A foodie’s dream, a dietician’s nightmare

Copenhagen Cooking helps boost the Danish capital's position as arguably the most important food city in Europe, but you wouldn't know it from the diet of everyday Danes.

A foodie's dream, a dietician's nightmare
Copenhagen Cooking highlights the fancy side of Danish cuisine, but is it representative of what people really eat? Photo: Christian Lindgren/Copenhagen Media Center
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!).* 
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 BoothMichael 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.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


Why does Denmark produce so much cheese?

From Danbo to Danablu and the Danish feta that can't be called feta - Denmark produces over four hundred thousand tonnes of cheese each year and exports it across the world. So why is Danish cheese so popular, and what are the country's best-loved cheeses?

Why does Denmark produce so much cheese?

Cheese-making is a serious business in Denmark. In 2021, the country produced a total of 454,500 tonnes of cheese and Danish cheese has won awards at the World Championship Cheese Contest.

The tradition goes back to the Viking era and today, the country’s climate and pastoral land make it ideal for producing cheese (ost). About three quarters of the country’s milk production is turned into cheese, butter and milk powder.

Not only is cheese popular in Denmark, where it’s eaten with pretty much any meal and snack (can you even have a bolle [bread roll] without ost?), it is also eaten around the world in countries including South Korea, New Zealand, Canada, Nigeria and even France.

In 2021, Denmark exported a total of 401,845 tonnes of cheese, making it one of the top cheese exporters in the world. The biggest importer of Danish cheese was Germany (94,419 tonnes), followed by Sweden (52.924 tonnes) and the UK (42,905 tonnes). 18,097 tonnes of cheese was exported to Japan and 5,657 to the United States.

What types of cheese does Denmark make?

The different types of cheese in Denmark can be hard to distinguish and there are a lot of them. You can quite easily end up with a fridge full of strong smells that you weren’t expecting. 

Danbo, often called ‘Denmark’s national cheese’, is the most produced and consumed cheese in Denmark. It has Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status, meaning it can only be made in Denmark to specific Danish standards.

Danbo is sold under various trade and brand names, including LillebrorGamle Ole, and Riberhus. Lillebror (meaning Little brother) is very mild and often sold in childrens’ packs, whereas Gamle Ole (meaning Old Ole) is matured for a long time, which means it’s strong and smelly. Caraway seeds are sometimes added to this cheese.

Esrom also has Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status and is made from pasteurised cow’s milk. It is semi-soft with small holes and is pretty pungent.

Havarti is one of the most famous Danish cheeses. It’s a bit like a cheddar in that the taste can be mild, but the longer the cheese is stored, the stronger it gets. 

Danablu is a Danish Blue soft blue cheese, similar to Roquefort. It has a strong aroma and a sharp and a little salty taste. Danablu is often used in America to make blue cheese dressing for salads and blue cheese dip for chicken wings. 

A dairy farm in Klemensker, Bornholm has twice been named world champion in cheese making. Photo: Morten Juhl/Ritzau Scanpix

Mycella is a veined blue cheese made from pasteurised cow’s milk on the island of Bornholm and is similar to Gorgonzola. It goes well in a salad or cheese platter or even crumbled on top of an open sandwich.

Blå kornblomst, meaning ‘blue cornflower’, is a creamy blue cheese with a mild, slightly salty taste. The cheese is white to yellowish with blue tinges and is made from pasteurised cow’s milk on North Jutland.

Danish rygeost, meaning ‘smoked cheese’ is mild, light and smokey. It originates from 19th century Funen, with some believing it dates back to the Viking Age. 

A dish of potato, monkfish and smoked cheese.

A dish of potato, monkfish and smoked cheese. Photo: Thomas Lekfeldt/Ritzau Scanpix

Vesterhavsost, meaning ‘North Sea Cheese’, is a semi-hard cheese with a slightly salty taste as it is ripened in the sea air of North Jutland. It’s referred to as the Danish version of Gouda. 

Fyrmester or Fyrtårnsost, meaning ‘The Lighthouse Keeper’ or ‘Lighthouse Cheese’, is an extra-mature version of the vesterhavsost, aged for at least 52 weeks.

Samsø cheese is similar to Emmentale and made on the island of Samsø in Kattegat.

Hvid ost, meaning ‘white cheese’, is Denmark’s equivalent to feta cheese but uses cow’s milk rather than the goat or sheep’s milk used in Greek feta cheese. It’s milder and doesn’t crumble like Greek feta cheese because it’s made differently, using something called ultrafiltration.

There have been debates as to whether this actually makes it feta cheese. Earlier this year, Denmark lost a case at the European Court of Justice over its farmers exporting cheese outside the EU labelled feta, something only Greece can do. The cheese is sometimes labelled in supermarkets as ‘salad cubes’ (salat-tern).

There is, perhaps, one thing that unites almost all Danish cheeses: they are sliced using the characteristic ostehøvl (cheese slicer), the quintessential Danish kitchen utensil.

There are two types of ostehøvl: a wire-based type and a version that looks a bit like a trowel, with a raised edge and a gap in the middle for the sliced cheese to pass through.

Cheese vocab:

Blød ost: Soft cheese

Halvfast ost: Semi-soft cheese 

Fast ost: Semi-hard cheese 

Hård ost: Hard cheese

Ekstra hård ost: Extra hard cheese

Frisk ost: Fresh cheese

Ostehøvl: cheese slicer