Laura Cartledge discovers Nordic cuisine – both old and new – is making waves with a trip to North Jutland.
It wasn’t long ago that I would just think ‘bacon’ and ‘pastries’ if someone mentioned Danish cuisine.
However a four day tour along the coast of North Jutland opened my eyes and widened my waistband.
I learnt how innovation, such as the new Nordic cuisine trend and growing wine industry, is mixing with the wood-fired Viking dishes of the past, and how the result is very tasty indeed.
Thanks to less than two hours flying time from Gatwick, we landed feeling fresh and raring to explore.
The quaint, cobbled streets of Denmark’s fourth-largest city Aalborg offered a great insight to what was ahead as its beautiful buildings and buzzing waterfront made for a great cultural blend.
Both come together along the Limfjord waterway, where the shipyards and former heavy industry buildings have been given a new lease of life.
The Utzon Center is a great example.
This gallery and exhibition space was designed by the late local architect Jørn Utzon, whose most famous creation was the Sydney Opera House, in collaboration with his son Kim Utzon.
While Jørn’s career took him far around the world, it was his time on the water among the shipyard and the sailing ships in Aalborg which are noted as an essential source of his inspiration.
In 2003 Jørn become the first Dane to receive the Nobel Prize of architecture and now this centre works to celebrate his achievements as well as encouraging the next generation.
Another famous resident putting the city on the map is chef Morten Nielsen.
His restaurant, Mortens Kro, marks a decade this year and has long been a trailblazer in new Nordic cuisine.
We enjoy a range of nibbles, including almonds coated in powdered liquorice, in the chic Scandinavian style dining room while swooning over the signature seven course gourmet menu.
Then a walk through The Park of Music, Kildeparken, and playing The Singing Trees – each planted by artists who have performed in the city – brings us to our hotel for the night, the four-star Comwell Hvide Hus.
Before long it is time to eat again, so we head to Restaurant Tabu for a feast of modern gastronomy that has so many courses we all genuinely lose count – nothing to do with the fact each plate came with a beverage.
It starts with a soup of blue mussels, then thin slices of tomato filled with raw scallop which look like ravioli, ham served on bones and squid tentacle with apple, before finishing with a meringue crumble.
Having slept like a well fed log I don’t mind being awoken by the sunrise, which illuminates my room as it streams across the city from behind the famous Aalborg concrete factories.
After exploring the recently refurbished hotel, and being beaten by the banquet of a breakfast buffet, we are whisked to Glenholm Vineyard.
Here owner Hans J Madsen reveals how his venture was inspired by time in England.
The climate is said to be similar to Manchester, and while neither place might spring to mind as ideal places to grow grapes, Denmark now has around 20 commercial vineyards.
At Glenholm the beautiful site attracts visitors all summer long who come to sample its range of red, white, dessert, sparkling and brandy wines.
While all are delicious, and notably clean tasting, a revelation for me was the wine vinegars. We sipped them straight from the spoon, but I am told they also work well over salads.
Next up is lunch at the spectacular Svinkløv Badehotel.
Set among rolling dunes, this historic 36-room seaside retreat is breathtaking. And it is a true testament to the décor to say it is a tough call to say whether the views inside or out are more spectacular.
The food is faultless too.
We are given a tapas style plate – all the better to taste everything – and each component from the smoked cheese to the herring is so superb it comes as no surprise to learn head chef Kenneth Hansen is regarded as one of the world’s best.
We are all sad to leave, but in need of some exercise we head along the coast for a hike to Rudbjerg Knude Lighthouse.
This crumbling landmark was 200m from the sea when it was built in 1899 but now perches on the cliff edge as a powerful, and strangely picturesque, reminder of nature’s power.
Wind-swept and sand blasted we are the closest to hungry we’ve been.
Villa Vest in Lønstrup, like the lighthouse, is characterised by being perched above the waves, which meant nature put on a great show as the sun set during another feast of local food.
Appetisers included salt cod on crisp potato skin, new potato with truffle mayonnaise and brioche topped with grilled oyster.
Even the butters, which accompanied the still-warm bread, were extraordinary – thanks to combinations of fat, bacon and buttermilk.
Next up were blue shell mussels steamed with shallots and buttermilk which tasted of sweetness and fresh sea.
This was followed by turbot sole, onion cress and steamed asparagus served with wine aged in stainless steel to keep its acidity.
Baked brill, herb butter, wild garlic sauce and the tastiest carrot I’ve ever eaten was served, then a dessert which celebrated rhubarb in different textures paired with white chocolate.
