Dec 242020

Today is Juleaften in Denmark, the main event of Jul (Yule), which spans most of December, and dates back centuries to old Nordic customs.  Before I get into Yule traditions in Denmark – and today’s recipe – I will celebrate one of the most famous Danish painters of the Danish Golden Age, Nicolai Wilhelm Marstrand who was born on this date in 1810.

Marstrand studied at Copenhagen’s Metropolitan School (Metropolitanskolen), but had little interest in books, and left around 16 years of age. Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, painter and professor at the Royal Danish Academy of Art (Det Kongelige Danske Kunstakademi) in Copenhagen, was a close friend of Wilhelm’s father, and it was to all appearance Eckersberg who recommended an artistic career for young Wilhelm. Wilhelm had already shown artistic talent, tackling difficult subjects such as group scenes with many figures and complicated composition.

At 16 years of age Marstrand thus began his studies at the Academy under Eckersberg, attending the school from 1826 to 1833. Although his interests had a firm hold in genre themes – depiction of the daily life he observed around him in Copenhagen’s streets, especially middle-class society – he would soon reach for the pinnacle of Academic acceptability: the history painting.

In August 1836 he began the first of his many travels, going by way of Germany to Rome, stopping on the way at Berlin, Dresden, Nuremberg and Munich. In Italy, where he stayed for four years, he painted many idealized depictions of daily life, especially festivities. He returned to Italy several times, the last visit being in 1869, and when in Rome he spent summer months each year in the hill towns Olevano Romano, Civitella and Subiaco. He was enchanted with Italy and with the ways of life of the Italian people. He portrayed a colorful, joyous, and romantic view of them, infused with a newfound ideal of beauty.

He also painted a number of portraits during this first stay in Italy. Among these are portraits of other travelling Danish artists, such as Christen Købke and traveling partner Johan Adolph Kittendorff.

Marstrand returned to Denmark at the end of 1841, stopping in Munich and Paris on the way. In Denmark he strove to bring back that which he learned in Italy, and allow it to develop in his home culture. He became a member of the art Academy on 19th June 1843, after submitting the painting “Erasmus Montanus” as his admissions piece. He became a professor at the Academy in 1848. He endeavored to let his students evolve according to their own skills and interests. Among these were the two most renowned Skagen painters Peder Severin Krøyer and Michael Ancher, as well as Carl Bloch and Kristian Zahrtmann. Marstrand continued to travel regularly around Europe throughout his life, to (London, Vienna, Belgium, but especially to Italy and Rome), at times in the company of such fellow artists such as P. C. Skovgaard and Johan Adolph Kittendorff, or of art historian and critic Niels Lauritz Høyen.

History painting displayed what was grand – classical themes from mythology and history, rather than daily life. The traditions, and the taste of traditional art critics, strongly favored it. It was therefore something to strive for, in spite of Marstrand’s equal skill at depicting more modest themes, and of the enjoyment he had in portraying the crowds, the diversions of the city, and the humor and story behind the hustle and bustle. Marstrand’s creative production, throughout his life, never abandoned this inclination toward displaying the simple life of his times.

In the evening of Juleaften Danes traditionally eat a family meal consisting of roast pork, roast duck, or – more rarely – roast goose, with caramelized potatoes, red cabbage and brown gravy. The dessert should be risalamande, a cold rice pudding dish, with a hot cherry sauce. The name is based on French riz à l’amande meaning “rice with almonds,” although the dessert has a Danish origin (copying French styles of cuisine in the 19th century). Rice pudding is a favorite dessert in Denmark throughout the year, but risalamande is reserved for Juleaften.  A whole almond is added to the dessert, and the person who finds it wins a small prize such as a marzipan pig, a chocolate heart or a small board game. The finder may conceal their discovery as long as possible, so that the rest of the company is forced to eat the entire dish of risalamande, even after they have already eaten a large dinner.

