MacLeod went in search of endangered Danish delicacies and found them... in South Kensington
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Indy Lifestyle Online

As the proprietor of the only Danish restaurant in London, Kay Lundum wishes we Brits would realise that Danish food doesn't just mean bacon. While we've welcomed the Japanese diet with open arms, the traditional fish dishes of our near-neighbour, Denmark, remain unexplored. Except, that is, by the converts who congregate at Kay's South Kensington restaurant, Lundum's, to enjoy its modern take on traditional Danish specialities, such as smoked herring, smÿrrebrÿd (open rye-bread sandwiches) and fiskefrikadeller (to translate these plump, pan-fried delicacies as fish rissoles doesn't do them justice).

As the proprietor of the only Danish restaurant in London, Kay Lundum wishes we Brits would realise that Danish food doesn't just mean bacon. While we've welcomed the Japanese diet with open arms, the traditional fish dishes of our near-neighbour, Denmark, remain unexplored. Except, that is, by the converts who congregate at Kay's South Kensington restaurant, Lundum's, to enjoy its modern take on traditional Danish specialities, such as smoked herring, smÿrrebrÿd (open rye-bread sandwiches) and fiskefrikadeller (to translate these plump, pan-fried delicacies as fish rissoles doesn't do them justice).

Danish food tends to be simply prepared, using seasonal ingredients, and strong, vivid flavours are prized. Families hand down recipes through generations, and herbs such as horseradish and thyme are grown in back gardens. Freshly poached cod roe is a summer staple, and herring is ubiquitous, often served with onions and capers at the beginning of a meal, and washed down with a glass of Akvavit "to help the fishes swim".

Every few months, the Lundum family (Kay, his wife, son and daughter who run Lundum's together) return to Skagen, a remote fishing port on the northern coast of Jutland, where Kay ran a restaurant in the 1980s. Here, it's said, you can buy the freshest fish in Denmark, and unlike, for example, Grimsby, eat it in abundance in the fine traditional fish restaurants which line the harbour.

The original fishing village of Skagen on the northern tip of a peninsula of high, white dunes disappeared beneath encroaching sand several centuries ago. All that remains is the tower of a long-buried church, which was used until its congregation could no longer climb in through the upper windows. The newer town, which emerged in a more protected location, is sustained by fishing and tourism. The harbour is filled with working boats, from gaily-painted one-man affairs to ships the size of cruise liners which churn over from Scotland to scoop up the local herring.

"There are about 40 different fish in these waters, and I guarantee you won't recognise half of them," Kay Lundum promises on an early-morning trip to the harbourside fish market. There's plenty of herring, of course, and nacreous mackerel, its true freshness signalled by its electric-blue sheen; there's sole, hake and turbot, plus thousands of orange crayfish, still stirring in their crates. That yuppie favourite, the monkfish, looks a lot less decorous with its startlingly ugly square head still attached, while a mammoth 22kg (50lb) halibut forms its own heroic display.

The auction is conducted at a bewildering pace. A cluster of buyers, several of whom wear clogs incongruously accessorised with mobile phones, speeds from lot to lot, moving in unison like a shoal of fish. Local exporters vie with international wholesalers, buying for Holland, Britain and Japan; the outsiders are easily spotted - they're the ones who don't have blond hair.

After the market is finished, we breakfast on rye bread and cured herring. Lunch at a harbour-side restaurant includes a Skagen speciality - fried plaice with cranberries and waxy, yellow new potatoes. Hot fiskefrikadeller are winningly paired with cold beer.

But as my host sorrowfully points out, not only is this kind of traditional food almost unknown outside Denmark, it is also getting harder to find it in his increasingly cosmopolitan homeland, where fast-food joints and Italian and Thai restaurants are beginning to squeeze out their local counterparts. "The food we serve in London is actually a lot more traditional than you get in many restaurants in Denmark. Many of our customers come to us because they crave the taste of their childhood."

* Maersk Air operates scheduled flights to Billund and Aalborg (www.maersk-air.com). Lundums: 119 Old Brompton Road, London SW7 (020-7373 7774)

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