Nørth: How to Live Scandinavian – open sandwiches

Smørrebrød from Nørth: How to Live Scandinavian [pics: Anna Jacobsen]

Why are open sandwiches such a big deal? Find out with this extract from Brontë Aurell's new book Nørth: How to Live Scandinavian.

By Brontë Aurell

The Scandinavian words for 'open sandwich' (smørrebrød in Danish, smørbrød in Norwegian and smörgås in Swedish) literally mean 'buttered bread'. Scandinavia is famous for open sandwiches. Cafés, restaurants and even smørrebrød takeaway shops offer many different varieties – often elaborately decorated pieces of rye bread, piled high with seriously delicious toppings.

Smørrebrød as it is known today became popular in Denmark in the late 1800s when people started eating out of the home. It was a way for the working man to enjoy a substantial lunch by piling high plentiful and affordable toppings on filling rye bread. Rye bread both on top and as a base would be very hard to digest so it remained 'open'. In the 1890s, it became fancy fare for the upper classes and over the next decades, smørrebrød became a staple lunch dish at cafés and restaurants.

There are several varieties of smørrebrød – split into party, lunch, handheld and lunchbox.

Scandinavian Landscape

First, the stuff the tourist bureau wants to sell you. It's super-pretty and you eat it in cafés and restaurants, for lunch – always with a knife and fork. This is the same version you may order for get-togethers like birthday celebrations in the office. Called højtbelagt, it means 'highly decorated'. It's the king of open sandwiches. The most famous place in Copenhagen, Ida Davidsen, has a menu of 190 different kinds of open sandwich.

Second, there is the stuff you make at home. A little less fancy, not as much mayo and other fillers, this is more wholesome. This is just called smørrebrød and is eaten for lunch.

Lastly, you have the open sandwiches for your madpakke (matpakke). These are lovely open sandwiches you make at home, then carefully put into your lunchbox using special open-sandwich paper (matpakkepapir) that you buy in the supermarket to layer between your sandwiches. It will all squash before you eat it and your liver pâté is likely to be mixed with your cheese, but that never killed anyone. This is the kind that kids will have in their packed lunch at school.

There is a three-year training course in Denmark to be educated in the art of making smørrebrød open sandwiches. When you finish this, you are qualified as an 'Open Sandwich Maiden' (Smørrebrødsjomfru). Even today, people can choose to specialise as a general chef or an open sandwich chef – usually you don't get to be both.

Open sandwich 1

Most of the classic open sandwiches in Denmark are made on dark rye bread. In Sweden and Norway, where they don't eat bread that dark, a lighter crustier bread is used. For seafood, in all places, lighter bread is used. There are numerous classic combinations, but the main thing to remember is:

1. Bread base
2. Fat or butter
3. Add protein of choice (main ingredient)
4. Add toppings for additional flavour, crunch, texture and, of course, to make it pretty

The real beauty of the open sandwich is that it means you eat less bread overall – and in many cases, better bread, too. Open sandwiches are filling without making you feel too full. On top of that, it forces you to sit down and take time to eat (it's really hard to eat an open sandwich at the bus stop) – making it a perfect lunchtime meal for all the right reasons.

New book Nørth: How to Live Scandinavian by Brontë Aurell featuring photography by Anna Jacobsen (£20, Aurum Press) is out now.

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