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Denmark: Finding Peace And Fine Food On Fanø

Denmark: Finding Peace And Fine Food On Fanø
Martin Guttridge Hewitt: Wild food in the real wilds. Suddenly city chic and urban hipsters don’t feel quite as attractive anymore.
 
With New Nordic’s continued dominance of the international food scene, anyone who appreciates even remotely innovative grub will always relish a trip to Denmark. Yet very few venture beyond Copenhagen’s hip districts and restaurants of global repute.
 
That’s a huge shame from where I’m standing, gazing out on the bleak beauty Fanø, one of the country’s Wadden Sea islands, located just off the west coast. Roughly three hours drive from the capital by car, followed by a short ferry ride from the industrial port of Esbjerg, the views couldn’t be more striking. The sublimely stark landscape of this tiny dot in the water calls to mind Northumberland’s most remote regions, mixed with a thatched roof architectural aesthetic in keeping with the Cotswalds.
 
A kind of Land That Time (Almost) Forgot, my base is the remarkably well-preserved settlement of Sønderho. More hamlet than village, it’s not hard to see why this is considered Denmark’s prettiest spot. The narrow, winding lanes are punctuated by long, traditional barn-style homes, many of which are only too proud to proclaim the years in which they were built, with the vast majority erected during the 17 and 1800s.
 
In many ways it’s amazing they have survived so long. The wide sandy beaches that prevent Fanø spilling into the surrounding water offer little protection from encroaching waves. This is the epitome of flatland, and I’m warned (or rather strictly instructed) not to walk onto the grassy banks for fear my feet will kick erosion into overdrive. Unsure whether to take this as a sign my battle against a bulging waistline is failing, paranoia and self-doubt
Denmark: Finding Peace And Fine Food On Fanø
aside it’s indicative of how vulnerable to the ferocity of Mother Nature this corner of Scandinavia is.
 
Yet few residents would consider leaving, for good reason. Checking into the charming inn, Sønderho Kro, it takes very little time for the trials and tribulations of modernity to vanish from mind. Seconds later, I’ve pretty much forgotten things like cities, traffic and noise even exit.
 
The beautifully decorated rooms- each named after a woman one has to imagine is calm, caring and drop dead gorgeous- define the perfect romantic getaway, and my small cottage window offers uninterrupted views across a reed bed and out to the sea itself. A luxurious homeliness matched by the food I’m given that evening. Exquisitely presented, if there’s a theme running through the dishes then it must be a celebration of local produce- an honest pride in the fact Fanø is renowned for quality ingredients.
 
Unsurprisingly, given where I am, fish and seafood are seemingly omnipresent.
 
It’s the first time carpaccio of scallops has been sent my way, and hopefully it won’t be the last. Delicate to the point of melting in the mouth, when combined with a light drizzle of Norway lobster sauce the overall flavour is far stronger than the small portion suggested. Aided in no small part by an excellent 2011 Seresen Reserve Chardonnay, a deceptively complex piquant that develops long after you quaff, that the starter beats the other four courses is no disappointment, such is the quality on my plate.
 
That judgement doesn’t come easily, mind. The Wadden Sea lamb chops, sourced from around 10KM away, are exceptionally tender and cooked to perfection, meanwhile Danish cheese from the Vala creek, sat on a bed of seaweed, is something to behold (as is the accompanying sweet Languedoc, providing a fine contrast to the salty marine greens).
A truly impressive meal, served in an ornate, atmospheric, low-ceilinged dining room, despite this being late-spring there’s a howling wind outside that adds to the feeling of cosiness, invoking images of travellers from centuries ago seeking a bed for the night and a full stomach after mooring their boats at one of the small marinas nearby.
 
A Romantic dream perhaps, not everything about Fanø is quite so fairy tale in nature. The island also has a small but highly respected business-to-business food scene, and the most famous of these little enterprises is the Fanø Laks smokehouse. A far cry from last night’s delicate table settings and epicurean artistry, it reveals the working side to gastronomic life on the island, with the smell of fresh fish hanging heavy in the air, floors slick after wash down, and chilled corridors of smokers blackened from years of hard graft.
 
The most celebrated of the finished products is the smoked salmon, which is sent from here directly to some of the finest dining spots in the country and beyond, including Noma. I’m lucky enough to try some straight from Henning Rasmussen’s own hands, the ageing smoke master who has spent the last few decades working towards perfecting his craft, finally setting up this operation circa 2008, and shortly thereafter beginning to win a host of global food prizes for taste and texture.
 
He can’t speak English, other than a simple hello, but there can be no doubt as to the secret ingredient. In contrast to most rivals in the world, each stage of the job here is done by hand, right down to horizontal slicing, which ensures no discoloured meat makes it into any pack. I consider the average U.K. supermarket equivalent, the browning edges and mushy consistency, then take a bite of what could be the planet’s finest; a creamy variety that’s less salty and overpowering in flavour, but instead rich and incredibly addictive. You could eat it all day. And night. Such is my intention, but, alas, after the umpteenth mouthful I’m finally ushered out.
 
A short drive from here and the aptly named Fanø Bryghus (brewery) is another local gem. After getting off to a shaky start (the original pilsner was, apparently, atrocious) this is now a home of fine beers that can compete on an international level. 80% of the lines on offer are conceived in-house, with some of Denmark’s prized craft brands also using the facility and its knowledgable staff to produce their drinks- including both Mikkeller and Evil Twin, with a range also created for Noma.
 
Thankfully the business, based in a former power station, is also open to the public, and has its own small but inviting bar area, surrounded by vats of hops mid-fermentation, with walls full of scrawled messages left by past visitors- ranging from the poignant to illegible (the latter presumably being written after a few too many bottles of the Julebryg porter, which clocks in at a muscular 7.5%).
 
And Fanø isn’t the only place in the Wadden Sea that takes matters of the stomach seriously. The island of Mandø is even more precarious in terms of position; its shoreline sitting just inches above sea level. Only accessible via a road that disappears in high tide, the more eagle-eyed will spot this coastal lane is covered in wild samphire. Meanwhile, the longest Pacific oyster in the world was found nearby during an oyster walk, run by the Wadden Sea Centre, wherein tourists can book themselves on a wade into the water to collect their own molluscs, take them away and devour.
The list could go on, and would have to include a particularly special evening I enjoyed dining in a wooden fishing hut in the town of Nymindegab. Chefs Henrik Houborg Christensen and Preben Madsen of Naturkøkkenet have developed a huge following by cooking the finest fresh produce on open fires in the great outdoors, and after sampling their razor clams, mussels, and beef fillets in this most rural of settings that recognition is understandable. Wild food in the real wilds, suddenly city chic and urban hipsters don’t feel quite as attractive anymore.
 
Martin travelled with the Food Organisation of Denmark and Destination South West Denmark,Vigerslev Allé 18, 2500 Valby, Denmark
www.thefoodproject.dk
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27 July 2015
By: Martin Guttridge-Hewitt
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