Feast like a Viking in Denmark

Posted on November 24, 2010

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Feast like a Viking in Denmark
by AnneLise Sorensen

Thick smoke streams over the slender herring – rows and rows of them – as their silver scales warm into a deep red. The fisherman, in coveralls and clogs, prods the alderwood embers with a long pole wrapped in rags at one end. Inside the smokehouse, it’s damp and dark, not much larger than a garden shed – and just as basic. But then, so is the preparation. Here on the Danish island of Bornholm, the smoked herring can trace its roots to the island’s first Viking inhabitants, who pulled up in their longboats a millennium ago.

The same small kingdom of Denmark that spawned the Vikings also has a beloved national word for “cozy and warm” – hyggelig. These two seemingly opposite traits – the conquering legacy of the Vikings, and yet the Danes’ penchant for the comforts of home – define Denmark. Bornholm has a bit of both, existing as a wave-lashed microcosm of Denmark in the middle of the Baltic.

The ferry departs southern Sweden and plows through the choppy sea towards Bornholm. As you approach the island, smudges of red and yellow on the horizon come into focus: Brick-tiled roofs top yellow half-timber houses; lace curtains frame dollhouse windows; and in the quiet harbour, fishing boats bob to the squawks of gulls circling lazily above. In the distance, thin smokehouse chimneys punctuate the low-rise landscape, snorting smoke into the Northern sky.

Viking runic stones lie in the dark Almindingen forest, and throughout the island, you’ll come upon places like Gudhjem, or “God’s Home” – what you might expect if the Man Upstairs were to design his perfect village, especially as the morning sun illuminates the cobblestoned streets. Elsewhere, 12th-century rundkirke, or round churches – whitewashed fortresses of faith capped with ink-black conical roofs – lend a stylized, Medieval splendour to the otherwise tidy pastureland.

While the Vikings’ table “manners” likely raised a few eyebrows – they didn’t use plates or utensils except for the knives they pulled from their sheathes – these days, or so the saying goes, the only time you’ll see a Dane with a knife in hand is when he has a fork in the other. Do as the summering crowds, and feast on “Sun over Gudjhem,” smoked herring on dark bread, topped with a poached egg and raw onions. In that first smoky bite, you can almost taste the distant link to the Vikings: There’s the flavor of the sea, of smoked wood, and of the herring’s taut skin giving way to the crunch of tiny bones. In the Viking tradition of free-flowing mead, there’s also plenty of chilled Tuborg beer. Those horned forefathers knew a thing or two about having a good time.

Getting there: Ferries travel daily to Bornholm from Ystad, in southern Sweden (1hr 15min), and from Køge, south of Copenhagen (overnight). You can also catch the daily Bornholmer bus from Copenhagen (2hrs 45min). For further information, check out http://www.bornholmferries.com.

Travel Transforms (or, Aha!) moment: Two words: Danish beer.

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Posted in: Denmark