After the meal is complete, (or sometimes before) the family dances around the Juletræ singing Christmas carols and hymns like “Nu er det jul igen” (Now it is Yule again) and “Et barn er født i Bethlehem” (A child has been born in Bethlehem). Thirty years ago I was invited to a Juleaften dinner by some Danes and we all joined hands in a circle around the tree, which was lit exclusively by candles (superb sight, but a fire hazard), and danced while singing.  After the singing the presents are handed out in turn, followed by more snacks and sweets and the traditional Gløgg.

This video gives the general idea of making risalamande, followed by a more detailed recipe:



2.25 dl short-grained white rice
1 dl water
1 l milk
2 vanilla beans
150 g almonds
2 tbsp sugar
5 dl heavy cream
1 can cherry sauce


In a saucepan; add the rice and water. Heat it up and let it boil for about 2 minutes.  Add the milk to the pudding and heat until boiling, stirring constantly. Cut open the vanilla beans, scrape out the seeds and add them to the pot. This is done by slicing the vanilla beans and scrape out the seeds using a knife. Also add 2 tablespoons of sugar and the empty vanilla bean skins.

Cover and simmer on low heat for about 35 minutes. The rice has a tendency to burn to so to stir regularly. Remove the empty vanilla beans. The rice pudding part is now done. Let it cool in the refrigerator before you proceeding.

Heat some water until boiling point and pour it in a small bowl. Add the almonds and let them soak in the hot water for about 5-7 minutes. One-by-one take the almonds up and press them between two fingers so that the peel separates from the almond.  Coarsely chop the almonds and mix them with the cold rice pudding. In a separate bowl, whisk the heavy cream and gently mix the it with the rice pudding. Refrigerate until serving.

Heat cherry sauce in a saucepan until it is warm (not hot).  Divide the rice pudding between bowls and pour the cherry sauce over the top. (The video shows how to make the cherry sauce if you prefer it to readymade).



May 052016


Today is the birthday (1813) of Søren Aabye Kierkegaard, Danish philosopher, theologian, poet, social critic, and religious author who was an early contributor to what became known as existentialism. He wrote critical texts on organized religion, Christendom, morality, psychology, and the philosophy of religion, displaying a fondness for metaphor, irony and parables. Much of his philosophical work deals with the issues of how one lives as a “single individual”, giving priority to concrete human reality over abstract thinking and highlighting the importance of personal choice and commitment. He was opposed to easy answers and, therefore to critics who summed up idealist intellectuals and philosophers of his time: Swedenborg, Hegel, Goethe, Fichte, Schelling, Schlegel and Hans Christian Andersen he felt were all “understood” far too quickly by “scholars.”

Kierkegaard’s theological work covers a broad spectrum: Christian ethics, the institution of the Church, humans and God, and the individual’s subjective relationship to Jesus the Christ, which for Kierkegaard came through faith. Much of this work entails Christian love. He was extremely critical of the practice of Christianity as a state religion, primarily that of the Church of Denmark. His psychological work explored the emotions and feelings of individuals when faced with life choices.


Kierkegaard’s early work was written under various pseudonyms that he used to present distinctive viewpoints and to interact with each other in complex dialogue. He explored particularly complex problems from different viewpoints, each under a different pseudonym. He wrote many Upbuilding Discourses under his own name and dedicated them to the “single individual” who might want to discover the meaning of his works. Notably, he wrote: “Science and scholarship want to teach that becoming objective is the way. Christianity teaches that the way is to become subjective, to become a subject.” While scientists learn about the world by observation, Kierkegaard emphatically denied that observation could reveal the inner workings of the world of the spirit.

Kierkegaard’s wrote in Danish and his works were initially limited to Scandinavia. By the turn of the 20th century, however, his major works had been translated into major European languages, so that by the mid-20th century, his thought exerted a substantial influence on philosophy and theology.


I won’t try to summarize Kierkegaard’s work because that would do him an injustice. Instead here are a few quotations to give you an idea.

Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.

Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.

Once you label me you negate me.

