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Reclaiming the roots of classic Danish sandwiches

The menu at Restaurant Schonnemann, in Copenhagen, offers 90 old and new smorrebrod. The menu at Restaurant Schonnemann, in Copenhagen, offers 90 old and new smorrebrod. (LISE STERN FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE)
By Lise Stern
Globe Correspondent / November 2, 2011

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COPENHAGEN - The smorrebrod are presented on a polished board: glistening cured salmon topped with shredded cabbage, feathery fennel fronds, and rye bread crumbs crisped in butter; pale gold potatoes flecked with spices, topped with crunchy white onion rings, paper-thin radish slices, and crumbled bacon. “Lunch is where we Danish really have something to offer,’’ says Adam Aamann, chef-owner of Aamanns Smorrebrodsdeli in the Osterbro neighborhood. These smorrebrod, the open sandwiches that are the signature Danish lunch, are on a different plane than ordinary bread topped with meats, cheeses, and garnishes.

“Smorrebrod should be eaten with a knife and fork,’’ says Bruno Andersen, general manager at Groften, a Copenhagen institution located in the downtown amusement park Tivoli Gardens. “You should put everything on the bread, then cut it, and eat one piece at a time.’’ The restaurant’s smorrebrod chef Charlotte Hojen describes tourists, stuck on the “sandwich’’ concept, attempting to pick up a smorrebrod with their hands, while ingredients tumble off.

A classic smorrebrod consists of rugbrod, or rye bread, a dark, dense, chewy sourdough bread. Slices are almost flat on the top, forming perfect rectangles. Certain classic smorrebrod are made with caraway bread, similar to light American deli rye, and white bread. Butter, usually lightly salted, is another component. It’s spread thickly, almost like cream cheese. Then come toppings, which make smorrebrod more than just bread and butter. They range from simple (sliced potatoes or pickled herring) to elaborate (roast meat, pate, condiments). In a properly made smorrebrod, the topping should entirely cover the bread base so you barely see the slice.

There are dozens of traditional combinations. At lunch restaurants here, some varieties come assembled, others are in a do-it-yourself format, with the bread already spread with butter and the toppings artfully displayed on accompanying plates.

When he opened Aamanns Smorrebrodsdeli in late 2006, Aamann, a classically trained chef, wanted to both reinvent and return to the roots of traditional sandwiches. “Smorrebrod had been left where no one wanted to take it over,’’ he says. “For decades, a very few handful have done it in a very classic way, with a lot of foolish, pretty garnishes that are not functional.’’ He refers to things like orange slices, which may add color, but have nothing to do with what’s on the bread. “I wanted to take it back, but also to modernize in a rustic, plain kind of way.’’

His eatery is modern with sleek lines, blond wood chairs and shelves, white and pale green walls, a contrast to the ornate Rosenborg Palace a few blocks away. Dense rectangular rye bread is homemade with a sourdough starter. Meats, produce, and seafood are all local.

A characteristic of many restaurants is several dozen sandwich combinations. At Aamanns there are 10 to 12, including chicken salad with herb mayonnaise, topped with sliced green beans and bits of ham, and smoked mackerel, an update on the classic, with fresh tomatoes, onions, fennel fronds, and chervil. Canned, smoked mackerel and tomatoes, says the restaurateur, is a combo Danes often take on camping trips. “I tried to make it fresh,’’ he says.

Lunch at Groften, established in 1874, is a different experience entirely. One of the oldest restaurants in Tivoli Gardens, Groften is a sprawl of smaller dining rooms surrounding an indoor-outdoor space with a greenhouse style roof, with trees growing through the center. It’s open seasonally with Tivoli: summer, a week in October for Halloween, and mid-November through the end of the year. According to Andersen, the 630-seat restaurant serves up to 1,200 guests a day.

Smorrebrod chef Hojen, who studied smorrebrod making in culinary school, says the preparation “takes a lot of time.’’ On a quick tour of her cozy kitchen, she shows off smoked eel, roast pork, hard-cooked eggs, remoulade. She pulls out a slice of rye bread and deftly spreads Lurpak butter (“The best butter in the world,’’ she says, a line echoed by many), sliced egg, and tiny shrimp, garnishing it with fennel fronds, tomato, and lemon.

Restaurant Schonnemann, opened in 1877, located in a square not far from the Rosenberg Palace Garden, is a blend of old school and new. John and Soren Puggaard have owned it since 2007. They have run a catering business and restaurants for more than two decades, but had long had an eye on the property. “We’ve always been in love with this place,’’ says John Puggaard.

The menu has 90 sandwiches, with new creations and combinations Puggaard describes as “old, old recipes,’’ like the Veterinarian’s Snack of liver pate, boiled beef, raw onions. Camembert Frites consists of fried breaded triangles of cheese, which ooze when placed on toasted bread, accompanied by blackcurrant jam. Herring has its own section on the menu, and comes marinated, pickled, fried, smoked.

Like most meals here, smorrebrod are not cheap. Pickled duck breast or fried herring at Aamanns might be about $11. Groften’s roast pork with red cabbage is about $12 and can go up to about $22 for smoked eel with scrambled egg. Schonnemann’s plaice with shrimp and asparagus is about $32.

An important element to master is the pronunciation. Smorrebrod, literally “butter bread,’’ has an unexpected sound. Before the opening of a New York branch later this year, restaurateur Aamann is trying to come up with an easy way to say it. His team decided on this: “shmeer broon.’’

If you go, practice first.

Aamanns Smorrebrodsdeli Oster Farimagsgade 10, Copenhagen, 45 35 55 33 44,

Restaurant Schonnemann Hauser Plads 16, Copenhagen, 45 33 12 07 85,

Groften Tivoli Vesterbrogade 3, Copenhagen, 45 33 75 06 75,

Lise Stern can be reached at