Of all the things, I’m having a pea-and-mushroom soup at a Michelin-star restaurant. “Green peas, with last year’s ceps,” the menu reads. Peas are far from my favourite vegetable, but these are sweet and fresh, a testament to the region’s summer produce. The soup is topped with dainty magenta and blue cornflowers, and I’m surprised by how delicious it is. But at Copenhagen’s 108 restaurant, that’s not the only surprising thing. For a fine-dining restaurant, 108’s vibe isn’t ostentatious. There are exposed brick walls and wooden tables with no tablecloth. No need to dress-up to dine well either—laid-back jeans and t-shirts, summery cotton dresses, anything goes.
Copenhagen, the Danish capital, catapulted onto the world’s food map a little over a decade ago. In the early 2000s, there was a stirring in the Nordic culinary scene. Chefs came together to sign the New Nordic Manifesto, a 10-point list of rules that includes reflecting seasonality in meals, promoting Nordic ingredients, and being mindful about animal welfare. One of these chefs was René Redzepi. Redzepi is the force behind Noma—the restaurant that topped the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list four times before shutting a few years ago, only to reopen in a new location earlier this year. Thanks to Noma, a spotlight shone on Copenhagen’s burgeoning gastronomic milieu.
Today, the city’s food offerings promote the principles championed by the New Nordic Manifesto. Street-side stand Den Økologiske Pølsemand serves up hot dogs that are 100 per cent organic. In the neighbourhood of Nørrebro, Bæst crafts organic pizzas (said to be some of the best in the world) with handmade mozzarella. Andersen and Maillard, a coffee roastery, turns their excess steamed milk into creamy coffee ice cream. Even the 7-Eleven convenience stores, a common fixture on street corners, stock quality ready-to-eat meals, paleo desserts and gourmet chocolate bars. There’s a great appreciation for good food, even if it’s a basic hot dog or a quick ice cream, and it’s infectious.
Perhaps this isn’t entirely a new thing—the Nordic tradition of being connected with nature goes back centuries. These values find place at restaurants like 108 (dubbed Noma’s sibling; also from Redzepi), where simplicity shines. Ingredients are foraged from woods outside the city or plucked from the kitchen garden. Noma 2.0 designs its menu around seasons and the availability of ingredients. Through the winter months of January to April, Scandinavian seafood takes centre stage; come warmer weather, the menu turns green; and when the forest season (when foraged ingredients and meat take centre stage) rolls around, mushrooms and meats take over.
A couple of days after my meal at 108, I get a crash course in Danish food from Maria Beisheim, who runs Copenhagen Food Tours. Maria, who studied archeology and has a specialisation in nutrition in the ancient world, regales me with tales of “deep-fried fat sandwiches.” “My grandmother would cook rye bread with deep-fried fat—it tastes better than it sounds,” she explains. I cringe at the thought of full-fat lard slathered over anything, but can imagine how fortifying it’d be in the dead of winter, when temperatures hover around the 0°C mark.
It’s mid-July now, positively scorching—there’s a heat wave across Europe—the driest in decades, I’m told. But the Danes know how to beat the heat. At 4 p.m. on a weekday, I see 20-somethings diving into one of the city’s many canals, and locals lounging in their bathing suits by the harbour. At Grød, a popular gourmet porridge-bar chain in the city, Maria introduces me to a cooling bowl of delicious rodgrød med fløde—a simple Danish summer special pronounced not so simply. (Roh-grow-muh-fluh; the hungry Danes have a way of eating up their consonants.) Around midsummer, when strawberries, rhubarb, red currants and other berries begin to go mushy, they’re mashed together and mixed with double cream. I also discover koldskål—“cold bowl”—a cold buttermilk soup made with lemon and vanilla, with cookies sprinkled on top. These are easy to make, but so uplifting—and that’s what matters.
Comfort food is a big deal in Denmark and it’s easy to see why. These are, after all, the people who introduced the world to hygge—that cosy, snuggle-inducing feeling that home decor brands have tried to capitalise on. I’d always associated it with the warmth of curling up by candlelight, reading by a fireplace and other wintry scenes. But even in the middle of summer, hygge is palpable. I feel it while breathing in the cinnamon-and-sugar aroma wafting out of Copenhagen’s oldest bakery, Sankt Peders Bageri. Maria tells me how this bakery launched one of the city’s most long-standing pastry traditions: the Wednesday Cinnamon Roll. As incentive to get through the week, employers buy their employees a cinnamon roll. These are special ones—bigger, squishier and better than ones you get during the rest of the week.