What I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know, except insofar as knowledge must precede every act. What matters is to find a purpose, to see what it really is that God wills that I shall do; the crucial thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die.


I have just now come from a party where I was its life and soul; witticisms streamed from my lips, everyone laughed and admired me, but I went away — yes, the dash should be as long as the radius of the earth’s orbit ——————————— and  wanted to shoot myself.

There are many people who reach their conclusions about life like schoolboys; they cheat their master by copying the answer out of a book without having worked out the sum for themselves.

I have never fought in such a way as to say: I am the true Christian, others are not Christians. No, my contention has been this: I know what Christianity is, my imperfection as a Christian I myself fully recognize — but I know what Christianity is.

It belongs to the imperfection of everything human that man can only attain his desire by passing through its opposite.

A man’s personality is matured only when he appropriates the truth, whether it is spoken by Balaam’s ass or a sniggering wag or an apostle or an angel.

Job endured everything — until his friends came to comfort him, then he grew impatient.


One sticks one’s finger into the soil to tell by the smell in what land one is: I stick my finger in existence — it smells of nothing. Where am I? Who am I? How came I here? What is this thing called the world? What does this world mean? Who is it that has lured me into the world? Why was I not consulted, why not made acquainted with its manners and customs instead of throwing me into the ranks, as if I had been bought by a kidnapper, a dealer in souls? How did I obtain an interest in this big enterprise they call reality? Why should I have an interest in it? Is it not a voluntary concern? And if I am to be compelled to take part in it, where is the director? I should like to make a remark to him. Is there no director? Whither shall I turn with my complaint?

To say that I understand Kierkegaard would be to go against the very nature of his work. Rather, there are points he makes on which I concur. Chief of these is that it is incumbent on each individual to THINK, and not to accept blindly what you are told. His notion of “truth for me” for example, is not what most moderns believe when they use the phrase – “if I believe it, it is true.” He is saying that you cannot simply assent to truth as purveyed by others: you must OWN it by working it out for yourself.

I see Kierkegaard as a precursor of Freud in that his notion of owning the truth involves knowing oneself. For Kierkegaard self knowledge requires concentrated reflection on oneself, preferably in isolation. I am sympathetic to this notion because it is exactly what I do. Since the death of my wife nine years ago, I have lived alone, and have increasingly used my time alone to reflect on all manner of things.  This is not a skill that can be learned; you have to work it out for yourself, perhaps with writers such as Kierkegaard as guides. Friendships, relationships, and the like, can be helpful, but they can also be distractions that get in the way of self reflection. Read Kierkegaard for yourself and you will see what I mean.


Danish cuisine can be colorful, but is often rather bland. I’ve mentioned smørrebrød, open faced sandwiches, several times before, and you can certainly get creative with them, heaping all manner of toppings on to dark rye bread for a base. For example:


Today I am interested in æggekage (lit. egg cake), which is very similar to English batter pudding or traditional Argentine tortilla, that is, a mix of milk, flour, and eggs that is fried and baked in a heavy skillet with various toppings. My basic recipe for the egg mixture is presented in this video:

Toppings can be savory or sweet. I made an apple æggekage this morning. First, I chopped one apple coarsely (without peeling), and sautéed it in a little butter and sugar until the pieces took on color.


Then I made the batter (as per the video), and poured it over the apples whilst the pan was still warm, and cooked the bottom a little.


Then I finished it off in a hot oven sprinkled with a little sugar and cinnamon.


For breakfast I ate some slices straight from the pan. For lunch I re-heated the remainder on the stove with a few sliced tomatoes and bacon.

Feb 202016


On this date in 1472 Orkney and Shetland were “pawned” to Scotland because Norway, which controlled the islands at the time, was late in paying the dowry of Margaret of Denmark on her betrothal to James III of Scotland. Norway never paid the dowry, so the islands passed permanently to Scotland.

