If there is such a thing as a northern European food craving, for me it’s this: an open-faced sandwich topped with herring or lox, or, in a pinch, a coldcut or cheese. The Germans call these belegtes brötchen—laid-on bread. The Danes, just up the coast, call it smørrebrød.
I don’t speak Danish, so I can’t really tell you how to pronounce smørrebrød, but I think if you let out a flat American “er” (like at the end of “butter”) while flapping your lips slowly, you’ll get close.
I also can’t say exactly why the northerners have taken to this dish, but I do know that the closer toward the Baltic Sea you travel, the quicker the wind and the more lateral the sunlight, the more and more you’ll see these open-faced sandwiches. And when you finally reach the water’s edge, whether in Mecklenburg in Germany or Zeeland in Denmark, where we’ve been this week, this plate is everywhere.
At the Utzon Café, a sleek harborfront restaurant overlooking the Limfjord in Aalborg, near the very northern edge of Europe, Matt and I ordered two of these each, only to find something much more, well, vertical than we expected. My pickled herring smørrebrød had a supple flank of the fish folded high over itself, tall enough that a top piece of bread, had there been any in sight, would have just fallen over anyway. Still the flavors sat just right: a slight vinegar to the fish, a bite from the onion, the dark rye underneath to give it earth.
This smørrebrød was ambitious. It needed a knife and fork. The toppings completely covered the bread underneath, so the dish looked more like an entrée than a sandwich. This is my idea about Smørrebrød: it’s an evolutionary key, something between entrée and sandwich, a fish that walks on flippers.