I run into another hyggeligt moment in Tivoli, one of the oldest amusement parks in the world. I feel it while sitting on the Star Flyer, a carousel that defies gravity and sends me whirling through the air, as well as on a 1914 wooden roller coaster. And later, when I let the happy thrills condense in my memory, over slurps of nougat ice cream. There’s a Danish sentence on the ice-cream stick that translates to “you can’t eat rye bread all the time”—pacifying after you’ve consumed all that sugar.
Rye is one of the main crops grown here, so there’s enough opportunity to sample rye bread—like when I have smørrebrød, the Danish open sandwich. Thick slices of the dark brown bread are topped with an assortment of meat, fish, vegetables and pickles. Maria takes me to Aamanns, where I get my hands on a smørrebrød tasting menu. There’s one topped with salmon, pickles and dill; another with eggs, almonds, sundried tomatoes and cress; a third with chicken salad, lettuce, apples and chicken crumble, and even one with grilled sirloin, remoulade, fried onions and chervil. They’re all prettily plated, each one a burst of new flavours. “In the mid-1800s, during the Industrial Revolution, people started fleeing the country to come here,” Maria launches in. “These sandwiches made for humble, hearty meals in the countryside. But as wealth trickled in, it created room for experiments and indulgence,” she adds, explaining the elaborate version we chomp on.
Hopping food haunts, I realise that it is the last decade that’s really transformed Copenhagen’s culinary scene. In 2011, the city got Torvehallerne, a mammoth marketplace that stocks everything from farm-fresh fruits and veggies to fragrant spices and seafood. It’s a good place to people-watch and also great for souvenirs. I taste single-farm cheese at Unika—Scandinavian dairy brand Arla’s gourmet line—and buy a box of seabuckthorn licorice from Bornholmer Butikken, which sells products from the Danish island of Bornholm.
Recently, René Redzepi launched an app called Vild Mad—which translates to wild food—to help navigate “the wild, edible, Danish nature.” Maria tells me it’s legal to forage a hat’s worth of produce from public lands. The app makes it easier, sharing tips on finding berries, herbs and other seasonal edibles, along with recipes. Then there’s Reffen, a street-food market in the industrial neighbourhood of Refshaleøen. Only about two months old when I visit, it’s packed. Refshaleøen was once home to one of the world’s largest shipyards. It’s appropriate then, that the food stalls at Reffen, which rustle up food from around the world, are sited in refurbished shipping containers. The Greek and Indian ones appear to be the most popular. There’s everything from Icelandic cheesecake to Peruvian ceviche.
Mealtimes in Copenhagen are a social affair. You’ll also see this enthusiasm when you sit down to eat. Restaurants like Grø Spiseri, which serves a family-style meal on a rooftop farm, are a good way to dine with locals and learn about organic farming. There’s also Meet the Danes, a service that which offers a peek into the quintessential Danish family life over shared stories and home-cooked meals. (www.meetthedanes.com)
By the end of my five days in Copehagen, I realise how much fun I’ve been having. I’ve eaten great food, met great people, but more importantly, I’ve copped a taste of the good life. The Danes, I’ve learnt, choose quality living. Their work days end at 4.30 pm and they’re in tune with nature—whether it’s canoeing in the canal, trekking outdoors, or knowing where their food comes from.
I spend my last evening at Kayak Bar, a café by the canal, where young Danes lounge on sunbeds sipping beer. Sitting on the brink of a wooden ledge with my feet dangling into the water, I watch boats drift by and seaplanes fly overhead. The cool water tickles my toes. Like the meals I’ve been having, this is life that’s simple—but so, so good.
Thanks to chef Adam Aamann, smørrebrød is cool again. Aamanns has two restaurants and a deli in the city. www.aamanns.dk
Why go to a porridge bar? Grød aims to “show the world that porridge can be delicious, delicate and versatile.” There are four outlets in the city. www.groed.com
At Copenhagen’s oldest bakery, a golden pretzel hangs over the door, announcing that you’ve arrived. Stock up on pastries and on hot chocolate. Sankt Peders Stræde 29, 1453 København; +45-3311-1129
The Michelin-star restaurant is situated by a canal in Christianshavn. It’s easier to get a table here than at Noma. www.108.dk
All items are made with organic produce at this hot dog stand. One of the company’s two stands is next to the Round Tower, which offers sweeping views of the city. www.døp.dk
Walk through a sunflower-specked rooftop farm to get to the dining area. The five-course seasonal dinners are available all year round, except in February. www.grospiseri.dk
The city’s new street food market is worth visiting for a range of cuisines and affordability. There are local beers on tap, and vegan delights. www.reffen.dk
Fabiola Monteiro was formerly a member of National Geographic Traveller India's digital team. Since then, her words have featured in The Hindu, Mint Lounge, Roads & Kingdoms, The Goya Journal, and Condé Nast Traveller India. She tweets as @thefabmonteiro and is on Instagram @fabiolamonteiro.