The marriage was arranged by recommendation of the king of France to end the feud between Denmark and Scotland about the taxation of the Hebrides islands, a conflict that raged between 1426 and 1460. Margaret married James in July 1469 (at age 13), at Holyrood Abbey. Her father, King Christian I of Denmark and Norway (the two realms being united at the time under the Kalmar Union), agreed to a considerable dowry. He was in need of cash, however, so eventually he pledged the islands of Orkney and Shetland, which at the time were possessions of the Norwegian crown, as security until the dowry was paid.


Margaret became a popular queen in Scotland and was described as beautiful, gentle, and sensible. Many later historians called her far better qualified to rule than her husband. A story given by her son claims that Margaret was killed by poison given to her by John Ramsay, 1st Lord Bothwell, leader of one of the political factions. However, as Ramsay was favored by the royal family also after the death of the queen, this is considered doubtful and may have been slander, although he did have some knowledge of poisons. During the crisis of 1482 when her husband was deprived of power for several months, Margaret was said to have shown more interest in the welfare of her children than her husband, and this apparently led to an estrangement. Despite later rumors, however, there is no reason to think that the King wished for her death. She died at Stirling Castle on 14 July 1486, and is buried in Cambuskenneth Abbey.


By contrast James III (1451 – 1488), king of Scots from 1460 to 1488 was an unpopular and ineffective monarch owing to his unwillingness to administer justice fairly, a policy of pursuing alliance with the kingdom of England, and a disastrous relationship with nearly all his extended family. His reputation as the first Renaissance monarch in Scotland has sometimes been exaggerated, based on attacks on him in later chronicles for being more interested in such unmanly pursuits as music than hunting, riding and leading his kingdom into war. In fact, the artistic legacy of his reign is slight, especially when compared to that of his successors, James IV and James V. Such evidence as there is consists of portrait coins produced during his reign that display the king in three-quarter profile wearing an imperial crown, the Trinity Altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes, which was probably not commissioned by the king, and an unusual hexagonal chapel at Restalrig near Edinburgh, perhaps inspired by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.


Interestingly, Denmark still has a (dubious) claim to Orkney and Shetland given that the islands were pawned and not given or sold to Scotland.  This claim resurfaced when Scotland was voting recently whether to separate from the United Kingdom, and islanders floated the idea that, should separation occur, they might apply to become part of Denmark.

At the beginning of recorded history the Orkney islands were inhabited by the Picts, whose language was Brythonic (related to Welsh and Cornish). The Ogham script on the Buckquoy spindle-whorl is cited as evidence for the pre-Norse existence of Old Irish in Orkney.

After the Norse occupation in the 8th century the place names of Orkney became almost wholly West Norse. The Norse language evolved into the local Norn, which lingered until the end of the 18th century, when it finally died out. Norn was slowly replaced by the Orcadian dialect of Insular Scots as Orkney passed from Scandinavian to Scottish influence. This dialect is at a low ebb due to the pervasive influences of television, education and the influx of a large number of outsiders. However, attempts are being made by some writers and radio presenters to revitalize it, and the distinctive accent and many dialect words of Norse origin remain in use.

Orkney has a rich folklore and many of the former tales concern trows, an Orcadian form of troll that draws on the islands’ Scandinavian connections. Local customs in the past included marriage ceremonies at the Odin Stone that formed part of the Stones of Stenness.


Shetland’s history is similar. Shetland was colonized by Norsemen in the late 8th and 9th centuries and the fate of the previous indigenous population, presumed to be Picts, is uncertain. According to the Orkneyinga Saga, Vikings then used the islands as a base for pirate expeditions against Norway and the coasts of mainland Scotland. In response, Norwegian king Harald Hårfagre (“Harald Fair Hair”) annexed the Northern Isles (comprising Orkney and Shetland) in 875 and Rognvald Eysteinsson received Orkney and Shetland from Harald as an earldom in reparation for the death of his son in battle in Scotland. Some scholars believe that this story is apocryphal and based on the later voyages of Magnus Barelegs. Nonetheless, as the Viking era developed Shetland emerged from the prehistoric period and into the era of written history.


