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History and Traditions of the Smørrebrød

For most people that are used to having a sandwich made from two slices of bread with fillings between them, the idea of a smørrebrød, a traditional Nordic open sandwich containing an assortment of toppings may at first be a difficult idea to digest, but a little familiarity with its traditions and its delicious toppings would certainly change any preconceived notions.

A selection of Danish smørrebrød
A selection of Danish smørrebrød
The history and traditions of the smørrebrød are as fascinating as the variety of food toppings that go on it, and in this article, we explore its origin and the Nordic culture of eating this delicious open sandwich.

History of the Smørrebrød

For those who aren't familiar with this open sandwich, Smørrebrød (pronounced shmur-brugh) is a traditional Scandinavian open sandwich consisting of a slice of buttered whole-grain rye bread (rugbrød), usually topped with some combination of cold cuts, pieces of meat or fish, cheese, herbs and vegetables.

The food items that are spread (pålæg) on the bread, are carefully arranged to create a tasty and visually appealing open sandwich. The bread is mostly sourdough rye and is usually buttered to stop the toppings seeping through, and is considered very nutritious with lots of vitamins, minerals and fibers.

The word 'smørrebrød' originates from the words 'smør' og 'brød' meaning 'butter' and 'bread' which are two very important food items in the Nordic diet.

In the northern regions of the Nordic countries where the winters are harsh and the grounds covered with snow, it was necessary to ensure that food was preserved, such that it could last through the winter months. Hence, people in these Nordic countries developed their cuisine using preserved food, like the dry, flat bread called knekkebrød, diary products like butter and cheese and particularly meat and fish which were preserved through some combination of of drying, salting, smoking, curing, and fermenting.

Herring fishing in Scania by Olaus Magnus published in 1555
Herring fishing in Scania by Olaus Magnus published in 1555
During the 12th, 13th and the 14th centuries, herring was abundant in the Baltic waters around southern Sweden along the coast of Skåne, which was then a part of Denmark. During catch seasons herring would be available in vast amounts, but occasionally, would also disappear for a long period making it seasonal but also irregular. This led to the development and adoption of different preservation techniques, pickling and smoking being more popular because of the resulting flavors, especially in the form of snacks.

Surströmming served on thin bread
Surströmming served on thin bread
The pickled fish or cured meat would often be placed on top of the bread along with other ingredients and eaten as a snack or meal. The combination of the nutritious bread and the food items spread on it made it a delicious hearty meal besides a quick snack.

In the 19th century, the open sandwich developed to include a wide range of spreads, and found popularity with the working people as a lunch or daytime snack, often made using leftovers from the previous night.

Traditions of the Smørrebrød

The open sandwich is typically eaten at breakfast, lunch, supper, or as a snack in the Nordic countries. Traditions also make them popular at holiday celebrations such as Christmas and Easter in some of the Nordic countries.

It is known by different names in the Scandinavian countries—Denmark as smørrebrød, Norway as smørbrød, and in Sweden as smörgås. In other parts of the Nordic countries—the sandwich is called voileipä, in Finland, which derives from voi (butter) and leipä (bread).

Smørrebrød by Angermann
Smørrebrød by Angermann
The open sandwich is usually made with buttered bread, often whole-grain rye bread and its preparation varies based on the different toppings which mostly include ham, turkey, bacon, herring, smoked salmon, caviar, shrimps, boiled eggs, liver pâté, small meatballs etc. This is typically complemented by some herbs and vegetables such as parsley, cold salad, thinly sliced cucumber, tomato slices and/or pickled beets etc.

Open sandwiches are also served at a Smörgåsbord, a type of Scandinavian meal, originating in Sweden, served buffet-style with multiple hot and cold dishes of various foods on a table. The word smörgåsbord consists of the words smörgås (sandwich, usually open-faced) and bord (table).

Danish marinated herring served on rye bread
Danish marinated herring served on rye bread
Marinated herring in Denmark is a tradition to serve at Christmas and especially on Easter Sunday lunch along with Danish snaps and strong Easter beer. The marinated herring is served on buttered, black rye bread, topped with white onion rings and usually served with hard boiled eggs, potatoes, capers, fresh dill, pickled gherkins or tomato slices.

When serving smørrebrød as a meal, the sliced breads are generally passed around the table, and then each dish of toppings, and people around the table help themselves. More festive meals can be divided into courses: Fish toppings first, such as herring, shrimp, or smoked salmon followed by cold cuts and salads, and finally cheese with bread or crackers and a little fruit.

Learn more
You might find the article on European traditions of the herring delicacy an interesting read.


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Article Category:
Food History

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