Scandinavia and Nordicism

I picked up on Scandinavians: in search of the soul of the north (Amazon) by Robert Ferguson via a review in the TLS. More reviews: Scandi gloom | Irish Times.

Hailed by Richard Eyre as essential reading “for anyone interested in the allure of the Scandinavian landscape, character, history and literature”, I was interested to see how the book would tie in with the UK’s Scandimania, so availed myself of a review copy.

Ferguson has lived in Norway since 1983 and has a largely Norwegian-focused back catalogue. As he himself attests, his Scandinavia is based on “a 19th century dream”.

His first idea was to take a road trip along European route E6 from Trelleborg in Skåne to Kirkenes on the Norwegian-Russian border in a quest for the Scandinavian sense of melancholy. This might have worked, but instead the book is a retelling of historical episodes from the Vikings to WW2, combined with lengthy sections rooted in the literary life of Oslo.

While the commonalities of the three core Scandinavian countries, a crucial part of their self-image, cannot be denied, I’m wary of seeing them as essentially the same. A glance at the map shows puny Denmark at the bottom left hand corner of a landmass stretching, well, true north, an obligatory side-step on Ferguson’s road trip. This geographical difference has implications which are frequently overlooked due to the Danes’ lengthy political dominance of the region. Further, Sweden features very little in Ferguson’s retelling, and with the book’s acknowledgements including one “for help with questions on matters of Danish culture and language” it seems that perspectives may be a little constrained.

The dust jacket (re)states that the quintessential Scandinavian is perceived as “tolerant, socially progressive and possessed of a gently introspective melancholia”. The bagside of the first two is touched on, with a discussion of Janteloven (“the requirement for a degree of social conformity that some found – and still do find – oppressive”), noting that famous Scandinavian artists, writers and filmmakers tend to be extreme figures, “ferociously individualistic and fuelled by a kind of cornered anger”. (Likewise, celebrities tend to go over the top at the drop of a hat.)

Where we are really in trouble though is with the issue of melancholy, supposedly the heart of the book. I’ve never connected this with Denmark, and indeed fairly early on Ferguson is told in one of his name-dropping conversations with writers, here with Danish poet Jesper Mølby (can’t trace), that “we Danes aren’t melancholic”. Bleak maybe, it is conceded, but lacking the romance of melancholia. Ibsen is with me on geographical determinism, “convinced that it was the topography of Norway that made its people so secretive, so brooding, so guilt-ridden”, but we can also see an element of correlation not causation at work: “it was almost as though Scandinavians had embraced the cliché as truth”.

Danish culture offers up two gloomy personalities for discussion. Of the first, the melancholia of Shakespeare’s Hamlet can be attributed to English fashions of the time and a popularity for all things Danish following the marriage of James VI & I to Anne of Denmark, an early example of Scandinavian allure. The character of Hamlet may even be based on John Dowland, an English lutenist at the court of Christian IV.

The second gloomy Dane, Kierkegaard, is presented here as a cautionary tale on individuality. Ferguson’s interlocutor descriibes him railing against “the Christianity of the Danish state church [which] took all the power and danger and challenge out of stuff”, resulting in an ‘asymmetrical paternalism’ which refuses to recognise the existence of bad or even alternative thoughts and treats the thinker of them as a ‘victim in need of treatment’. Today, substitute the welfare state and a system of unwritten social rules for the church and you have a society where diversity is as rare as it is welcomed. Ironically, in Denmark the popular view of Kierkegaard is as doomed lover.

Ferguson has a subscription to glossy Danish archaeology magazine Skalk, and Vikingery features large, as well it might. As far as I’m concerned all that was done and dusted in Primary 3, along with Robert the Bruce and his spider, although I have re-visited things slightly after trips to Orkney and the Faroes. It’s notable though that Scottish/Celtic Viking connections are Norway related, while England’s Viking invaders hailed from Denmark. Their heartlands are to be found on Jutland, a small world away from today’s Copenhagen, if not exactly rugged or remote. If William the Conqueror had sailed east, things could have been rather different.

Moving on, of the 15 chapters a good handful have a Danish story at their heart – Denmark is the one with the history, albeit one of constant shrinkage all the way up to 1864 (“tensions over Slesvig and Holsten had flared up again”), a national trauma recently commemorated in a Sunday evening TV series which didn’t export too well. With Copenhagen a centre for German culture in the 18th century and many Spuren (traces) to be found in the city, Germany’s influence on Danish culture feels generally under-explored.