Norn remained stronger in Shetland than in Orkney. A source from 1670 states that there are “only three or four parishes” in Orkney where people speak “Noords or rude Danish” and that they do so “chiefly when they are at their own houses”. Another from 1701 indicates that there were still a few monoglot “Norse” speakers who were capable of speaking “no other thing”, and notes that there were more speakers of the language in Shetland than in Orkney. It was said in 1703 that the people of Shetland generally spoke English, but that “many among them retain the ancient Danish Language”; while in 1750 Orkney-born James Mackenzie wrote that Norn was not yet entirely extinct, being “retained by old people”, who still spoke it among each other.

The last reports of Norn speakers are claimed to be from the 19th century, but it is more likely that the language was dying out in the late 18th. The isolated islands of Foula and Unst are variously claimed as the last refuges of the language in Shetland, where there were people “who could repeat sentences in Norn, probably passages from folk songs or poems, as late as 1893. Walter Sutherland from Skaw in Unst, who died about 1850, has been cited as the last native speaker of the Norn language.


This map shows the languages of Scotland in the 15th century with Scots Gaelic in blue, Scots English in yellow, and Norn in brown (Orkney to the South and Shetland to the north).

Here is the Lord’s Prayer in Shetland Norn recorded in the 1770’s by George Low and published in his A Tour through the Islands of Orkney and Schetland.

Fy vor or er i Chimeri. / Halaght vara nam dit.
La Konungdum din cumma. / La vill din vera guerde
i vrildin sindaeri chimeri. / Gav vus dagh u dagloght brau.
Forgive sindorwara / sin vi forgiva gem ao sinda gainst wus.
Lia wus ik? o vera tempa, / but delivra wus fro adlu idlu.
For do i ir Kongungdum, u puri, u glori, Amen

I am struck forcibly by the large number of cognates with English, showing how closely the old dialects of Scandinavia and northern Germanic regions are related to English.

I feel an affinity to Shetland, even though I have never visited, because my paternal grandmother was a Shetlander. Here she is on her wedding day in Lerwick with my grandfather.


I’ve traced my maternal genealogy extensively because a lot of English records are available (for a price !!) online. However, many Scottish records, including Shetland ones, are not digitized and they are difficult to get hold of, so my paternal line is largely unknown to me. Getting my father’s birth certificate when I wanted to establish that I was British by descent was bad enough. I feel a trip coming on !! (Note to self: buy woolly knickers).


Shetland cooking is rich in seafood, of course, and the local breed of sheep is well known for its special flavor. Local sheep could find some grazing in rocky areas, but were also dependent on seaweed, hence the unique flavor. For simplicity I’ll give a recipe for Shetland bannocks which locals hanker after when they are away from home. There’s nothing special to cooking them; it’s locally sourced ingredients (especially buttermilk) that make the difference. Shetlanders traditionally drank buttermilk or blaand (fermented whey) with dinner. In Cookery for Northern Wives (1925), the classic work on traditional Shetland cooking, Margaret Stout describes making blaand: “This is a refreshing drink made by pouring enough hot water onto buttermilk to make it separate; the curd is drained, pressed and served as Kirnmilk. The whey is allowed to stand until it reaches the fermenting, sparkling stage.”


Shetland Bannocks


1 lb plain flour
½ tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1½ cups (approx.) buttermilk

Stout’s instructions:

Mix the dry ingredients together, make into a soft dough with the buttermilk, just as soft as can be easily handled. Turn on to a floured board.

Roll them like scones and cut or shape into rounds. They can be cooked on a traditional griddle or baked in the oven, known respectively as “top” and “bottom” bannocks. A heavy cast-iron skillet over medium-low heat works fine.

