Last month we took a two week trip to Denmark, with a side excursion to Norway, in which we hopped trains and buses, climbed castle staircases, roamed cobblestone streets, swam in crystal, cold fjords, hiked troll-laden forests and ate lots of delicious, local foods.
It was a fantastisk time back to my “homeland,” and a first time for the kids. And while we all had a blast and had been excited about the trip for months, there is always some trepidation to be met with when traveling outside of one’s kitchen, when you have to eat gluten- and dairy-free. Especially for an extended period of time, and especially to the land of bread and butter. Seriously. Among the most famous dishes of Scandinavia is the traditional smorgasbord (called smørrebrød in Denmark and Norway), which is essentially a series of open faced sandwiches smothered with butter and topped with all kinds of delicacies like cured or smoked salmon, liver pâté, and a variety of artisanal cheeses. Would I really be able to get away with doing smørrebrød without bread? Isn’t that sacrilege?
On the other hand, Denmark is a pretty advanced country, considered one of the greenest countries in the world (along with the other 2 Scandinavian countries, Sweden and Norway), one of the healthiest countries in the world, and boasting one of the best countries in the world for humane farming practices (Modern Farmer, Spring 2014). In addition, Copenhagen is arguably the top modern gastronomic city in the world, having received 17 Michelin stars to 15 restaurants in 2014, with 2 stars awarded to the “The World’s Best Restaurant” in 4 out of the last 5 years, noma. Not that we could afford to eat at noma, even if we had made the reservation months in advance (which is the only way to get in). Ahhh. Maybe next time. But the point being that with so much forward thinking in food, health and sustainability, I gambled that even a land rich in tradition and culture, should still be able to cater to people with dietary restrictions.
It turns out, I gambled right. And thank goodness, because I was so mired in end-of-school activities, both kids’ birthday parties, and swim team (it took over my life!), in the months leading up to our departure, that I could never squeeze in the time to research safe places to eat before arriving in Denmark. So I had to wing it. And everything turned out ok. In fact, in some cases, way better than ok!
First of all, we were very lucky to stay in the apartment-style hotel, Charlottehaven, which featured kitchenettes. I so recommend this way of traveling if you can. I know, you didn’t go on vacation to cook all the time, but having a fridge to store perishables like cold cuts and salad greens, as well as a stove to cook up some hard boiled eggs, can relieve a lot of the stress that goes into finding safe and healthy food. Plus, its less of a burden on the wallet, too! I actually love the cultural experience of shopping at a local food store. We discovered that Denmark has the most delicate, crunchiest baby carrots in the world, as well as the juiciest berries. Norway has the sweetest, crispest apples, and smoked salmon everywhere was fresher and tastier than back home. No kidding, all four of us agreed that, for whatever reason, these items tasted far better in Scandinavia than at home. ☺
A couple of nights, my lovely mother-in-law made us dinner in her kitchenette. Her traditional Danish meatballs (frikadeller) are always naturally gluten-free and always delicious. If you aren’t as lucky as I was to have a mother-in-law cooking for you, you can always check out one of the local butchers, such as the Slagteren ved Kultovervet, considered the best butcher in Denmark, and even frequented by noma chef himself, René Redzepi. Bring home some organic, humanely raised ground meat or sausages to your kitchenette to cook them up pretty quickly yourself. Or go for the already prepared salamis and other delicacies and have yourself a picnic!
Luckily, most people in Scandinavia speak English really well, but if you are going and you want to stock up a kitchenette, or just picnic for lunch to save a few bucks, here are a few Danish words to help you get started:
økologisk = organic. You have a better chance of finding foods that are minimally processed and free of additives that could be potentially harmful to you. I found many økologisk items at the grocery chain Irma, such as salami and other cold cuts, as well as fresh produce.
mælk = milk. In case you have problems with dairy. But they do have a lot of lactose-free dairy options, if that works for you. I did not see any goat’s milk products though, unfortunately.
fløde = cream
smør = butter. Lard used to be used a lot traditionally, but it didn’t stand out to me in the grocery stores. It turns out that the traditional way of cooking has been replaced in many instances with low-fat foods. I hope they go back to their traditional ways, now that we know that fat is god for us!
glutenfri = gluten-free. I know that’s obvious. But in case you needed to know how to search by that term in Danish.