Many of the retellings in the book are reproduced in the form of conversations with local literati – this framing device doesn’t work for me, not least because it comes over second hand, with a touch of the unreliable narrator about it. Other chapters, in particular that on the Scandi experience of WW2, may well be mainly the output of diligent desk research, while a 50 page interlude, a play called Ibsen’s ghosts, is out of place. All in all it’s a bit of an oddity, and not one for the Scandi fanbase looking for the comforts of hygge (nary a trace) or Booth-like repartee. Plus it cites Norway as the world’s happiest country, surely some mistake?

At the end of the book Ferguson reflects on his experience of moving to another country:

I began thinking again about immigration and the rootlessness that comes when it doesn’t work out. I was lucky. Even though I was an immigrant, I never thought of myself that way. I had chosen to come to Norway out of a deep attraction to what I knew of the culture. For me, it was and remains a peculiar sort of honour simply to be allowed to live here.

This sums up the book, focused on the allure of the classic Scandinavian dream and ranging too widely to present a more nuanced picture. As Ferguson is finally almost happy to concede, the narrative of melancholy is a cliché, a literary illusion based on “all the outside world ever knew about the Scandinavians” and an expression of Nordicism. The local experience may be rather different.

Nordicism and its clichés

So, the Scandinavian dream and its attendant Nordicism is an external creation of a familiar type – see Edward Said’s OrientalismOccidentalism and a list of other isms, right down to nesting Orientalisms. Nordicism is less explored, awaiting critique akin to Maria Todorova’s Imagining the Balkans (review), or Vesna Goldsworthy’s Inventing Ruritania (Misha Glenny reviews both). I haven’t even come across a ‘how to write about’ piece (The BalkansAfrica…).

Maybe Nordicism is just in a different place on the hype cycle. A handful of titles examine the allure of the north and the UK’s relation to it, going so far as to ask: Is the UK really in Scandinavia, with an ancient geographic link via Doggerland (article)?

The Nordicist image of Scandinavia/Denmark (they tend to blur together) is a weird combo of Nordic noir (why the long face) and hygge (why so happy) – both through a distorted lens. Resorting to linkage:

For me the happiness thing comes down to glass half full vs glass half empty countries. Being ironically negative is part of the British DNA, one reason why the Danish gritted teeth style of happiness may grate on some. On the other side of the coin we have Bulgaria, 134th out of 158 countries in the 2015 World Happiness Report. Risa Buzatova explores Bulgaria’s consistently poor scoring: while happiness, or perhaps contentment, can be found in countries rich (Denmark) and poor (Bhutan), “Bulgarians cultivate pessimism with an almost peculiar sense of care and national pride”. (Update: the 2017 World Happiness Report has Denmark slip below Norway at 2nd, with Bulgaria up a tad at 105th, the sixth highest rise.)

Finally, The Conversation debunks hygge by invoking Vikingery. It seems the allure of the Scandinavian dream will be around for a while yet.

And just to clear things up…

  • purists define the Scandinavian countries as Denmark, Norway and Sweden, perhaps with the addition of Iceland and the Faroes, both of which were under Norwegian and then Danish rule for centuries
  • include Finland at your peril, although it was under Swedish rule until 1809 – now you are talking about the Nordics
  • Orkney and Shetland were under Norwegian rule until 1472 and hence have Scandinavian heritage – they form a nice contrast with the Faroes, originally settled by Celts
  • Nordicism is not a purely UK phenomenon – it has certainly reached Belgium, and my US based cousin is currently experiencing the arrival of hygge on the other side of the Atlantic

Updates: came across a 2012 piece, which basically says look how European we areImmigration to Denmark is nothing new – just ask the Vikings…Knut Skjærven, a Norwegian photographer living in Copenhagen for many years, asked in a kronik in Berlingske (2 March): Hvordan undgår jeg at blive dansk? (how do I avoid becoming Danish; via Infomedia) – a slightly misleading title, however the piece underlines some of the differences between the two countries outlined above:

I Danmark tænker man horisontalt over flade marker. I Norge tænker man vertikalt op og ned ad bjerge. Neuronerne er koblet forskelligt. Og det er ganske vist.

Here’s Times Resonant on the range of ‘loci’ where identity between cultures can be expressed:

…language (a Norwegian novel), the physical body (performance art), the natural world (imagined Swedish pines), and the built environment (that bridge in that crime series). Stepping back from that, there follows the fact that what ‘outsiders’ might refer to collectively as ‘Scandinavia’ is actually bound together by perceived differences in identity as well as commonalities.

And AHRC/R3 New Gen Thinker Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough, who fronted R3’s True Norse in 2016 (which I remember as being poor on Denmark), has a book out, Beyond the northlands: Viking voyages and the Old Norse sagas, which might spread some more light on things.

All in all, I’m looking forward to the Vikings episode of DR’s Historien om Danmark (temasite & book | reviews & viewing figures | Historier om Danmark | Giv det videre). Will it be a Jorvik style presentation?

