The cuisine of Denmark, like that in the other Scandinavian countries (Sweden and Norway), as well as that of northern Germany, its neighbor to the south, is traditionally heavy and rich in fat, consisting mainly of carbohydrates, meat, and fish. This stems from the country’s agricultural past, as well as its geography and climate of long, cold winters.
Before the widespread industrialization of Denmark (ca. 1860), small family-based agriculture formed the vast majority of Danish society. As in most agrarian societies, people lived practically self-sufficiently and made do with the food they could produce themselves, or what could be purchased locally. This meant reliance on locally available food products, which form the basis of the traditional diet: cereal products, dairy products, pork, seafood, apples, plums, carrots, potatoes, onions, beer, and bread.
Agriculture still plays a large role in Denmark’s economy, and Danish agricultural products are generally preferred over imported items, although products from Germany, The Netherlands and the rest of Europe are gaining increasingly larger market shares in Danish supermarkets.
As in most pre-industrialised societies, long winters and a lack of refrigeration meant that foods which could be stored for a long time came to predominate. This helps to explain the lack of fresh fruits and vegetables in many traditional recipes, and the emphasis placed on seasonally available foods. It also helps explain some of the traditional food preparation processes which favored smoking, pickling, and other food preservation techniques that prolong the storage life of products. Moreover, Denmark’s geography, which comprises many islands meant that before industrialisation and concommitant advances in transportation it was difficult, time-consuming, and costly to travel great distances, or to ship products. These factors have thus helped mold the traditional eating habits of the Danish people.
During the second half of the 20th century, Denmark entered into a new modern age of affluence after World War II. Farming cooperatives continued to grow and develop, leading to a move towards bigger agricultural business, and away from the small family farm. This has been compounded by migration to the cities, and suburban sprawl around the cities.
The stove, refrigerator, freezer and other modern kitchen major appliances changed the way one prepared food. Improvements in marketing, the growth of the supermarket and improvements in transportation and refrigeration provided new possibilities. Women were increasingly working out of the house. Traditional sex roles were changing.
All these influences and conditions, and more common to the modern way of life, have led to new demands on the national cuisine, as well as new possibilities.
Good food is an important ingredient in the Danish concept of hygge, a word that can be best translated as a “warm, fuzzy, cozy, comfortable feeling of well-being”. While the attainment of hygge is a near-universal goal in Danish culture, hygge itself is a highly personal concept, and varies significantly according to circumstances, region, and individual family traditions. Generally speaking, however, good food, good company, wine, comfortable furniture, soft easy lighting (candle lights in particular), music, etc, all contribute to the feeling of hygge.
A well-known quip states that the only time one is likely to find a Dane brandishing a knife is when he has a fork in the other hand.
Although famously liberal with respect to social values, Danes are fairly conservative when it comes to food. They thus appreciate traditional cooking, and are hesitant to embrace new types of food.
Danish cuisine continues to change and keep up with the times. It has become more health-conscious and has drawn inspiration (fusion cuisine) not only from the traditional French and Italian kitchen but also from many other more exotic gastronomical sources. These come often from either the travels of cooks, but also their immigration into Denmark from all over the world.
Danish cuisine has also looked inwards at the rich possibilities inherent in Danish traditional cooking, and in this way attempted to redefine itself, using local products and cooking techniques that have in the past been used in limited ways.
Older Danish food-lovers, however, stick to their old traditions. It is also exceedingly common in families that mothers and fathers cook together and teach their children how to cook, as food and eating is a very important subject in family life and a central element in the pursuit of hygge.