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BOOTH'S VIEW

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Denmark’s national dish is a tasteless gimmick

Agriculture Minister Dan Jørgensen wants Danes to pick a national dish but columnist Michael Booth argues that not only should the minister have more important things to tend to, the proposed options don't reflect true eating habits.

Denmark's national dish is a tasteless gimmick
The food and agriculture minister, Dan Jørgensen, wants Danes to pick a national dish. Photo: Jens Nørgaard Larsen/Scanpix
Denmark’s publicity ravenous food and agriculture minister, Dan Jørgensen (a man who would not only turn up at the opening of a fridge, but would also likely try to pitch it as a series idea to DR2), launched an initiative to find the country’s official national dish last week.
 
He’s gone the full hog in terms of social media, with Facebook and Instagram pages and a website, danskernesmad.dk, run by the Ministry for Food, Agriculture and Fisheries.
 
With Danes dying from listeria contracted from locally-produced processed meat products seemingly on a weekly basis, not to mention the country’s pork industry seriously undermined by a quite shocking MRSA scandal and the recent news that the much vaunted New Nordic diet actually makes kids fatter, some party poopers might argue that Jørgensen ought to have higher priorities on his mind as he sits down at his ministerial desk every morning.
 
But, surely, hastily cobbled-together, headline-grabbing gimmicks like this are what government ministers are for! Bread and circuses, and all that.
 
Danes are being invited to send in their suggestions after which there will be some kind of TV-style cooking competition in which eight chefs from different regions will prepare three different dishes which will then be voted for regionally. Or something. I’m not exactly sure of the process, but apparently already by November 20th, we will have an answer to the most urgent and pressing question of our times, at least as far as Denmark’s agriculture minister is concerned.
 
So, what will the hallowed dish be? Jørgensen is clearly trying to direct the Danes toward traditional, indigenous fare: ‘What is the Danes’ favourite food? Is it frikadeller, fish fillet, roast pork – or maybe something completely different?’ asks the website (seemingly incredulous that an alternative to this holy trinity might even be thinkable).
 
Sarcasm aside, certainly, all these Danish classics have their place and can be excellent if properly prepared with good, non-listeria-ridden ingredients, but I wonder if these are the dishes Danes eat day-to-day. Are they really their favourites? And are they really representative of a country which in recent years has become a global leader for culinary innovation. This is, after all, not a quest to find Denmark’s ‘most popular dish’ but a ‘National Dish’, with all that implies in terms of high minded ideals, branding and image.
 
So, with restaurants like Noma, Kadeau and Relæ inspiring a whole generation of chefs worldwide to shrug off the shackles of French cuisine and turn their gaze towards their own local produce in season, how about having a signature New Nordic dish as Denmark’s new national dish? One of those freeze-dried, powdered sea urchin with sea sorrel mousse and smoked hay-type things, perhaps? Or musk ox tartar with sea buckthorn compote and sorrel? (There has to be sorrel with everything New Nordic: it’s the law).
 
No?
 
OK. Wouldn’t it be nice if the dish somehow represented Denmark’s self-proclaimed openness to the world, and its burgeoning multi-ethnicity? 
 
Whenever these kinds of surveys are carried out in my home country, the UK, Chicken Tikka Masala usually beats fish and chips or roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, with pizza or Balti somewhere in the mix, a pleasing reflection of Britain’s multicultural society.
 
Obviously on the same track, one Danish commentator immediately tweeted ’Shawarma!’, when the hunt for the national dish was announced. And she has a point. It is probably the one, single immigrant food which has the strongest presence on Danish high streets. Kebab places are everywhere in Denmark.
 
But there is one other dish of foreign origin which, judging by what I see in people’s shopping baskets the most at the supermarkets, would also make a fitting national dish of Denmark, at least in terms of popularity and the central role it plays in the lives of many Danes. It comes to us from Italy, via Germany: Dr Oetker frozen pizza.
 
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.

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FOOD & DRINK

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

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