Great Danes: Copenhagen’s Gastronomic Renaissance
It’s completely understandable that Denmark has long held a fascination for so many gay people. After all, it was Denmark that gave us modern home design. (Where would "Mad Men" be without Danish contemporary furniture? And, really, could any of us endure our apartments furnished in American colonial?)
Furthermore, Denmark was the first country in the world to legalize civil unions in 1989 - as well as the country where the first widely-known "sex change" was performed in 1952. For gay people of a certain age, transsexual Christine Jorgensen made Denmark look like a bastion of openness and tolerance during a time when the US was pursuing a witch-hunt on gay people in American society. And Denmark was also the first country in the world to legalize pornography - in 1969. And, by the spring of 2012, Denmark is expected to legalize same-sex marriage.
And where would ballet be without the Danes? Much of the reputation of American ballet companies - and specifically the New York City Ballet - rests on the shoulders of those tall and elegant Danish ballet dancers.
And Hans Christian Andersen, Danish fairy tale writer? If he wasn’t completely gay (most authorities suggest "bisexual), then he certainly understood a gay sensibility. For what is "The Ugly Duckling" but the fervent hope of every gay man? "Make me a swan!"
As if we need any more evidence, Denmark is also home to the oldest monarchy in Europe. Hello, Queens and Princesses?
Yes, Denmark has, for years, existed as a kind of idyllic world for gay people. (And we haven’t even mentioned that precursor to Disneyland, Tivoli Gardens - or Karen Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen, author of "Out of Africa" and "Babette’s Feast") whose many works, written under a male pseudonym, celebrate homosexuality.)
While, admittedly, we’re trading in LGBT stereotypes here, we’re also talking about the pursuit of art and beauty - and the art of living well, all of which are primary components of Denmark and its people. There is a Danish word that nicely encapsulates many attributes of Danish culture, a word that almost defies translation. That word is "hygge" and you see it in store windows and on signage and you sometimes see it modified with adjectives, so that during the holiday season you might see "Jule Hygge" or "Dessert + Hygge."
When asked for a translation, the word "bliss" is sometimes offered with a shrug of the shoulders. "Bliss" is not precise, nor is "hospitality" - but "hygge" exists somewhere in the intersection of those two concepts - and a recent trip to Copenhagen confirmed that Denmark’s capital is positively "hygge."
Copenhagen regularly appears on the indices of the world’s most livable cities, which is certainly connected to the fact that nine in ten Danish adults own - and ride - a bicycle. Imagine the difference between a car horn and a bicycle horn, and the difference in air quality - and the absence of traffic noise, as well as a population of well-toned people with beautiful hamstrings, thighs - and glutes. (And the word for that is "callipygous." Look it up, for real.)
All over the city, bicycles rule - and everyone adheres to the bike lane rules (woe to the poor dazed tourist who steps into the path of a fleet of bikers). More than fifty percent of city citizens use their bicycles daily. Cargo bikes traverse the city, carting everything from luggage, children, animals, groceries to Christmas trees and full-length sofas. Cargo bike micro-businesses include pedal-powered blender bikes that make your morning smoothie. As with Los Angeles where you are your car, in Copenhagen, your bicycle becomes an integral part of your identity.
In a country widely honored for its wind energy industries, Copenhagen recently initiated a climate program with the goal of becoming the first world capital to be carbon neutral by 2025. The city’s Metro is open 24/7, making cars an unnecessary indulgence. And in keeping with Copenhagen’s green projects, city authorities encourage beekeeping, with more than 4.5 million bees currently helping to sustain the city’s innate sweetness.
As creative as it is eco-minded, Copenhagen has been, of late, widely celebrated for its culinary innovation. Since the opening in 2004 of René Redzepi’s restaurant Noma (a Danish acronym for "Nordic food"), the city has become the nexus of New Nordic cuisine - and with Noma winning the title of "World’s Best Restaurant" for the past two years, foodies have been flocking here from around the world.