It’s clear food isn’t just fuel here; it is a means of communication and a showing of pride.
“It is of high importance,” admitted Martin Harold, our guide for the area. “The focus here is on family and being together and with that food is often at the centre. Here you can spend time, you can find time.”
A stop at Grenen – the northernmost tip of Denmark – kicks the day off as we board the ‘Sandormen’ bus to see the point both Skagerak and Kattegat seas meet.
Lunch is at De 2 Have, a restaurant, surrounded by sand dunes and sea, which is home to chef Krestian Nilsson’s ‘cool climate kitchen’.
The concept is making waves thanks to the focus on ‘great depth and purity of flavour’.
“If you go around the world you want to taste what is in the ground,” explains owner Henrick Tachau. “I want it to be as local as possible.
“Up here we have quite a long growing season so they [the produce] develop flavour,” he enthuses. “We call it a local kitchen, but we use the whole world as inspiration.”
The wine list is also global and sees the list boast Sussex’s Nyetimber.
This is in sharp contrast to the kitchens which, thanks to having its own garden and the riches of the water to cook with, meant last year the kitchen only had to buy lemons.
Our dish was Stort Stjerneskud, ‘Shooting Star’, which could be compared to a prawn cocktail – only much tastier.
With Skagen shrimps, asparagus, fish roe, pan-fried and steamed lemon sole it was a hearty portion.
Rain then stopped play, meaning our cycle tour of Skagen was swapped for tea and cakes at the historic Brøndums Hotel.
In our defence we did still learn about the area by sampling the traditional ‘medalian’, a sweet biscuit, cream and jam stack, and kringle, a nutty, chocolate pastry in the sumptuous lounge.
The hotel, arguably my favourite of the trip, is famous for its literary and artist guests who are said to have been drawn here by the long hours and quality of light.
Food and board was often paid for in paintings and the legacy it enabled is now available to see at the new Skagen Museum.
Painter Anna Ancher’s parents ran the hotel, where she was born, and her work along with her husband’s Michael Ancher and their friends Karl Madsen and Viggo Johansen are among the exhibits.
I found it particularly special to see the rooms we were staying in immortalised in some of the pieces.
The hotel’s 140 year history is also celebrated in its restaurant’s offering and we were treated to a traditional fare of soup and fish before heading into town for a jazz performance.
It’s not often your plans include a feast with Vikings, but then again I’ve never had a day like this one.
Lindholm Høje museum is home to one of Scandinavia’s most impressive collections of Viking remains, and a few passionate living ones including Kjøgemester Oldfrue, aka Jesper Lynge.
“I’m investigating my roots, my identity,” he explains in a voice Brian Blessed would be proud of. “I’ve always been interested in the Vikings. I wanted to be an archaeologist, I wanted to be a journalist then I ended up being a head chef here. Now I can combine them all.”
Calling stories his ‘petrol’, Jesper says for him being a Viking is about ‘being able to put colour into modern life’.
“There is colour but it is plastic colour. I can combine the past and the present as a storyteller,” he beams. “The age is connected with home values, being together, we put a lot of care into food.”
Hearing this makes me doubt I might be the right choice for sous-chef, but Mr Oldfrue is hard to say no to and I soon found myself chopping up vegetables with a sword as long as my arm.
I don’t know if it was because I was involved, or the memorable forest and campfire setting of our last meal in Denmark, but the food was delicious. We’d swapped our restaurants for the woods; chairs and table for fur covered logs and our laps; our plates and cutlery for carved bowls and our fingers.
There was mussels steamed in cider, a mushroom porridge and salmon smoked over wood chippings all served with a hunk of bread we tore straight from the loaf. This visit to Denmark has certainly been one to savour.
Utzon Center – www.utzoncenter.com
Park of Music – www.visitaalborg.com
Glenholm vineyard – www.glenholm.dk
Rudbjerg Knude Lighthouse – www.toppenafdanmark.com
Grenen, Skagen Museum and Lindholm Høje Vikings – www.visitdenmark.co.uk
Laura stayed at:
Comwell Hvide Hus. Prices from 998 DKK (approx £712) a week. www.comwellaalborg.dk
Hotel Villa Vest. Prices from 898 DKK (£640 includes a three course dinner at Restaurant Villa Vest.) a week. www.villavest.dk
Brøndums Hotel in Skagen. Prices from 1,075 DKK (£766) a week www.broendums-hotel.dk/en/