Landmarks: the modern house in Denmark

Picked up on this coffee table book by Michael Sheridan somewhere or other. The library duly obliged.

Sheridan’s landmarks are 14 ‘single-family houses’ from the 1950s and early 1960s, “cultural landmarks designed to become part of the natural setting with an intimate relationship to the landscape”, dubbed humanistic modernism:

Simple and unpretentious forms, the celebration of craft and organic materials, a profound attention to human comfort…at once rational and romantic, sober and sensual, elegant and economical, deeply humane.

The houses, and the book, are indeed lovely things, if set to be filed under ‘Exclusive’.

Sheridan opens proceedings with an extended essay on the development of the detached house during the 20th century. As we have seen, unlike in Germany most architects in Denmark rejected “the industrial aesthetic and clean break with tradition” of 1920s modernism, remaining focused on neoclassicism. The origins of Danish functionalism can instead be found in the 1930 Stockholm Exhibition, with Erik Gunnar Asplund as chief architect. Asplund’s vision was of “a warm, sensuous modernism grounded in the experience of the individual” and a Romantic view of nature.

The Danish translation of this ‘humanistic’ version of modernism idealised the garden rather than the factory and was based on a vernacular ideal. Said Kay Fisker (perhaps “the most influential Danish architect of the 20th century”):

We strive after an architecture that serves people, which conforms to nature and isn’t intrusive, on the contrary; it tries to be anonymous.

This explains a lot about Danish architecture, if not Denmark itself, right up to the present day.

Anyway, after 1932 the yellow brick box with asymmetrical windows and a gently pitched roof became the model for the detached house in Denmark, based on Fisker et al’s design for Aarhus University.

‘Funkis’ developed further after WW2 with the adoption of ideas about space and structure from the US and Japan. During the 1950s houses were frequently financed by state loans, restricting the floor area to 130m and limiting construction costs. Hence bedrooms were small and corridors largely eliminated, replaced by a communal living area oriented towards the garden.

In place of the brick box with windows these houses were conceived as a set of independent elements. Load-bearing walls were constructed from brick and timber, with open frames connected by large areas of insulated glass. Structural elements were often left exposed, with ceilings, interior walls and floors covered with untreated wood, stone tiles or natural fibres.

The end of the 1950s saw the closure of the state loan scheme, and the Danish housebuilding industry began to embrace standardisation and prefabrication in the shape of the typehus. Buyers could select their new home from a catalogue or a group of model houses, often erected as part of a competition or exhibition. Two architects, Henrik Iversen and Harald Plum (nephew of maverick WW1 profiteer Harald Plum), developed a series of 12 IP Typehuse of assorted sizes. Hundreds of IP houses were constructed up to 1985, with Iversen and Plum working with local builders to ensure quality.

The early promise of the typehus was however quickly overwhelmed by economic factors, with uniformity replacing innovation. More than 450K typehuse were constructed around Denmark over the course of 20 years, built at the rate of 50 per day, typically in clusters of around 20, and transforming both the landscape and society. These houses were long, rectangular boxes resting on a concrete slab, with prefabricated wooden roof trusses. Brickwork was reduced to a set of freestanding walls that sometimes extended beyond the interior, with gaps filled by windows.

So much for the diversion into mass housing. Sheridan presents 14 ‘landmark’ houses from the period in loving detail. Most are still private homes, with a handful saved for the nation by Realdania (English), who then let them out, in what always seems to me a bit of a weird move.

The earliest house presented is Jørn Utzon’s house (1952; Arkark) in Hellebæk just north of Helsingør. It was Utzon’s first completed work, and remained his base for the rest of his life. Also by Utzon is the House on Stilts (1953; Arkark) built for interior designer Svend Middelboe, raised one storey to make the most of the lakeside views.

Jørn Utzon’s house (1952)

Some architects employed creative solutions to get round the size restrictions imposed by the state loan scheme. Eva & Nils Koppels’ house (1952; Arkark) for the appropriately named heating engineer Jørgen Varming in Gentofte had a double height living area, while Karen & Ebbe Clemmensens’ house (1954; Arkark) in Jægersborg (“near a heritage-listed bog”, says Realdania) added a studio to the living area.

Sheridan includes two houses by Erik Christian Sørensen, who later embraced Brutalism and was responsible for not least the 1969 Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, now, alas, in need of renovation. His own house in Jægersborg (1955, Arkark) featuring load-bearing outer walls offering flexibility, a gently (30 degree) pitched roof covered with felt, and, unusually for Denmark, no cellar, was much copied by typehus builders, while the house he built for for Mee Tholstrup (1955; Arkark) on the hyper-desirable Rungsted Kyst sold in late 2014 for DK 6 million.