Jun 052013
Danish Constitutional Congress

Danish Constitutional Congress


Today is Constitution Day in Denmark, commemorating the signing of the constitution on 5 June 1849, which turned the nation from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy.  It had been an absolute monarchy since 1660 (rather oddly by a constitution granting the king absolute power), but the pan-European revolutions of 1848, plus the movement of Norway to a constitutional monarchy, prompted a rise in democratic sentiments in Denmark.  Unlike in the rest of Europe, in Copenhagen there were no violent clashes at the barricades, or the like. There was apparently just a quiet realization that it was time, and the structure of power shifted relatively quietly. Everything was achieved through democratic process, with the king’s assent.

The constitution of 1849 followed the principles of the French philosopher Montesquieu, ensuring certain key notions such as the separation of powers (with checks and balances), and the assurance of basic human rights. From that point on the role of king was purely symbolic.  Denmark’s constitution is curious in that it has never been amended.  When the need arises to change it, they write a new constitution. Thus, since 1849 Denmark has had five constitutions, the latest signed on 5 June, 1953.  The constitution of 1915 granted women the right to vote, and that of 1953 changed the parliamentary structure from two houses to one.  The constitution is not easy to change.  Under current rules a change in the constitution must be voted on twice by parliament, both before and after a general election.  It must then be submitted to a popular vote where it must receive a majority of those voting, and 40% of the total electorate must vote yes.  Thus a low turnout spells failure.  All very civilized for a nation whose berserker Viking warriors struck fear in the hearts of peoples across Europe. Ivar the Boneless and Sweyn Forkbeard spring to mind.

Danish cuisine is noted for several popular dishes.  Universally known is the breakfast Danish pastry, which is actually of Viennese origin, and so is called wienerbrød in Denmark.  Lunch is usually a cold meal consisting of smørrebrød, an open faced sandwich on dense, dark rye bread topped with slices of cold meat, sausage, liverwurst, or hard-boiled egg, with fancier toppings, such as prawns and smoked salmon for fancier occasions.  Dinner is a hot meal focused on meat, sausages, meatballs, or fish.  The national dish is frikadeller – meatballs in brown cream sauce.

There are many variations of frikadeller, but traditionally they are made of ground veal, pork or beef (or a blend of two of these meats); chopped onions; eggs; milk (or water); breadcrumbs (or oatmeal or flour); salt; and pepper; then formed into balls and flattened somewhat. They are then pan-fried in pork or beef drippings, or bacon fat. Modern cooks often use olive oil or vegetable oil. Another popular variation is fiskefrikadeller replacing the meat with fish as the main ingredient and often served with remoulade, which you can make by mixing capers, chopped pickles, lemon juice, dill, chervil, parsley or other fresh herbs, with mayonnaise.

As a main dish frikadeller are most often served with boiled white potatoes and gravy (brun sovs) accompanied by pickled beetroot or cooked red cabbage. Alternatively they can be served with creamed white cabbage.

Frikadeller (Danish Meatballs)


2lbs (.9 kilos) ground meat (veal and pork is my favorite)
1 finely chopped onion
½ (64 g) cup breadcrumbs
¼ (1.25 g) tsp fresh ground black pepper
1 ½ (6.25 g) tsp salt
2 tbsp (30 g) flour
2 eggs
milk or water
beef drippings or bacon fat for frying (olive oil for the health conscious!)


Beat the eggs.

Mix together thoroughly the meats, onion, breadcrumbs, pepper, salt, flour, and eggs.

Add enough milk or water so you can form meat mixture into balls, a little bigger than a golf ball. Some cooks then flatten them into patties, or you can keep them round.

Brown the meatballs in drippings or bacon fat over high heat.

Reduce the heat to medium-low. Cover and simmer slowly until the meat is cooked through, but not dry.

Serves 4 to 6

Brun Sovs (Brown Sauce)

Brown 3 tablespoons (45 g) of flour in ¾ tablespoon (11 ml) of dripping from the meatballs over medium heat.

Reduce the heat to medium-low and slowly add heavy cream or whole milk, whisking  constantly until the mixture reaches gravy consistency.

Add salt and pepper to taste.