Literally translated as “to butter bread,” smørrebrød was (most likely) invented as a peasant’s way of repurposing leftovers, by heaping them atop stale, rock-hard bread to soften it. In the 19th century, though, it became popular with a cross section of Danes, from royals to factory workers. Alas, with the rise of processed foods in the 1960s and ’70s, smørrebrød supersized and lost flavor as cooks both at home and at popular takeout shops piled pale, boiled ham and limp, canned asparagus over factory-made bread and then drenched the whole mess in bottled hollandaise sauce.
But luckily, Scandinavian chefs have lately rediscovered their roots, giving birth to a Nordic cuisine renaissance in the process. The revival is led by the celebrated Noma restaurant in Copenhagen and has filtered all the way down to the simple but sublime smørrebrød. In most cases, the modernized versions of the open-faced sandwiches feature homemade rye bread topped with locally harvested fish and shrimp, fresh vegetables, charcuterie, traditional cheeses and house-made sauces.
“It’s like Danish tapas,” says Adam Aamann, who runs Aamanss Smørrebrødsdeli (www.aamanns.dk), a Copenhagen delicatessen specializing in smørrebrød. The chef is credited with reviving the sandwich in the Danish capital, and next month he’s opening a spinoff in New York’s Tribeca neighborhood. “You have a lot of tastes — crispy, sweet, sour, soft — on a small plate.” Aamann intends on making the smørrebrød experience (a lunch specialty) an ultra-Danish one, seating diners in Ant chairs by designer Arne Jacobsen and serving on Royal Copenhagen china. Back in Copenhagen, other local favorite smørrebrød specialists include the Royal Cafe (www.theroyalcafe.dk), which serves miniature smørrebrød called “smushi,” and Told & Snaps (www.toldogsnaps.dk), for its house-made schnapps paired with smørrebrød ranging from pickled herring to steak tartare.
Make Your Own Smørrebrød
For comfort food from a land that knows long winters, take the top off your next lunch.
As with any sandwich, the bread is critical. And in smørrebrød, this means rugbrød, a thin, densely grained rye. Butter a slice. Add lettuce or arugula to cover. Top with a cup of baby shrimp (or several slices of roast beef, if carnivorous), a few sprigs of dill and a dollop of mayo mixed to taste with horseradish and a squeeze of lemon. Get as vertical as you’d like. Smørrebrød, after all, is a knife-and-fork affair.