Has any European capital blossomed as spectacularly and magnificently as Copenhagen over the last decade and a half? From the airport expansion to the Metro (it’ll be worth it in the end, I promise), the Opera House to Torvehallerne, Vesterbro and Nørrebro’s hipsterfication to Amager’s glorious beach – not to mention Sydhavn and Nordhavn, DR Byen, Holmen, the harbour baths, and Kødbyen’s transformation - I’ve witnessed this unprecedented opening-up of the Danish capital since I started visiting it in 1999 and it never ceases to amaze and delight.
One day, they might even finish building Kongens Nytorv.
Back in the late ‘90s, I might as well have been visiting a pre-Glasnost, third-tier Polish city. What few shops there were, were bereft of anything worth buying. Everything closed by Saturday lunch time. Nightlife existed only at the weekends. Sundays were set aside for wrist-slashing, crack-smoking, or worst case scenario, handball: anything to relieve the monotony. The TV was truly execrable. Festivals non-existent. Everyone smoked and everyone shopped at Netto.
How things have changed. But perhaps the greatest transformation has been the food ‘scene’ here. Unthinkable - absurd - as it would have seemed to me 15 years ago, Copenhagen is now one of the world’s food capitals, its chefs, food producers and restaurants among the planet’s most influential. Not a week goes by without some or other international magazine of newspaper heralding Copenhagen as a bonafide food mecca.
It all began with the New Nordic Food Manifesto which was drawn up and signed by a group of Nordic chefs back in 2004. Restaurant Noma was born around the same time and its chef, René Redzepi, and co-founder, Claus Meyer, are usually given the lion’s share of the credit for lighting the touchpaper for the transformation of Copenhagen from gourmet wasteland to what is probably Europe’s most influential food city.
For the rest of this month we have what has become the annual crowning celebration of the last decade’s food revolution: Copenhagen Cooking, a massive pan-city food festival featuring everything from food-themed tours to vinegar tastings, coffee roasting sessions and pop-ups. There was even an entire evening devoted to sea buckthorn - those amazing passion fruit-esque native berries. Sorry to have missed that one (genuinely!).*
See also: Can a meatball define a culture?
It’s all good, especially for someone like me who loves his grub and makes part of his living writing about what he eats but… you knew there’d be a ‘but’, didn’t you?… but how has all this hullabaloo about food affected what the Danes eat, day-to-day?
Sadly, the brutal truth is that the Danish diet is still right up there among the least healthy of them all - as evidenced by, for example, the nation’s cancer rates, which are among the worst in the world. The Danes eat more candy than anyone else, and more pork too. Another diet double whammy: they spend less per capita on their weekly grocery shop than any other European nation, yet that same grocery shop is as much as 50 percent more expensive than the rest of the continent’s.
They might not have developed quite as rampant a ready meal culture as the Brits or Americans, but judging from what I see in fellow shoppers’ trolleys at the supermarket, and from the dismal offering on the high streets in terms of cheaper dining and fast food, the Danes are still addicted to the very worst kind of industrial frozen pizza, crappy ‘Asian’ takeaways (if a restaurant is serving Thai, Chinese and Japanese food, run a mile) and processed meat products. And don’t get me started on that certain brand of ‘Mexican’ food that is ubiquitous to all Danish food stores.
It’s about as Mexican as I am.
We should be thankful for the progress that has been made with the quality and sustainability of the food now available in Denmark, and I am, but I am also still frustrated. Like Christmas, Copenhagen Cooking comes but once a year, but fresh fruit and veg, good quality meat and non-industrial baked goods ought to be every day, and for life.
*(BTW, if you’re out picking sea buckthorn this week, a tip: cut off whole branches, freeze them, and then you’ll be able to remove the berries without impaling yourself on those horrendous thorns. Social comment and foraging tips – what more could you ask for from an opinion column?)
Michael Booth is the author of The Almost Nearly Perfect People: The Truth About the Nordic Miracle available now on Amazon and is a regular contributor to publications including the Guardian and Monocle.