::The Origins of Traditional Smørrebrød

As I begin to share the wonderful Danish tradition of making ‘smørrebrød’, you will find endless ‘topless’ possibilities for your own creations. These open-face varieties range from simple everyday ‘low’ version that can be eaten on the run or taken to work… to very intricately layered ‘high’ versions that require knife, fork and yes, time and patience.

In some ways, these little creative sandwiches reflect the general egalitarian psyche of the Danish people. Each ‘topless’ creation’, no matter the quality of ingredient(s) will become the gastronomic enjoyment of all.

The everyday ‘low-end’ version is generally one that is made from scratch at the table for quick consumption or one that can easily be prepared for lunch via the Danish version of a lunchbox called a ‘madpakke’. Here quick simple open face sandwiches are separated by pieces of small parchment to prevent them from becoming one in transport or are limited in the layering of ingredients. A typical meal can easily consist of 4-6 simply layered slices of bread. Since Danes still prefer to eat their meals with a knife and fork, these versions are given leniency from proper eating etiquette due to their ease of handling.

The more intricately layered ‘high-end’ versions are also made from scratch. However, they are prepared with a greater attention to detailing utilizing more intricate ingredients, such as caviar or delicate micro-greens. Because of the various layers of food and/or condiments these single creations almost a meal in itself.

To illustrate just how much the Danes pride themselves on this delicacy, there are endless possibilities for creating traditional and yet, new combinations. In fact, the renowned Ida Davidsen Restaurant in Copenhagen has a menu list of 250 ‘smørrebrød’ varieties from the initial list started by her great-grandfather Oskar Davidsen who created his own list of about 175 back in the late 19th century.

Below you will find an except from ‘Oskar Davidsen book of Open Sandwiches’, compiled by James R. White from traditional Danish recipes and specialties of the House of Oskar Davidsen [Host & Sons Forlag: Copenhagen], 3rd revised edition, 1962

“Smørrebrød can be anything between heaven and earth. Primarily it consists of a piece of bread of some kind. The Danes make most use of rye bread because it is more suitable than other varieties for many of their sandwiches…Upon the bread something, generally butter, is in most cases spread. As one would expect, when the Danes spread the fine butter for which they are famous, they spread it generously. Not only because it gives them vitamin A or because they like the taste but also because fat stuffs help to keep out the cold. And keeping out the cold is important for most of the Danish year. Though butter ranks first as “the something to spread”, spiced lard or pork dripping, maybe even goose or duck dripping, are often used. Not only, in the case of the pork fat, as an economy measure but because the Danes prefer fat to butter when liver paste, salt meats and most kinds of sausage, are to be the crowning glory of the smørrebrød. When it comes to the question of what to put on the “buttered bread” (The Danish works for “butter” and “to butter” are the same as for “grease” and “to grease” so the expression “buttered bread” include bread spread with dripping of one kind or another) the only answer can be: “There is absolutely nothing edible which cannot be used for smørrebrød”. The Danish town housewife patronizes the charcuterie of cooked meat shop around the corner; her country sister may but certain kinds of pale (literally “something laid on”, i.e. any fish, meat, vegetable etc. used on the buttered bread) from the butcher who brings his mobile shop to her door…Above all both town and country housewife will make use of leftovers from palæg. “Leftovers embrace anything from slices of cold pork sausage garnished with a remnant of red cabbage to slices taken from a still substantial joint of meat. It is this use of leftovers which makes smørrebrød such a useful thing to know about in order to be able to cope in an interesting yet substantial manner with those unexpected guests…The average Dane has only one hot meal daily. For lunch and/or supper he eats smørrebrød.”
(p. 9-10)

“The Sandwich Story. Somewhere in the centre of Copenhagen there ought to be a monument to the man or woman who discovered smørrebrød, the open sandwich which is Denmark’s national dish. An appropriate site would be the Town Hall end of the new Hans Andersen Boulevard, for the inventor of smørrebrød obviously had something of a fantasy of the great Danish storyteller. Alas, historians are silent as to the identity of the man who first placed fish, fowl, meat and vegetables on a piece of buttered bread. Some Danish encyclopedias do not even list one of the most important words in the Danish language. The inventor of the smørrebrødsseddel or sandwich list is, however, known. And nobody has ever disputed that it was not until old Oskar Davidsen acceded to the request of young Axel Svensson to be allowed to make something amusing out of the restaurant’s sandwich list that open sandwiches in all their infinite variety began to develop into what they are today…The origin of the sandwich is a subject on which even historians can but speculate. Some suggest that recognizable sandwiches were known in ancient Babylon, others that a rabbi contrived them for the Passover by placing bitter herbs between two slices of unleavened bread to symbolize Jewish privations in Egypt. When smørrebrød first saw the light of day is equally a matter for speculation. Certainly it appeared centuries before an Earl of Sandwich first placed pieces of meat between two slices of bread to enable his guests to eat without leaving the card table. The Danish worked simply means, “buttered bread”. But the origins of open sandwiches can be traced back to the days when, in Denmark as elsewhere, a round of bread served as a plate for both hot food and cold. Naturally the rich refrained from eating their plates but these, soaked in nourishing gravy from the main course, invariably found their way to the mouths of the serfs or deserving poor of the parish. And between rich and poor there was doubtless a class, which ate both bread-plate and the delicacies, which reposed upon it. As yet…this open sandwich could not have been known as smørrebrød for butter was still unknown in Denmark…The earliest mention of the word smørrebrød is found in the works of the playwright Ludvig Holberg (1684-1754) who describes the diet of the gentry as consisting of soup, salt meat or smørrebrød. No mystery, however, surrounds the invention of the smørrebrødsseddel or printed list of open sandwiches. It was Emil Bjorn, head waiter at the Copenhagen officers’ club, who, when harried by shouted orders from the card tables, conceived, in 1883, the idea of lists on which the guests could mark off their requirements. Bjorn’s idea was soon adopted by restaurants throughout the country, but many years were to pass before these scant lists were developed into what they are in Denmark today.”
—ibid (p. 11-12)

I would say if you are ever in Copenhagen near Store Kongensgade (70) stop by Restaurant Ida Davidsen or Aamann’s Smørrebrød on Øster Farimagsgade (10) for a taste of some of Denmark’s best smørrebrød. You will not be satisfied with just one!


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