øst = cheese
hvedemel = white flour. Please always check the ingredients, even if its organic and gluten-free. If you have problems with other grains, then you should know that anything followed by the suffix “mel” means flour. (e.g rugmel = rye flour, kartoffelmel = potato flour, etc.).
slagter = butcher
If you don’t have problems with other grains, you should know it is very easy to find gluten-free bread in Denmark and Norway! You can find it in the freezer section of grocery stores, in the dry goods area, and you can even find some glutenfri baking mixes if you have access to an oven and want some freshly baked. Even the 7-Eleven had gluten-free and paleo options! Not that I can verify for freshness… but that’s another story. 🙂
I recommend downloading a translation app to your smartphone, if you are bringing one along (turn off all cellular data before you land so you don’t get astronomical roaming charges!). I was able to use Google’s translation app without Wifi and it was very helpful for deciphering ingredients.
While I did stick to my paleo diet most of the time, I just had to try out the different glutenfri breads that we came across. Just out of curiosity. But only in a small sample size. They were all slightly different and all very good. Way better than any of the gluten free breads I’ve found here, in the US! In one case I found a very interesting gluten-free bread that contained some kind of “mel” that even the app couldn’t translate. With some digging, I finally deduced that it was flour made from the Lupine plant! With spotty Wifi, and not much screen time, I didn’t have time to do anymore research. But from my botanical background, I knew that Lupines were dicots, and thus not grains… so I gave it a try. This rye-style whole-kernel bread made with sunflower seeds and lupine mel, was my favorite. It was just perfect for smorgasbord, although I actually felt no guilt eating my pickled herring and salami with a side of salad the majority of the time. ☺
So eating in our little apartment and packing lunch for on the run was easy. But what about eating out?
Well it’s very hard to visit Copenhagen without trying the very traditional street fare known as pølse – similar to the stands you find on New York City streets. But for someone with gluten, dairy and soy issues, I was very skeptical about what was in these sausages, and was pretty sure the vendors wouldn’t really know. Luckily, my mother-in-law knew about a stand that was considered the best pølse near the Strøget. And she was right! She chose it because it was organic. But it happened to be gluten-free as well and we could easily make it paleo if we wanted. As it turns out, the hot dog stand is just one outlet for this company’s gluten-free organic meats. Choose the Hanegal brand, wherever you can find it. We chose the celeriac mash instead of a bun and everyone enjoyed it. In fact, we visited the stand three times during the course of our stay! If you want to visit it, its next to the “Round Tower” the one with a spiral ramp and staircase leading to the roof with a 360-degree view of Copenhagen.
A visit to Tivoli is also often customary, and while the kids and I had a blast on the rides, I was a little worried about our food options. Much of what was available was similar to food options you might find at a county fair or Texas rodeo – just with a European twist, of course. But basically, lots of gluten and lots of sugar. However with determination, I finally found Cafe St. George, near the lake and the Chinese Tower, which was able to offer us paleo plates for both kids and adults!
There was even a wonderful restaurant, with friendly waitstaff and a creative and knowledgeable chef, back at our hotel, Charlottehaven, for whenever we opted to take a night off from cooking. We ate there our first night in Copenhagen, and as usual, I had to “grill” the staff about my dietary needs. Our waiter told us that in fact, it is required for chefs to be trained in gluten and lactose food allergies! I have since tried to find verification of this fact (via Google), but haven’t been able to. Still, whether required or not, many restaurants did indeed seem to be very aware of gluten and dairy issues. And the gluten-free versions did not lack for taste, either. One of the meals that I had at Charlottehaven was so delicious that I really couldn’t believe it was gluten-free. I kept asking the waiter (to his dismay), if he was sure he hadn’t mixed up my plate with someone elses!