But the most fabulous house in the selection for me is Knud Friis’ house (1958, extended in 1970; Arkark) in Brabrand on the edge of Aarhus, dubbed “early ‘mild’ Brutalism” – no doubt the neighbours dubbed it The Bunker – run a close second by Arne Jacobsen’s house for Erik Siesby (1959; Arkark) in Sorgenfri. On the other hand Halldor Gunnløgsson’s house (1959; Arkark) on Rungsted Strandvej tips over into oh-so-sterile Scandi.

Knud Friis' house

Knud Friis’ house (1958)

I’m also less moved than many by Bo & Wohlert’s Louisiana, it’s just too staged, and the same can be said for the house they built for Arne Bøgh Andersen, aka the Ambassador’s House (1961; Arkark), also on Rungsted Strandvej, a modified version of Ønskehuset from a 1959 exhibition. Wohlert is also represented by an extension built for no other than physicist Niels Bohr’s summer house (1957) in Tisvilde, taking timber to its limits.

Better is the Bendix-Harboe house (1959; Arkark) in Charlottenlund, built by Knud Peter Harboe (1959). Knud gets a post in Graham McKay’s Misfits series, well worth a look, with pics also of some of the other ‘landmark’ houses.

Sheridan’s oversized baker’s dozen is rounded out by:

  • Poul & Hanne Kjærholm’s house (1962) on Rungsted Kyst; Hanne (1930-2009) was a woman architect of note, married to furniture designer Poul, with whom she designed picnic areas with concrete tables and toilets, now those I’d like to see
  • Inger & Johannes Exner’s house (1961; Arkark) in Skodsborg, the only one we have bagged so far, defying the passive-aggressive stares of the tenant to take a couple of snaps (there’s a Bronze Age burial mound in the garden, supposedly the site of trysts between Caroline Mathilde and Struensee, but where wasn’t?)

All bar one of the 14 houses are situated north of Copenhagen, in the so-called Whisky Belt, a favoured area for architects rather like Peredelkino for writers near Moscow. While it’s fun reading up on the architects and building a picture of the connections, there’s also mileage in keeping an eye open for less illustrious versions locally – as it happens our house was modelled on a competition house of the period and exhibits several now familiar features, such as a closed frontage with large windows opening onto an extensive garden, and a flexible interior, evidenced by the marks where internal walls have been put up and taken down. A fair few modernist inspired gems have been found on our daily walks as well.

modernist inspired house at Birke Allé 19, Hvidovre (1964)

Birke Allé 19, Hvidovre (1964)

Landmarks is also available på dansk as Mesterværker, published by Strandberg in 2011, with an accompanying TV series.

Bauhaus in Denmark: it’s funkis

Update: out and about in Næstved at the weekend we came across an unexpected funkis cluster, documented in Huse i Næstved. This included Farimagsvej 10, which I was unable to photograph but would look quite at home in Gdynia, and the spectacular Staalgaarden from 1934 – it’s out there! See Farver i funktionalismen (2008) for more about funkis in Denmark.

I am an all round Bauhaus freak. Imagine my distress when Nan Dahlkild stated on the Valby Bedre Byggeskik walk that there was no Bauhaus in Denmark – not a surprise, but worthy of further exploration.

While there are links between Bauhaus and contemporary movements in Denmark, the latter tended – and tend – to take a less utopian and internationalist approach, being rather more design led.

Vi lader os ikke imponere af Størrelse, Tempo, det grandiose, det gigantiske.

(Trans: “We will not allow ourselves to be impressed by size, pace, the grandiose, the gigantic.”)

Between 1926-28 the journal Kritisk Revy, edited by Poul Henningsen (of PH lamp fame but also a formidable cultural commentator) published a series of articles critical of the Bauhaus, Le Corbusier and De Stijl in the Netherlands, accusing them of formalism and the lack of a human (or even practical) dimension. The 1928 visit to Copenhagen of Hannes Meyer, shortly to succeed Walter Gropius as leader of the Bauhaus, and publication of his manifesto in Danish gave rise to an article in Arkitekten likening Gropius’ house in Dessau to a dentist’s waiting room.

There were some exchanges on the ground though. Edvard Heiberg, who had previously worked under Le Corbusier, taught at the Bauhaus for three months in 1930, lending his expertise to designs for housing in Tørten and the furniture for the Trade Union School in Bernau. He lived in one of the masters’ houses, which he described as “badly insulated and undemocratic in form”. Resigning shortly after Meyer was deposed, he wrote a feature article in Politiken on 6 December 1930 about his Bauhaus experiences.

