Do Danes really eat rugbrød for at least one meal every day?

If you live with or even just share an office with Danes, you'll soon realise that barely a day goes by without them eating at least one meal based around rugbrød. What's going on, and can it possibly be healthy?

Do Danes really eat rugbrød for at least one meal every day?
Danish rye bread can sometimes look impossibly dark and dense. Photo: Kam & Co/Visit Denmark

What is Danish rugbrød? 

Danish rugbrød is a very dense, very dark rye bread made with wholemeal rye flour and often sourdough (sometimes with the addition of wheat and/or seeds like sunflower, pumpkin, and linseed).

“In general, most Danes prefer a dark, dense and bitter slice of ryebread. Swedish, German, but also Danish variations contains more wheat and sugar in order to make the bread sweeter and more “easy” to eat,” Danish TV nutritionist Christian Bitz told The Local. “But the “real” Danish ryebread is made of sourdough, full of grains and rich in taste!”

A dirty, Danish secret is that the bread’s colour more often than not comes from food colouring, or kulør. It’s same stuff Danes use to brown meat sauces. Sometimes home bakers use black coffee, which also adds an extra level of bitterness. Another frequent darkening agent is malt, or malt syrup. 

What’s the historical reason for the Danes eating so much rye bread?

Danes have eaten ryebread since the time of the Vikings, 1000 years ago, probably because rye is easier to grow than wheat in colder climates, creating the “ryebread border” stretching across Europe. 

Do Danes really eat a meal based around it every day? 

Yes, most do. 

“We Danes loves our ryebread for lunch, as open sandwich (smørrebrød) with all kind of toppings,” Bitz said, pointing out that Danish schoolchildren traditionally get given pack lunches filled with smørrebrød topped with variety of tasty treats. 

“I remember from my school how exciting it was when all my classmates were opening their boxes, revealing so many different open sandwiches.” 

According to the annual surveys carried out by Madkulturen, a food promotion agency led by the Danish food and agriculture ministry, rugbrød was the most common evening meal in Denmark both in 2015 when the first survey was done, and in follow-up surveys in 2018 and 2019.

It was only in 2020, when Danes were stuck at home with more time to cook, that rugbrød was knocked into third place by chicken and pizza. There is every chance it will return to first place, the next time Madkulturen updates its survey. 

Indeed, for Danes, the bread is such an essential part of their diet that rather than go without for a few days on holiday, they will pack a couple of loaves. 

“Many Danes – including myself – even bring ryebread in their suitcases when we go on vacation abroad!” Bitz said. 

How do Danes eat rugbrød? 

Rugbrød can be eaten very informally — just a slice smeared with butter gobbled down on the go. 

But it’s more commonly eaten as smørrebrød, which literally means “butter and bread”. This Danish open-face sandwich is less a dish than a whole way of eating, analogous with sushi in Japan or tapas in Spain. 

There’s a word in Danish tandsmør, literally “tooth butter”, which describes how thick to spread the butter: you should be
able to see tooth marks if you bite into it.

Popular toppings are leverpostej (liver paté), with fried mushrooms and bacon, herring with lettuce, boiled egg, and pickled onion, roast pork with sweet and sour cabbage, and smoked salmon topped with shrimps, dill and lemon.

According to Hans Kjelstrup, who makes rugbrød every week for the members of the Svanholm community near Frederikssund, when you make smørrebrød you should barely be able to make out the bread underneath. 

“My mom has this story she loves to tell of eating with me and my brother. Suddenly one of us was like, ‘What? there’s rye bread underneath!. I think that’s the concept of smørrebrod. It needs to be overloaded.” 

Can smørrebrød be a posh dinner? 

It’s not just a quick, easy, everyday dinner. At upmarket Copenhagen restaurants such as Aamanns 1921 or Schønnemann, smørrebrød is turned into a kind of art form, and you pay accordingly. 

The lunchtime smørrebrød menu at Aamanns 1921 costs 340 kroner for three slices, while at Schønnemann’s, each slice of bread will cost between about 90 and 150 kroner, depending on what is loaded on top of it (they recommend three or four). 

When Danes celebrate at Christmas or Easter, the table is also not complete without a decent rye bread. 

Can it possibly be healthy to eat rugbrød every day? 

