Copenhagen cooking: the wonderful MAD festival

By | Category: Travel destinations, Travel tips & opinions

Patricia and Dennis Cleveland-Peck treat their taste buds in Denmark’s stylish capital

We’ve been to some crazy festivals in our lives but given how mad is the Danish word for food and the fact that Copenhagen is currently the foodie capital of Europe, this time we were expecting something rather different.

We had been invited to the festival’s grand opening ceremony held in the dramatic new building, The Black Diamond. There we saw über-chef Rene Redzepi from  Noma (‘number one restaurant in the world’)   presented with  an award by the city’s Lord Mayor for his extraordinary culinary contribution to the city. We use the word ‘saw’ advisedly because all the proceedings were in Danish, which made us all the more ready for the buffet reception which followed.

The Black Diamond

Here we received our first experience of New Nordic food. Potato, carrot and root vegetable chips served in paper bags, small boxes filled with razor clams, celery ‘noodles’ with beach mustard and lovage, spoonfuls of  fish eggs, glasses containing a tartare of trout with cress and hazel nuts, baby corn and ‘malt poles’  and heaped piles of Fines de Claire  oysters from Løgismose served with balsamic vinegar and apple and dill oil. All were accompanied by glasses of Lilleø’s Danish sparking wine or the Festival’s signature beer ‘Salty Ocean Weed’ from the Mikkeller Brewery. The message   “Welcome to Copenhagen”, was loud and clear.

This nine day long festival which takes place twice a year in August and February involves dozens of restaurants and producers and offers food- lovers the perfect opportunity to visit a wonderful city while at the same time sampling some of the most talked-about food in Europe.

The activities range from high-end dining  (Copenhagen has a skyful of  Michelin stars – more than any other European city)  via walking tours, markets, picnics, meals paired with plays, films and readings, barbecues, including one at which beef is slowly grilled over beechwood to the sound of live music. There is also high-speed dining  which involves a meal’s being  served on the terrace of the Custom’s House after a blast across the harbour on a RIB. The food of other countries is also celebrated at  events which include  a ‘Godfather’ Italian  dinner with Sicilian wine and  a mafia-themed quiz, a middle Eastern evening, muskox kebabs from Greenland and a celebration of spices  hosted by the Immigrant Women’s Centre.

Much of Nordic cuisine is innovative and modern. However on our first evening, we journeyed back into the past by participating at a dinner at the Rådhuset,  Copenhagen’s City Hall.

The opening reception

This impressive building dates from 1905 and is an example of the highly decorative national romantic style. We were expertly guided throughout the building (in English this time) stopping first to enjoy champagne and canapés in an ante-room. Then, after visiting several more rooms and admiring the wall paintings and statues we were shown into a dining room where a round table decorated with bowls of roses was set with the iconic blue and white Royal Copenhagen china.

The meal, served by uniformed maids, consisted of a tasty fish course of little dishes of salmon, cod and smoked herring, a main course of the traditional ‘town hall’ pigeons, pink and succulent,  served with crushed potatoes and a  pudding of  traditional town hall  pancakes with pickled plums. Finally we entered the council chamber and were regaled with coffee and hand-made chocolates while listening to more of the building’s history.

Perhaps the best way to discover what makes new Nordic Cuisine so special is to attend the Nordic Taste event which takes place in the magnificent setting of the Carlsberg Brewery. Here food producers and restaurants covering a wide gastronomic spectrum, set up stalls offering tastes of their produce.

The Nordic Food Lab

We were fortunate enough to attend a session with the Nordic Food Lab, the experimental division of Noma which usually operates from a houseboat opposite the restaurant. The lab is a non-profit making organisation set up by Noma’s founders Rene Rezepi and Claus Meyer which according to its enthusiastic young Head of Culinary Research and Development, the Scotsman Benedict Reade, is dedicated to investigating ‘the space between the creative and the scientific elements of deliciousness’ and to disseminate freely to chefs and others the results of their findings.

This investigation is undertaken by a large team which includes an anthropologist, an ethnobotanist, a flavour chemist and even a philosopher. The starting point is a commitment  to  ‘native’ produce i.e that which could be found on Nordic terroir. This involves searching for local replacements to Mediterranean foodstuffs such as lemons and olive oil which would not grow this far north. Foraging and collecting wild plants  and fungi produces some of these while others are found in things not usually considered edible such as moss and wood which can  add to flavour. Nordic Cuisine effectively strives to enable its natives “to ingest their own landscape”.

In the Nordic food Lab tent we actually sampled some of these replacement foods. Ice cream made from a seaweed served with a reduction of beetroot juice was a perfect example of new Nordic ‘deliciousness’. We then tried a dehydrated cucumber which, shrunk to about the size of  a small fountain pen, tasted very intense and totally different from raw cucumber. Similarly vinegars made from rose hips, carrot juice and pine had provided interesting new flavours to play with.

Denmark's capital of cool - and cuisine

Insects too are being studied as they make up 40 per cent of the animal bio-mass and so could make a valuable and sustainable contribution to diet (which Benedict reminded us actually means ‘way of life’). Ants apparently produce a formic acid which could be used as a citrus flavouring…

Our voyage of discovery almost over, we regretted that we would not have time to ‘learn how to be a gentleman’ on The Very Gentlemanish Tour, where one not only learns to cook a Michelin-level meal under the watchful eye of  Kokkeriet’s Michelin-starred chef but also  how to tie a bow tie. Nor would we be able to visit Copenhagen’s Restaurant School apiary and taste their honey, nor embark on a foraging tour for wild food, nor take an oyster cruise…..

No, with some 140 events taking place during this festival it’s impossible to do more than nibble at this amazing gastronomic feast. Still there is always next time…



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