Painter Vilhelm Bjerke Petersen was a student at the Bauhaus from autumn 1930 to spring 1931, where he was taught by Klee and Kandinsky. This influenced his graphical style in particular. Petersen later adopted surrealism.

Links between the Bauhaus and Denmark can also be seen in furniture design, in particular the stress on good craftsmanship. In 1942 the Danish Cooperative Movement (FDM) created a popular range of wooden furniture which continued in production until 1983. In contrast to the architecture of the period, the furniture has made a popular return, going back into production in 2013.

It’s funkis

So what was different about modernist architecture in Denmark in the inter-war period? Generally known as funktionalisme or funkis for short, two main styles can be identified.

Buildings more akin to those found outside Denmark, often in white cubist style with flat roofs, experimenting with concrete and other new materials, such as Arne Jacobsen’s white factory at Nordre Fasanvej 215 from 1935 (international functionalism):

Frederiksberg - Novo Nordisk (1935)

Buildings incorporating Danish traditions and materials, making use of brick and tiled roofs, such as Virum Torv (1937; national functionalism, rather more widespread):

Virum Torv 2/Frederiksdalsvej 70 (1937)

The design for Aarhus University, with its staggered blocks following the undulating terrain, is a prime example of the connections and divergences between the Bauhaus and Denmark. The design follows the Bernau Trade Union School layout in a freer form, making use of the Danish vernacular such as yellow bricks and curved roof tiles.

While the first funkis house in Denmark was built as early as 1924 (by Heiberg for himself and his family), it was the 1930 Stockholm Exhibition which really kickstarted things. New housing complexes such as Arne Jacobsen’s iconic Bellavista (1934-37) and numerous smaller projects, based around the idea that housing should suit the residents’ needs rather than be based around old tropes such as spisestue, salon og herreværelse, were built during the 1930s and early 1940s.

Rather than traditional karréer (blocks around an internal courtyard) the new housing was built in parallel blocks, offering better ventilation. The keywords were lys og luft (air and light), with bigger windows to let in more light and balconies facing the evening sun. These features are just one of those which make funkis buildings out of step with today’s Denmark – the energy required to heat these less well insulated houses is just too expensive.

Modernism and Danish scale

The funkis buildings of the 1930s are also out of step on a more abstract level. A booklet produced for the 2008 Golden Days festival has portraits of 20 buildings from the period. It’s a little book with a big agenda (and, once again, no map). The language frequently feels negative and subjective, utilising words such as “naked”, sober”, “factory like”. At the foot of each entry is a carefully chosen contemporary quote:

Vi forstaar, at Tyskerne nu har den fastest muligt indstilling til Arkitekturproblemet imod de sidste Tiders eksperimentelle og sentimentale Funtionalisme…men ikke har Evne til at skabe det varige og det ophøjet skønne. (Vilhelm Wanscher, art critic and author, on Arne Jacobsen’s Bellavista)

Der er noget troldsk over sceneriet. Ungerne sidder nogne og brune – som en samling grillstegte hanekyllinger – omkring de hvislende flammer. Det er det skinbarligste og pudsigste djævelsskab, man pludselig er dumpet ind i. (Erik la Cour Halved, journalist, on Kaj Gottlob’s Skolen ved Sundet)

For me modernist buildings, not least the Bauhaus, are Mozartian in their perfection, everything exactly as it should be, catching your interest and admiration in their simplicity. But in Danish discourse they are cold and clinical, ‘ungenerous’ and lacking ‘human scale’, features extolled ad nauseam in the architectural press, where smallness is lauded as a key quality.

Happily though on the ground it’s a different story. We often go funkis spotting – below is my current favourite, Ole Falkentorp’s exquisite Hotel Astoria from 1935, just outside the central station:

CPH - Hotel Astoria (1935)

Sources: ‘Bauhaus og Danmark: fra eksperimenterende håndværk til industrielt design’ (in Architectura 2006:28:23-52) | Edvard Heibergs eget hus | Den store bog om Brugsens møbler og historien om Det Gode Liv | FDB-stolen: Folkets klassiske møbler genoplives | Ideernes Kobenhavn: en guide til mellemkrigstidens byggeri (Golden Days 2008) | Rasmus Friis: Rentemestervej 14

Update: VINK on the Astoria

One Danish tree: Klopstock’s Oak

For once a positive tale about trees in Denmark! On Sunday we visited Klopstocks Eg, a reputedly 850 year old oak on Prinsessestien in Lyngby, not far from Sorgenfri Station off Hummeltoftevej at Åmosebakken, or thereabouts – you can’t miss it!

Known to all Germanists, Frederich Gottlieb Klopstock (1724-1803) lived in Denmark from 1751-70 on the invitation of Frederik V, residing in Lyngby in the early 1750s. Like all good Romantics he liked a walk, and the area inspired not least his poem Die Frülingsfeier. Klopstock’s brother also lived in Lyngby, owning a silk factory.

