For the past three years in a row, Noma in Copenhagen has been ranked the world’s best restaurant. With 14 Michelin stars in the capital, Denmark is undoubtedly a gourmet destination. And yet few of us venture further than Copenhagen in search of Danish food culture – including the Michelin Guide, which is yet to list any restaurants outside the capital. Yet fine dining and fresh, local ingredients are a feature of the rest of Denmark, too.
Which is why I found myself as part of a group travelling to sample the flavours of Jutland, the chunk of the country that’s attached to mainland Europe. The west of Jutland is flat and breezy, all neat fields and kempt farmhouses, an unending Norfolk. With the sun out, it’s soothing; overcast, it’s a ripe setting for a crime drama. The level fjord shorelines might come as a mild disappointment to those expecting dramatic Nordic-style landscapes. The local seafood, however, will not.
Our first destination was Fjord, once popular with German soldiers, now popular with German tourists. Here, at the edge of the country, where Second World War artillery batteries still overlook the North Sea, is the Hvide Sande smokehouse, which serves all manner of fish – salmon, eel, halibut – smoked to varying delicious degrees. The nearby bakery is rich with the smell of rye breads and cinnamon buns, while the Vestkystens Gardbutik farm shop sells super heather honey and local Vesterhavsost hard cheese: salty and caramel-sweet, like a prize-winning Gouda.
In the shadow of the century-old Lyngvig lighthouse, we went foraging for herbs to infuse our Kilner jars of Danish schnapps. I plumped for heather, but the undergrowth was full of possibilities: willow, bison grass, juniper – even pine cones. Each infusion needs time to work its way into the drink; heather takes two weeks, I was told, and wondered how I’d get the fluid through airport security in my hand baggage. At the Sandgaarden restaurant, chef Kurt Kjaer Jensen makes full use of the sea at his doorstep: lunch started with gravadlax – salmon marinated in salt, sugar and dill, followed by a fabulous fish soup served with a slab of hake pâté. The hake fillet came with vegetables including rose hip, a favourite local fruit.
The fresh air and fresh food here attract city folk. Paul Cunningham, an Essex-born chef who, until recently, ran one of Copenhagen’s Michelin-starred restaurants, The Paul, has relocated to the west coast. Bald, bespectacled, a more bear-like Blumenthal, he favours hyper-fresh local ingredients. His new project is the Henne Kirkeby Kro, an 18th-century country hotel and restaurant with its own farm featuring a vast kitchen garden, south of Hvide Sande. Henne Kirkeby is one of a network of traditional “kro” inns that criss-cross the country. The kros originated in the 1200s, when the bloodsport-loving King Erik V decided he ought to have a hunting lodge at mile intervals along every highway in the country. Today these staging posts are unassuming country pubs, quaint hotels or star-worthy food destinations.
There is, I sensed, simmering resentment among provincial chefs at the media and Michelin’s relentless focus on the capital, and on Noma. Morten Mygind, chef-owner of Norre Vissing Kro, suggested: “Noma is just the topping on the cake.”
Danish cooking has been evolving for 15 years or more as Danish chefs, such as Mygind, decided not to imitate French and Italian cuisine, as previously, but to take the tricks they’d learnt and apply them to traditional Danish ingredients. For example, Mygind’s tasty and surprising “wool-pig” with beetroot, cauliflower purée, chanterelles, carrots and thyme sauce, the centrepiece of his imaginative menu.
Jutland’s largest city, and Denmark’s second largest, is Aarhus, which every August and September hosts Scandinavia’s biggest arts and culture festival. This year’s programme included David Byrne, who contributed an intriguing audio-visual installation. The event also commissions its own “Festival Burger” recipe; its own beer, brewed specially by Carlsberg; and invites chefs (Cunningham among them) to take part in a hotdog cooking contest.
Both before and after the festival, Aarhus boasts a healthy arts scene, thanks largely to the ARoS Art Museum. The gallery contains one of Ron Mueck’s most ambitious and striking sculptures, as well as works by video artists Bill Viola, Mariko Mori and Pipilotti Rist. On its roof is the most impressive exhibit of all: the Rainbow Panorama, a circular, multicoloured glass corridor with 360-degree views designed by Danish artist Olafur Eliasson, best known in Britain for his Weather Project in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall.
This year, for the first time, a separate food festival – Food 2012 – ran alongside the cultural programme, evidence that Denmark is becoming aware of its own food status. Down on the waterfront, in Marselisborg, just a stroll from the heart of Aarhus, a spreading cluster of tents contained food festival categories such as Dairy World, the Meat Area, the Ocean and the Cornfield. There were, too, more vague and rarefied sections such as the Food Exploratorium and the Conversation Kitchen.
Festival organisers stress the event’s hands-on nature, and we received a speedy lesson, from Simon Aagaard Philipsen of Simon’s Kogeskole, in how to make a simple salad incorporating all five tastes (sweet, sour, bitter, salt, umami) using carrot, barley, parsley, oil, wood syrup and a fabulous, unfamiliar fruit called sea buckthorn. We also tried Danish apple wine from the Cold Hand Winery; herring stored Viking-style in salt barrels; and birch ice cream. We were also treated to a talk on the “culinary applications of microbial ethnobiology”. The experts were Dan Felder, from David Chang’s Momofuku lab in New York; and Lars Williams of the Nordic Food Lab, an innovation institution established by Noma’s head chef, René Redzepi. Williams, who has a tattooed quote from Paradise Lost up his forearm, is the man behind the notorious live ants on Noma’s menu. Their talk might sound overly scientific, but it arises from something simple. In 2004, Redzepi and a series of Scandinavia’s top chefs produced the “Manifesto for the New Nordic Cuisine”, calling on their peers to return to regional and traditional foods, and artisanal production. It appears they took note.
Danish Inns: smalldanishhotels.com.
City Hotel Oasia, Aarhus (00 45 8732 3715; hoteloasia.dk). Doubles start at Dk945 (£103), including breakfast.