So I could finally relax a little. The Danes were on top of it! Not only that, I soon found out that many restaurants carry gluten-free bread on hand. This was good news for Ava, who gets jealous when brother and Daddy scarf down the gluteny stuff in front of her all the time.
While I can’t say that every restaurant is compliant, safe, or has menu selections exciting to the gluten-free (I interviewed one hostess at a French bistro, then quickly backed out!), I was pleasantly surprised to find a restaurant in Nyhavn who served up a scrumptious steak totally gluten-free (and paleo!). In case you’ve never been to
Copenhagen, I would say that Nyhavn is to Copenhagen what, in many ways, South Beach is to Miami. It’s the bustling, touristy, people-watching hot-spot where lots of people get their happy hour buzz on. It’s a fun place for an evening stroll, some traditional Danish fare, and some øl (beer – not gluten-free!). But I’m betting most of the restaurants there aren’t counting on repeat business. So that’s why it was even more pleasantly surprising that this restaurant took the time to make my meal safe (and delicious, too).
Finally, a trip to Copenhagen would not have been complete for a paleo foodie, without a trip to the Palæo Restaurant, whose tagline is “primal gastronomi.” Google “paleo Copenhagen” and it will be the first website to pop up. It’s a fast food joint selling paleo “wraps” with a juice bar as well. Because of jet lag, we were all late risers, but I’m betting that it’s a pretty happening spot at breakfast time, too. We took some wraps to go – one cod, one pulled pork, both smothered with fresh, wholesome ingredients, and filling enough for a family of four!
Norway was similar in its understanding of gluten and dairy issues. But I didn’t feel like I got quite the gastronomic experience that I did in Copenhagen. They ensured my food was safe, though, and that’s all that mattered. Most of the dishes were hearty enough to keep you warm through a dark winter, but since Norway was experiencing an unprecedented heat wave, fish always seemed the better option, of which there was plenty! And fresh, too. As a paleo foodie, though, I did try a few samples of local meats: reindeer (too lean and dry), whale sausage (too fishy and too controversial) and sheep salami (not bad, but a little gamey).
Norwegian food seemed much closer to Inuit ways of eating and much more about surviving long winters. Good for survival, but not gastronomically interesting. But we didn’t really go to Norway for the food anyway. Ferry rides and fjord swimming were the highlight of our trip!
Norway is actually super expensive – more so than we realized. So I made the kids stuff themselves silly at the breakfast buffets that were included in both our hotel accommodations (while indulged in platefuls of smoked mackerel), and we lunched with grocery store items once again, just as we did in Denmark. That way, we could save the big bucks for dinner, which was necessary, since our choices on eating establishments were limited.
If you enjoy happy hour, but prefer to drink grain-free, you might like to know that the traditional drink of Scandinavia (besides beer) is akvavit. Its usually drank during the pickled herring course of the smørrebrød, although shots of it also sometimes accompany beer at happy hour. In Denmark and Sweden akvavit is traditionally made with grains. But Norwegian akvavit is usually made from potato. Good news if you are avoiding grains! We brought home a (duty-free) bottle of Norwegian Linie Akvavit, for whenever we have the urge to relive the feeling of jumping in an ice, cold fjord again. 🙂
We ended our trip with breakfast back at the Charoletthaven restaurant, in which we were pleasantly surprised to find paleo “treats” suitable enough for breakfast, as well as a protein-packed green smoothie, to send us on our way to the airport and all the way back home.
All in all, we had an excellent vacation, both adventurous and gastronomic, as well as safely gluten-free. With a little preparation and a lot of questions, you should be able to have yourself an amazing time in Copenhagen (some call the Paris of the north) as well as elsewhere in Scandinavia. And if you have extra bucks to spare, please visit noma and report back. I really want to know what its like!