“It’s super healthy – especially compared to other bread types!” Bitz enthused. “Ryebread is packed with wholegrain, vitamins and minerals. The fibres in wholegrain contribute to a good digestion and prolonged satiety compared to white bread.

The vitamins and minerals also contribute to the general health.

And one last thing, we actually do not eat THAT much ryebread as an open sandwich is only one slice of thin bread, compared to the traditional sandwiches with two thicker slices of bread.

Is all rye bread the same? Where do you get the healthiest stuff?

When state broadcaster DR visited a supermarket in Denmark for a program on rugbrød a few years’ ago, they found that many of the popular commercial brands were highly processed, did not use wholemeal, had a high wheat content, and had sugar and other additives. Eating this sort of rye bread is only a small step up from the fluffy, white loaves beloved of Brits and Americans. 

“You have to go for WHOLEGRAIN,” Bitz said. “In Denmark we’ve a label system, so it’s a bit easier for the consumer to pick and
choose wholegrain products. Wholegrain means that everything from the grain is present.

In contrast, white wheat bread mostly consists of the centre of the grain, which does not really have a significant level of fibres. In addition, you can choose a bread where the grains are as intact as possible, which also leads to a better digestion and prolonged feeling of satiety.

It’s also important to look for you much sugar there’s in the ryebread as some types – mainly from Sweden – are
very sweet due to a higher content of sugar.”

Rye is low on the glycaemic index, so eating rye bread does not lead to the sort of blood sugar spikes you experience with British toast bread, and is also less likely to contribute to diabetes.

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What are the hardest things about moving to provincial Denmark as a foreigner?

Foreign residents who have moved to lesser-known regions of the country share their experiences of life in provincial Denmark. 

Provincial regions of Denmark want to attract skilled foreign workers, but what are the biggest challenges faced by relocators?
Provincial regions of Denmark want to attract skilled foreign workers, but what are the biggest challenges faced by relocators? Photo: Signe Goldmann/Ritzau Scanpix

Editor’s note: there are of course also many positives about living in provincial Denmark, and people based in those areas were happy to share those too. Read what they said in this article.

When Lea Cesar moved from Slovenia to the town of Ringkøbing in 2011, she didn’t know much about the region of western Jutland. 

“In the beginning, I didn’t like how difficult it was to find a job as a foreigner in a smaller city,” Cesar told The Local. Back then she didn’t speak Danish, and that made it hard to find a job that matched her skills and qualifications. 

“I later took it as a challenge and started my own company,” Cesar said, opening a cafe and bakery called Baking Sins in central Ringkøbing. Once she’d taken things into her own hands, she thrived and came to love her town. 

“I love the small shops with handcrafted products,” she said, drawing a comparison to the big shops and chain stores of larger cities. “The culture here is totally different. Ringkøbing is a smaller town, but feels big enough for me.”

Considering the pros and cons of a life in lesser-known parts of Denmark has never been more relevant, as the Danish government amps up efforts to decentralise Denmark and municipalities look to internationals to balance out declining populations. 

READ ALSO: Is it easier for foreigners to find a job outside Denmark’s major cities?

There may be fewer job opportunities, depending on your industry and Danish language skills

Fewer job opportunities, Cesar said, is one of the primary differences between living in a town like Ringkøbing versus a larger city. 

“There aren’t as many companies here searching for employees that only speak English,” she said. “I think it’s important to speak at least basic Danish; otherwise it would be hard to come here.”

Antoniya Petkov, originally from Bulgaria, faced similar challenges finding work when she moved to Ringkøbing several years ago after her husband accepted a job at a wind energy company in the area. 

“Most of the job opportunities in my field in the area require a high level of Danish language, which I am still working toward,” Petkov told The Local. 

In the meantime, she continues to commute to Aarhus, where she works as a technical recruiter in systematics at a large Danish software firm. “However, there are a lot more opportunities for developers, engineers and people with a technical job profile where Danish isn’t required,” Petkov said.

Even in technical roles, Danish proficiency helps. 

Victor Balaban, originally from Moldova, moved to Vejle while working at Siemens Gamesa. Although he said there are plenty of job opportunities in the region, Balaban said his options would be significantly more limited if he didn’t speak Danish.

Candice Progler-Thomsen, an American living in Lolland, said Danish proficiency is “almost essential” to find a job in the municipality. “There will be greater job opportunities here for individuals who learn Danish,” she told The Local. 

