"The fastest way to understand the Nordic region's food culture is to eat an open sandwich topped with butter and hard cheese."
-Magnus Nilsson, The Nordic Cookbook
The Nordic region's food culture is largely based on bread. According to The Nordic Cookbook, before potatoes arrived on the Scandinavian mainland in the early 1800's, most people ate one to two pounds of bread a day! It's no wonder that the open sandwich (smørrebrød in Danish, smørbrød in Norwegian and smörgås in Swedish) became a staple of Nordic cuisine. The origins of the Nordic open sandwich can be traced back at least as far as the Middle Ages. At that time it would have been a rather simple affair....probably some kind of fat (butter or animal fat) spread on a dense rye bread with leftover meat or vegetables piled on top. As fresh ingredients became more available, the open sandwich evolved into something more refined and elegant, particularly in Denmark where smørrebrød is now practically an art form. There are entire restaurants devoted to the open sandwich in Denmark, and it is even possible to attain the a professional qualification known as, "Open Sandwich Master". But not all open sandwiches are fussy restaurant affairs. Generally speaking, Nordic cuisine has an elegant simplicity to it, and a sandwich made at home might be as basic as a buttered slice of rye bread and a few slices of cheese or last night's leftovers arranged on top.
Trine Hahnemann outlines a few rules for constructing smørrebrød in her book, Open Sandwiches. I have included some of them here along with a few of my own to help you put together an open sandwich you can be proud of:
- Barring a few exceptions, Nordic open sandwiches are served on dense rye bread which has been sliced quite thin. I like my slices just a little over ¼ inch thick.
- If you are using a dense rye, the bread is simply sliced, not toasted. Sometimes I will do a light toast on mine just to freshen up the bread slightly without causing the exterior to get crispy.
- The bread is usually buttered quite liberally with salted butter. If you don't usually stock salted butter, you can use unsalted butter and sprinkle a little kosher salt on it after you spread it on the bread.
- There is typically one main topping and a combinations of condiments. A well-designed smørrebrød has a variety of flavors and textures that come together to create a sandwich that is more delicious than the individual components might suggest.
- Smørrebrød doesn't have to be fancy, but it should be pleasing to the eye. That's part of the fun of the open face sandwich...with no top to disguise what's inside there is much opportunity for creating something that is as beautiful as it is delicious.
- Season as you layer. If your main ingredient is sliced cold potatoes or hard-boiled egg slices, you are going to want to season that particular layer with salt and pepper before adding the remaining condiments.
- Think about your layering, both in terms of visual presentation and what makes sense in terms of the temperature and shape of the main ingredient. If your topping is warm roast pork, for example, you aren't going to want to put tender arugula leaves underneath it. That's a recipe for soggy greens. Layer in a way that lets each ingredient shine.
- If you really want to get serious about aesthetics, consider placing any sauces that you are using into a squeeze bottle, plastic piping bag or ziploc bag (with a corner of the bag cut off). This allows you to squeeze the sauce onto the sandwich exactly where you want it. It can be difficult to artfully arrange sauces with just a spoon.
- Unless it really doesn't seem appropriate, always add a shower of something small and green on the very top for garnish. Chopped fresh herbs, microgreens, sprouts, or watercress are all good choices.
- If you've created a lovely smørrebrød piled high with delicious ingredients, don't try and pick the whole thing up and take a bite. These sandwiches are usually a knife and fork affair.
Picasso once said, "learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist." Make a classic smørrebrød or two (recipes to follow), but also get into the kitchen and play! Let your bread be your canvas and get creative. Anything goes when it comes to designing your own open face sandwiches.