Easter Dinner by the North Sea: Danish Easter Eggs
COPENHAGEN, Denmark - Like most traditionally Christian nations, people in Denmark too, celebrate the coming spring during the Easter holidays. As a nation tied to the sea, fish are the dominant ingredient in traditional Danish Easter Lunch. Meet one of the most respected and celebrated traditional Danish chefs, residing in one of the oldest houses in Copenhagen, and take a look at how Easter is celebrated in the small Nordic Nation of Denmark.
"People forget - we’re an island nation. We’re five million people, an appendix to Germany, the smallest of the Scandinavian countries. But we have a coastal line the length of Australia’s. We are traditionally a sailing and fishing nation, depending heavily on the foods from the sea," Claus Christensen explains, bent over his massive Molteni stove, sitting in the middle of the basement part of his restaurant, were he serves his guests.
The stove is like an altar: from behind the hissing gas, he rules the floor. People who come here often try to get a table downstairs, where the massive, redheaded chef cooks right in front of his guests. Claus Christensen is a walking advertisement for his own cuisine, weighing in well beyond anything recommended. He is running one of the best traditional lunch restaurants in Copenhagen, at night serving a traditional French cuisine, based on Danish produce in season.
The restaurant where Claus resides, Gammel Mønt, is a backbone in Copenhagen’s restaurant scene and Danish food. Everybody else can be creative and reinvent stuff - he does the classics the way they are supposed to be done, focusing on craftmanship and quality in produce. Many new chefs, especially in Copenhagen, are heavily influenced by the tidal wave of neonordic cuisine, spearheaded by the remarkable Noma restaurant. But the whole thing would not make sense, if there was no point of departure, no place dedicated to an original approach to Danish foods and traditions.
Traditional Easter lunch is like many Danish traditions built around fish, the pickled and fermented herring always with a place at the table. A lavish Easter lunch, a tradition all over Denmark for the Easter holiday is served every year at Gammel Mønt.
Claus Christensen explains, "Being a peasant nation, the holidays were celebrated with a lot of different courses, setting the holidays aside from everyday life, where porridge more or less made up the main component of most meals. The holidays gathered near and distant family, at the farms the entire population, and the rural - later the bourgeois-style of celebration - had to do with demonstrating surplus and serving plenty of courses, at a large table there could be twenty or thirty dishes".
Very few, if any, get to do that many courses anymore. Getting an Easter lunch in a restaurant in Copenhagen, like Gammel Mønt, wil take you through 6 or 7 courses before cheeses and dessert. If you can handle the weight - it is no walk-over.
"The two most important things to me in Easter lunch are eggs and fish. Eggs are, since before Christendom, a symbol of birth, of the arrival of something new, after Christianity it became the image of resurrection and has been the symbol of Easter. This is the feast of resurrection in a religious context, and in a seasonal one, of the coming of spring. Also eggs were a delicacy a couple of hundred years ago, not everyday food at all," Claus Christensen explains, pointing to several other seasonal must-haves in Denmark in the start of April.
Lumbsucker roe is very important, if you can get it, and the tiny Danish Fjord Shrimp that are painstakingly peeled by hand, which takes an insane amount of time, is the most sought after delicacy and April is the start of the season. The tiny shrimp, around 2-3 centimeters long, are slightly sweet and incredibly soft. To Danish shellfish eaters they are the most exquisite thing, very expensive, and found in no other food culture.
Cabbages are meanwhile the traditional vegetable in the lunch, in medieval times a soup was served called nine-cabbage soup - either because nine sorts of cabbage were used, or because every kind of cabbage left by winter was used. Cabbage should still find its way into a Danish Easter Lunch.
The beer is important too - many breweries do special Easter brews that try to get the fresh feel of spring fused with the heaviness of the departing winter. Easter Lunch is served with beer, and the omnipresent snaps or aquavit, of course. In the recent years, Denmark has experienced a surge in the number of breweries, and there are no single notion of what an Easter Brew should be.
"The important thing is that it is not too heavy. It’s a large meal, you have to eat for a while, and the beer shouldn’t fill you up on its own. Traditionally Easter brew was like any other special brew for the religious holidays where work was suspended. Regular beer had very little alcohol, but intoxication was allowed at holidays like Christmas and Easter. So the brew was allowed to be stronger and better flavored one.
Every farm and major household would have had their own recipes for flavoring beer, but basically it was the regular stuff, just stronger", Claus Christensen explains.
Many of the modern Easter brews are Ales, with a lot of hop for freshness, and some sweetness.
A Danish Easter Lunch - as served at Gammel Mønt Restaurant
Cured and cold smoked salmon with soft-boiled eggs and herbal cream
Salmon used to be so plentiful in Denmark, that farm workers had it written into their contracts, that their lords and masters could only serve them salmon 6 days a week. Now wild salmon is a rarity, most is raised in farm, many now in excellent quality, being organic and with room for the fish to move and grow.
Purchase a piece of cold smoked and cured salmon in the best quality - from Denmark -could be Fanoe Salmon. Simply slice the salmon thinly - sharp knives are a chef’s best friend. Take a quarter liter of cream, whip it with the juice and rind of half a lemon, until it thickens. Voila - sour cream. Chop a handful of parsley, some chervil, chives, dill or other luscious greens in your general vicinity - spinach would be nice too. Put the herbs in your sour cream. Season with salt and pepper, and serve with a soft-boiled egg, or a poached one. White bread at the side.
Eggs in Mustard Sauce
Historically a traditional dish for Maundy Thursday. Today often eaten as a starter.
Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Stir in 2 tablespoons of flour stirring constantly, until the paste cooks and bubbles a bit, but do not let it brown - about 2 minutes. Add ¼ liter of hot milk, continuing to stir as the sauce thickens. Bring it to a boil. Add salt and pepper to taste, and a rich spoonful of course mustard. If the consistency is too heavy, loosen the sauce with a drop or two of cream. Pour the mustard sauce on a hot plate, and cut in half two, seven minute eggs and place on the sauce. Serve at once with bread.
Small Fjord Shrimp - with a broken Easter Egg.
The tiny shrimps are virtually impossible to get outside of Denmark. They are boiled shortly - 1 - 2 minutes in salted and lightly sugared water. Cooled of, peeled by hand, and left outside of any refrigeration until eaten. It is one of the most treasured Danish delicacies. They are eaten "au naturel" most often, here on toast with a crushed, soft-boiled egg on top. If you come to Denmark when they are in season, treat yourself to some poor fisher lady tedious work, the little things are soft and sweet like little shrimp kisses.
The Gammel Mønt Restaurant: Gammel Mønt 41 // 1117 København K // Danmark // 0045 3315 1060 // www.gammel-moent.dk