Prinsessestien (the Princess’ Path), which first appeared on a map in around 1800, was probably created for the use of Princess Sophie Hedevig, brother of Frederik IV, who gave her a mansion at each end of the path (Sorgenfri and Frederiksdal) in 1716. In 1743 his successor Christian VI passed Frederiksdal on to his advisor, Johan Sigismund Schulin.

The wife of one of Schulin’s descendants, another Sophie Hedevig, owned Frederiksdal Slot from 1781-1807. She built a well, Louisekilden, close to the path, for the 50th birthday of her sister, Louise Warnstedt, in 1791.

The oak was protected in 1958 and is in reasonable condition, although a large bough fell off in 2013 and is lying to the side. Every July members of Det Danske Klopstockselskab (the Danish Klopstock Society) meet at the oak for a reading.

Denmark’s most famous oaks are probably those planted by Christian V in the countryside north of Copenhagen in 1669 (see Fodnoter) – around 1800 remain, including Kongeeg (The King’s Oak), reputedly 1500 years old and the oldest tree in Denmark, and part of a group of three with Storkeegen (a stump after the storm of 1981) and Snoegen. Christian V’s personal oak stands at the crossroads between Ndr Eremitagevej and Chausseen, and is so named because it was under this tree that he was kicked on the left foot by a stag on the Hubertus Day hunt in 1698, which contributed to his death a year later, or so the story goes.

The oak has been a symbol of Danishness since the 19th century. In 1915 many valgretseger were planted to mark women’s suffrage – Dendron.dk lists nine, with Kvindeegen in Viby one of the last surviving.

All this inspired Jens Blenstrup and Ole Lejbach to investigate in a four year project, Ege-ekspeditioner (oak expeditions; Facebook). The resulting text and images are on display in three galleries around Denmark.

More på dansk…Klopstock: Den glemte digter i egetræets skygge | Klopstock – en sporty digter…Ege-ekspeditioner in Magasinet Kunst | Nordea Fonden.

Leaving Denmark

We’ve just spent 10 days in northern Italy, taking one of the last City Night Line trains out of Copenhagen and travelling via Munich to Venice, Trieste and Udine, with a sidestep to Slovenia.

We boarded in Copenhagen at 18:46, arriving in Venice Mestre at 17:58 the next day. Sadly Deutsche Bahn is winding down the City Night Line service, and despite the best efforts of Save the Copenhagen Night Train and a petition 13 December will mark the end of night trains out of Copenhagen.

Aurora

boarding the 18:46 from Copenhagen to Basel

On Hogmanay we took the Aurora the whole way to Basel, treating ourselves to a two berth sleeper. This time sleeper berths were not available – either sold out or simply phased out early, like the dining car – but as we were only travelling as far as Mannheim this was OK. We were joined in Odense by a couple, visiting a friend living in Munich. For them the night train barely took longer than travelling to Copenhagen airport, going through the bus in the air hassle and then travelling into Munich from its airport.

On the return journey we took a sleeper from Udine to Munich, leaving at 22:47 and arriving in Munich at 6 the next morning. The train merged with several other night trains at Tarvisio Boscoverde and split again in Salzburg, with the majority of coaches bound for Vienna, arriving at 08:40. In Munich we hopped on a train doing the six hour slog up to Hamburg, and then onto the toy train which goes onto a ferry at Puttgarden, always a delight, resurfacing at Rødby to chug up to Copenhagen, where we arrived at 18:14.

This journey is slightly shorter than the Flensburg route, and will become a tad shorter again when the Fehmarnbelt tunnel opens (due in 2021). Scant recompense though for the increasingly limited non-plane options. (The Esbjerg to Harwich ferry has recently sailed its last voyage.)

Note: slow travel? Maybe it’s not just transport choices which need a rethink. See also Ian Jack on the Caledonian Sleeper, and Empty Pipes’ CPH map with travel times to any point in Europe by train.

Høstfest! Harvest time in Denmark

foto

on guard

Time for some more foraging, aka going into your garden and picking stuff. We’re over-run with apples, although the beags do their best, endlessly playing in the evening sun with windfalls, and there are herbs to freeze or dry – rosemary and thyme are supposedly perennial, but not in our garden they ain’t. The rhubarb has survived being moved twice this summer, hopefully we’ve finally found its perfect spot, the gooseberries were as disappointing as usual and the raspberries should have been pruned earlier. Our grønkål/kale is coming along OK, despite the best efforts of slugs and snails. Can you tell I’m not much of a gardener? Partner is lined up to divide and conquer our løvstikke/lovage and kvan/angelica, so they can come into their own next year, and in the case of the latter, hopefully flower in a dramatic fashion.