Just as Ferran Adria’s elBulli (where Redzepi worked early in his career) inaugurated a foodie fascination with Spain and molecular gastronomy, so, too, has Noma regenerated an entire gastronomic culture in Denmark. More than 4,000 miles of coastline provides a copious bounty from the sea - and, currently, Copenhagen has more Michelin-starred restaurants per capita than anywhere else in the world. Restaurants helmed by Noma alumni have opened all over town, reviving neighborhoods that were previously considered parlous - and the subsequent waves of eateries devoted to indigenous and sustainable cuisine have resulted in a city that has become Europe’s new foodie heaven.
A stroll down one street - a street named Jaegersborggade, in the heart of Nørrebro - reveals the breadth of Copenhagen’s current culinary offerings. There is the city’s finest specialty micro-roastery, the Coffee Collective, which was started by the World Barista Champion and twice National Champion. Across the street is Restaurant Relae, with Chef Christian Puglisi, formerly of elBulli and Noma. And over there is Manfreds, Puglisi’s newest eatery, a biodynamic enoteca. The small street is also home to Karamelleriet, the city’s only caramel cookery, as well as Gourmand Claus Meyer and his Meyer Bakery. And there’s also Ro Chokolade, which utilizes raw ingredients to create hand-made chocolates in flavors such as elderflower juice, honey, and Champagne.
Oh, and there’s also the fact that Copenhagen currently holds the title of "World’s Best Chef" for Geranium Chef Rasmus Kofoed whose vegetarian mother helped shape his distinctive culinary style.
While it’s possible to spend one’s time eating through Copenhagen - have we mentioned smørrebrød, the Danish open-faced sandwich with a whole-grain rye bread base currently experiencing a renaissance, thanks to Adam Aamann and his eponymous restaurants? - there is also design. (Food and design: it’s no wonder that a certain type of gay man considers this city to be heaven.)
World-famous since the 1950s, Danish design is defined by its sleek lines, simplicity, and functionality. The Danish Modern furniture that we often associate with Palm Springs and "Mad Men" was designed and produced with the philosophy of using design to improve people’s lives. Danish designers such as Arne Jacobsen, Verner Panton, Jacob Jensen, and Finn Juhl created furniture during the Fifties and Sixties that was marked by its affordability and notable for its timelessness.
Juhl was the designer behind the United Nations Trusteeship Council Chamber (which is currently undergoing renovation and refurbishment in time for Juhl’s centennial year in 2012) - and it was primarily Juhl who introduced the Danish Modern aesthetic to the States.
The understated and refined design sensibility of post-war Denmark lives on in many neighborhoods of Copenhagen. Many locals head to Nansensgade, a little oasis within the city where "Nordic cool" reigns. In this neighborhood, there are no international clothing chains or brand stores; instead, a visitor will find up-and-coming fashion and furniture designers, funky cafés and bike shops, specialized bookstores, and vintage boutiques. On the corner of Nansensgade and Vendersgade is the landmark red neon HOTEL sign of Ibsens Hotel, where artists from the neighborhood have participated in the refurbishment of the hotel’s decor.
One of the many joys of walking around Copenhagen is counting the number of times you’re falling in love again: with the barista at Coffee Collective, with the manboy who wraps your bouquet of roses, with the waiter at Manfreds, with the boy on the bicycle who stops for the light and winks as you cross the street. Everywhere you wander, you can’t help but marvel at the tall and lean Danes, as long-legged as giraffes, their posture as perfect as a corps of dancers, walking and biking with a kind of inner calm in an almost blissful state.
And the children, so blond and well-mannered! Even a notorious child-hater such as W.C. Fields might be forced to reconsider his aversion in the face of such angelic beauty.
After spending a few days in Copenhagen eating at restaurants where a meal of foraged foods and biodynamic wine is as celebrated as hospitality and kindness (and where "Michelin-star attitude" is virtually non-existent), and where one walks off a gourmet meal by wandering through neighborhoods pervaded by a neo-progressivism, it’s easy to feel as if modern Danish culture has found the secret.
In other words, contrary to Shakespeare, very little appears rotten in the state of Denmark - and, in fact, in keeping with the spirit of both "hygge" and New Nordic cuisine, modern Danish culture seems to imply that happiness is to be found in the world around us.
"We must cultivate our gardens," wrote Voltaire. The Danes are showing us how.
(Travel feature continues on next pages: Where to Stay, What to Do, Where to Eat, Where to Shop, Where the Gays Go, Getting There...)