And, because it’s a smaller area with fewer employers, Progler-Thomsen said people may need to be willing to commute or otherwise expand their job search.

READ ALSO: Why (and how) Danish provincial areas want to hire skilled foreign workers

On the other hand, there may also be less competition for jobs in lesser-known parts of Denmark, said Mariola Kajkowska. 

Originally from Poland, Kajkowska moved to Vejle in 2019, where she works as an employee retention consultant. “There are often fewer applicants for each job, which increases your chance to be selected for the position,” she said.

Speaking Danish is important, professionally and socially

When Petkov first moved to Ringkøbing, it was challenging that she didn’t speak Danish. It was hard to do daily tasks, like communicate with workers at her children’s daycare or chat with her neighbours.

“People were distant at first when we bought our house in a typical Danish neighbourhood,” she said. 

It was very different from Aarhus, where they had lived before moving to Ringkøbing. “Aarhus has a huge international community,” she said. “We were always able to find friends and it was easy to get by speaking English.”

Petkov also missed the variety of English events and activities available in Aarhus. “But, we compensate by going to international events in the municipality,” she said.

Balaban, who established baseball clubs in both Herning and Vejle, said being a part of the community and getting involved is integral to building a social network and making friends in Vejle. “You have to be an active part of society,” he said.

Although learning Danish was a challenge, Petkov also saw it as an opportunity. “I’m not sure I would have learned Danish if we were living in Copenhagen or Aarhus,” she said. “You just don’t need it much there.”

Now, she’s learned enough Danish to engage in small talk with her neighbours. “Once people got used to us, we felt very welcome,” Petkov said, “though I don’t think we will ever blend completely.”

Chris Wantia, also a resident of Ringkøbing-Skjern Municipality, has found Danish to be integral to life in rural Denmark. 

He lives in the village of Bork Havn, population 300. “When I walk out of my house, I don’t expect my 65-year-old Danish neighbour to speak to me in English,” Wantia told The Local.

“English may be fine in the big cities, but speaking Danish here is important,” he said, adding that it would have been very challenging to purchase and renovate the two homes he and his wife, Janine, own in the municipality if he didn’t speak Danish. 

A second silver lining Petkov has identified is that living in Ringkøbing has also enabled her family to engage more deeply with Danes and Danish culture, adding that most of her friends are Danish. 

“If you really want to dive into Danish culture, a place like Ringkøbing is amazing,” she said.

There’s less to do, depending on your interests (and you might need to drive)

“You can count on one hand the number of good restaurants within 50 kilometres of Bork Havn,” Wantia told The Local. Although that wasn’t a dealbreaker for him and his wife, Janine, it might be worth some consideration before moving to a village like Bork Havn. 

“If you want many restaurants, parties, or meeting new people all the time, this isn’t the place for you,” he said. “It’s quiet here. Some people might not like that, but it’s perfect for us.”

Vejle, though much larger than Bork Havn with a population of 113,000, also isn’t a very lively city in terms of nightlife, according to Balaban.

“I’d say it’s a mature city,” he said. “It’s a quiet city that attracts a lot of families and people who are more settled down.”

Ultimately, having ‘things to do’ nearby depends on which activities you prefer. 

In Lolland, Progler-Thomsen said it’s “a bit of a sacrifice” to not have easy access to the cultural activities the family had in Copenhagen. 

READ ALSO: Are provincial parts of Denmark a good option for international families?

In exchange, her family has access to activities it enjoys that weren’t available in Copenhagen, including many outdoor activities and sports. “We love the Safari Park that’s only a 7-minute drive from our house,” Progler-Thomsen said. 

That’s something else to consider, though: driving. 

Kajkowska, in Vejle, said driving will play more of a role in one’s life, living in these parts of Denmark. “I was at a party the other night and two cars had driven one and a half hours from Sønderborg to come to the party,” she said.

READ ALSO: What benefits does life in provincial Denmark offer foreign residents?

For the most part, Petkov said she doesn’t feel like she’s missing out by living in Ringkøbing.

She enjoys several favorite cafes in town, an Italian restaurant where they are regulars and enjoy chatting with the owners, exploring the beaches and woods, and escaping to the wellness hotel near their house for mini-breaks. “In the summer, it feels like living at a resort,” Petkov said. 

“Ringkøbing is a great place for our family,” she said. “The benefits outweigh the drawbacks for us.”