Other things we can avail ourselves of:

  • damsons/kræge – or probably not, although maybe could substitute mirabeller, more prevalent here – Delia’s chutney | Telegraph
  • hasselnødder/hazelnuts – preferably cobnuts, sighted last year on Roskilde Torv
  • havtorn/sea buckthorn – good with apples in compote; chutney, infused as a tea
  • hyldebær/elderberries – soup with potato starch? ellers tak
  • kvæde/quince – after the first frosts
  • rosehips/hyben – infused as a tea; chutney
  • røn/rowan – aka mountain ash; apparently it is a tradition in both Scotland and Denmark to have a rowan tree by the front door to ward off witches and evil spirits, and we have one handily placed; jelly seems to be a thing, also wine; TBH thought the berries were poisonous
  • sandtorn/tjørn/hawthorn – jam?
  • slåen/sloes – Daily Mail | BBC | Gdn gin

A Facebook friend, who is doing the full Hugh FW, has been mushrooming and after several attempts located some kantereller/chanterelles, but I think we’ll have to stick to Irma for those. Theirs come from Belarus, how exciting is that.

But what to do with all this stuff? The answer tends to be jam, involving massive amounts of sugar, or snaps. Planning to use some rowan berries in the last of our Faroese snaps, plus some sloe gin, which I have mixed memories of as a student.

Latest entry from backlash corner: from Jay Rayner’s Just because you can go foraging doesn’t mean you should:

5,000 years of agriculture and now we’re all foraging. I bet the Mesopotamians wonder why they bothered…the biggest argument against it is the lacklustre and uninspiring food that so often results from all that clomping about down in the woods.

As someone yet to empty their one jar of kryddesalt I can only agree, but the Danes seem well up for it, in particular as part of an event.

Last week a Høst-havemarked (harvest and garden festival; coverage) in nextdoor suburb Rødovre closed Vestegnens Kulturuge (also part of Golden Days). The garden of the Heerup Museum, which incidentally offers the least value for money of any museum I’ve ever been to, was transformed with mini-gardens, an apple press was on duty, honey from some local urban bees was on sale, you could roast your own coffee, grind your own flour, drink local wine…the gullaschkanon (field kitchen) got an outing, there was a WW1 exhibition including a row of tents, 200 flea market stalls and local radio supplying the sounds. Festivities continued with music from established names and local acts until midnight, moving to Damhuskroen until 5 in the morning. Blimey. Just a shame about the weather.

Sunday was Naturens Dag, with Byhøst doing an autumn forage in Valbyparken. Also involved was haymaking with scythes from Vild Med Vilje – read their report from the Vild Festival in August, when it also rained, and lots of stuff for children. Elsewhere there was some sort of fishing cum picnic thing at Sct Jørgens Sø, which is nice, as I’ve been pondering for a while why more doesn’t go on at the Lakes. Next Sunday sees a picnic at Tippen, with grapepicking at our local vinyard pencilled in for 11-12 October.

Meanwhile, the Eat your city conference (Facebook) promoted urban farming, particularly as a social movement, looking very serious minded, but it did culminate in KBHs Høstfest (Facebook | review), a harvest festival with a 2500 seater 800m longboard down Sønder Boulevard – it was hipster heaven. All part of the Sharing Copenhagen effort.

For a more realistic view of the eating habits of the average Dane see Michael Booth in The Local, or visit any ‘budget’ supermarket.

A final check-in with the local trees me and the beags have been monitoring (February | June):

2014-09-23 11.44.17

one lousy branch – better luck next year?

Update, May 2015: sad to relate, the three trees above have now been felled.

Foraging in Valby Park

2015 update: it’s coming round again, quite possibly redoubled. See fex Spis Amager Fælled, and from the US, Salad from the sidewalk, which has lovely pix in the faux traditional style. And ditto for 2016 – see the rather bucolic Galloway Wild Foods, with a big foraging events programme.

Following on from my November diary post the arrival of warmer days means it’s time for some real life foraging. As in the UK collecting local food is a la mode among the Danish chattering classes, chiming in with the Nordic food vibe, silly prices and all. More down to earth efforts include Byhøst (gloss: City Harvest), who crowdsource ingredients and offer simple recipes. On 25 May a free sanketur (foraging walk) was on offer in nearby Valby Park, organised by the local community council and led by Julie Swane.

