After the heady excitement of Aarhus’ reign as European Capital of Culture in 2017, Denmark’s second city has calmed down. Now it’s time to focus on life’s priorities: lunch and dinner. Aarhus – Danes will pronounce it ‘Orhus’ and drop an ‘a’ to spell it ‘Arhus’ – has two Food Markets for a population of just 330,000.
If you are visiting Aarhus – and with its cool vibe, timbered Latin Quarter, museums, beaches and classy shopping there is every reason why you should – these Food Markets are not just a way of feeding yourself economically in a land of eye-watering prices. They are an A to Z of Danish life: through art, design, hygge, logom, and sliddersladder (gossip). More on logom later.
We’ve heard enough about hygge’s cosy-jumper and candles approach during those long Scandinavian winter nights. But the food markets define summer hygge where the beer flows and the sun almost forgets to set.
Long communal tables work in Denmark. By no means is it a classless society but people from different walks of life are more likely to chat then they would in many other countries. Everyone’s having a ‘hyggelic’ time. There’s comradeship, conviviality and contentment.
There are differences between the two markets. Located in a gritty former Bus Depot, The Street Food Market is urban raw, urban cool. It’s pipes, wires and extractor fans are worn internally – and ironically – as part of the industrial decor. Screeching seagulls remind you of the waterfront’s proximity.
Marginally upmarket, for a few Kroner more, the Central Food Market has the location: it is just yards from the main pedestrianised retail therapy thoroughfare. The starry Central Food Market, with its meshes of fairy lights, spotlights and dark dramatic voids hark back to a former life as a theatre. It has a packing-crate chic and the sophistication of flowers on tables: some couples just about getaway with a semi-romantic date-night in its more secluded nooks and crannies.
The Danes’ powerful sense of social justice encourages every stall at the Street Food Market to offer at least one dish for 50 Danish Kroner (£6). Consequently families, students, pensioners and tourists are all pulled in.
You could dine there for three weeks and never visit the same stall twice for a main dish, inevitably there’s less choice for desert. Consequently, visiting Aarhus on a moderate budget is feasible.
As one of the world’s happiest peoples the Danes laid-back approach to their life-work balance encourages them to take their full-hour for lunch. You would never hear a Dane saying, “Lunch is for wimps.”
Serene Danes don’t ‘grab’ lunch they savour a gourmet burger cooked sous-vide at The Hungry Dane. Vacuum-packed beef, slowly cooked at a moderate temperature in a water bath, protects the meat’s protein chains and preserves their flavour. Ironically it’s Fast Food cooked slow: very Danish. In the relaxed land of the 34-hour week many locals are back at the markets by 5pm.
On one level Smorrebrod is the lunchtime favourite of an open sandwich, frequently on rye bread. On another level it’s an art installation, every strand of cress visually complimenting the colour coordinated bacon, salmon or chicken. Art and Design are ingrained in Danish DNA: the Street Food Market even has its own Art Gallery.
The long tables give visitors a chance to get to know the locals. As Danes frequently speak immaculate English, visitors can join in conversations, which is fortunate as Danish is rated the world’s sixth hardest language to learn.
Danes like to moan about the Skattefar, that’s the taxman who on average takes over 50% of earnings, but conversations, in a country where consensus is contagious, never get too heated. It is sometimes said Denmark is a country where few have too much and few have too little. A massive middle-class strata tend to accept the status quo. And as Jutlanders are masters of understatement and self-depreciation it is never going to get raucous.
Even the numerous bike-racks outside the Street Food Market tell a story: Aarhus is bike town. If people haven’t arrived by bike they’ve probably caught one one of the plentiful buses into the new neighbouring bus station. Fingers of forestry grow into this city of few traffic jams and low air pollution.
Back to logom: the balance between enjoying yourself and leading a healthy lifestyle. It is a paradox for blond, lean good-looking Danes – originating from the Viking gene-pool – that both Food Markets provide some slow-suicide menu options.
The Danes have a history of salting their food, adore their bacon and love high cholesterol dairy products. Duck It with both duck and potatoes luxuriantly roast in duck fat epitomises the healthy eating dilemma, especially if it is followed by the irresistible full-cream lollies. The decadent Irish Whisky lolly sins on so many levels.
Yet at Green Neighbour (Central Food Market) the health-conscious slogan is “Eat like you give a damn” and the owners don’t just have a menu, they have a manifesto. They are on a mission to promote organic and seasonal produce with bowls of salad such as ‘Beet the Kale’. Taking the gluten and lactose out of pasta and pizza, Ren & Stark, translated as ‘Pure and Strong’ target the healthy market segment too.
Throughout both markets, with recyclable paper plates, the aim is to minimise environmental footprints. At home the Danes are obsessive recyclers ensuring that every last grain of waste is allocated correctly to the appropriate bin.
Of course the attraction of both markets is that you can eat your way round the world. Diversity reigns from Burgers, Caribbean Stews, Danish Fish and Chips, Indian Dahls, Israeli Tapas, Italian Pasta, Mexican Fajitas and Thai Vegetarian. Study a table of six and each diner may have chosen from a different country.
It’s the clearing-up process that makes you love the Danes. After deposing of the meal’s detritus in a bin, one diner will fetch a disinfectant spray and cloth to wipe the table clean. No one ever ‘forgets’, no one ever does a half-hearted swipe round. If there is reincarnation, next time round I want to return as a Dane living between the two food markets in Aarhus.