Valbyparken (guide), dating from 1939, is Copenhagen’s biggest park (64.2 hectares). The area was used as a dump until 1937, but now boasts northern Europe’s biggest rose garden and Café Rosenhaven (1965), a naturlegeplads (natural playground), 17 themed gardens (established during CPH’s turn as European Capital of Culture in 1996) and three haveforeninger (allotment associations). A number of festivals, most recently a medieaval market, and open air concerts are held in the park during the summer, and plans are afoot for horrors! an urban beach at the mouth of Harrestrup Å. Given the park’s varied topography, from wilderness areas to cultivated lawns, hedges and bushes to windswept coastlines, it’s one of the best places within the city limits for foraging.

What we gathered (see photos from a previous Byhøst sanketur):

  • humle  – humulus lupulus – wild hop (twisty turny shoot around another plant)
  • granskud – fir tree shoots (really)
  • røllike – achillea millefolium – yarrow (Steen of Vorherres Køkkenhave used the flowers for snaps; the most common weed in Denmark)
  • fuglegræs – stellaria media – chickweed (Steen sautes in butter)
  • strandkarse – lepidium latifolium – pepperwort (very strong, reminiscent of horseradish)
  • løgkarse – alliaria petiolata – garlic mustard/Jack by the Hedge (Steen: a gift)
  • strandmælde – atriplex littoralis – grassleaf orache??
  • hvidtjørn – crataegus laevigata – hawthorn (Steen: use flowers in tea or wine)
  • kvan – angelica archangelica – angelica
  • spansk kørvel – myrrhis odorata – cicely (not to be confused with hundepersille or skarntyde)

I’m a bit of a halfhearted forager – the price and quality of herbs, fruit and vegetables in Denmark give the concept some appeal, but I tend to think there’s a reason why these plants haven’t been taken up by commercial retailers – yes you can eat the things, but why would you want to? The Danish answer to Alan Titchmarsh, Søren Ryge Petersen, is also more than a little sceptical. In his review of Claus Meyer’s Naturalmanak (DK 249/£30, 312 pages), Søren says he has never been tempted to forage, not least because his kitchen garden offers more than enough provender. For him it’s all a bit Emperor’s New Clothes – it may be politically correct to eat local, but it takes time, both to gather enough to eat and to prepare something worth eating. He suggests there’s a reason why we started growing our own food rather than gathering it.

The Guardian’s beginner’s guide to summer foraging also attracted some barbed comments, such as “Surely this is more like ‘going into your garden and picking stuff’ than foraging?” The trend attracts a particular vintage style, illustrated in the admittedly rather lovely free Byhøst leaflet with pictures from Flora Danica. Of use in decoding Danish names was my Observer’s book of wild flowers 1963 edition (first printed 1937), inscribed ‘Gatehouse of Fleet 1964’ in my mother’s dashing hand on the flyleaf, with a six year old’s signature from my brother beneath. Which for some reason brings me in mind of butterscotch Instant Whip and frozen Steaklets. When’s all that coming back?

Back in the garden, having spent the previous day digging up copious amounts of Jack by the Hedge I subsequently went a bit overboard looking for its garlicky mustardness, which however seemed a bit lacking. I also made some herb salt as an alternative salad dressing and have just strained a batch of fancy elderflower cordial. The Byhøst boys had jars of Arken pesto, named after the modern art gallery at Ishøj beach, for sale – tasty (and pricey) enough, given the benefit of a large number of additional non-foraged ingredients.

See more photos from the afternoon on Facebook, plus a dish made by one of the participants.

A further tour in September will look at the berries and fruit in the park. In the meantime, the new Byhøst app retails at DK 70 (£8), which feels on the pricey side, so we’ll stick to the map. An issue with this sort of crowdsourced data is that it needs periodical cleaning out to be useful.

In Denmark you can gather anything growing in a public space – just don’t break branches, dig up roots or take the last bits (ensures something there for the next person and for next year). A lot of people worry about pollution, however we were assured that not much is taken up through the roots, and air pollution can be washed off  – use your common sense, and remember the Jyske Lov (1241):

Collect only as much as you can carry in your hat

Some books and blogs:

Update: a feature in Politiken on 21 June highlighted Trondheim resident Stephen Barstow’s Around the world in 80 plants (co-author: The thrifty forager), who has written on eating such delights as Caucasian spinach (spinatranke), hostas and xtreme salads. Danish enthusiasts include Søren Holt on Amager, who blogs at In the toad’s garden (dansk) and Naturplanteskolen in Hedehusene, who sell seeds for edibles, including dandelions. What a business concept!

Coming along on 29 June we had Claus Meyer with a riposte to Søren Ryge, foraging in our very own manor at Hvidovre Havn, where he found strandasters, strandmælde, spydmælde, røllike, vild kørvel, kvan, vild pastinak and forvildet peberrod (horseradish). We’ll have a look for the last next week.

His argument came down to “it’s free so you might as well”, which is a bit weak.