Sunday, 27 March 2011

Danish life: swapping Waitrose for Netto

Back in London, my local supermarket was Waitrose: the branch located on the Finchley Road in the former John Barnes department store. It was like a good friend: familiar, consistent and reliable in my hours of need (frantic food shopping with the children in tow). The layout was second nature - I knew where everything was located and could efficiently whizz through my supermarket shopping. Fruit and vegetables were near the entrance, then bread and the bakery with its lovely cupcakes and pastries, the meat counter, the fish counter and so on... It was reliable and for the most part the same groceries were in the same location week to week and month to month. The selection of groceries was also pretty consistent and I could plan my weekly menus pretty confident that the ingredients would be available.

Now I'm in Copenhagen my local supermarket is Netto. In my limited experience (it has only been a couple of months) there is little point in taking a shopping list to Netto as the selection of groceries on offer varies from day to day. One day a staple item will be available and the next day, its not. There's no sign saying, 'Temporarily unavailable'. Instead another grocery will have taken up residence where whatever it was I was looking for used to be. Its very disconcerting and this randomness extends beyond food to other items that pop up in unexpected places - this week I spotted Converse trainers for sale alongside the chocolate bars!

To the uninitiated it feels very much as if Netto sells whatever is unloaded from the big container ships in the nearby docks. When something is in stock, it fills the shelves. One week there are boxes and boxes of Kleenex tissues stacked up high, the next week there are no Kleenex tissues, just mountains of precariously balanced jars of coffee. Hence food shopping at Netto is a lot like foraging and menu planning goes out the window.

Its not just the ever-changing selection of groceries. The other supermarket culture shock I am still coming to terms with is the speed of the checkouts. Isn't it customary to exchange pleasantries with the person working on the checkout? And don't they usually wait for you to pack your groceries before asking you to pay? There's nothing inconvenient to either party in this ritual as the groceries are scanned at a reasonable pace and there's ample time for them to be packed into bags.

Not so here in Copenhagen. The routine here is quite different; for a start eye contact is rarely made before groceries are scanned and hurled down the conveyor belt so that if you're lucky you might just get to the other end and manage to open a bag, catch the groceries and bag them before the bill is rung up. Then the expectation is that if you have been slow and not completed your packing by the time the cashier has called out the total, you have to abandon your groceries and go and pay. There is little time to familiarise yourself with the coinage (this is probably supposed to be done on your time, not the cashier's) before your change is not handed to you but dropped into the coin tray. By the time you hear the coins dropping, the cashier is scanning the next customer's groceries and hurling them down the conveyor belt.

The number of times I have had to retrieve my groceries and half filled shopping bags from the end of the packing area whilst also trying to keep out of the way of the next customer... its embarrassing and I obviously need more practise. Maybe I should enlist the help of my husband and ask him to stand at one end of the kitchen and throw groceries at me so I can master the art of speed-bagging!

Fortunately, although it is my nearest, Netto is not my only option for supermarket shopping. Here in Østerbro I also have SuperBest, Føtex and Irma. SuperBest is probably the closest to my Waitrose experiences and the layout and selection of groceries is familiar. The only difference is the prices. I know everyone is always complaining about it but things here are more expensive. Just for fun I thought I would do a quick comparison of Waitrose, SuperBest and Netto prices on some of the groceries I regularly buy. I've tried to compare like for like and all prices were taken this week. I've used an exchange rate of 8.5 DKK for £1. I haven't included any fruit comparisons because here apples, oranges, bananas, plums etc are all sold per piece unlike back home where it is by weight.

1L 1.5% Milk
6.95 DKK
6.95 DKK
£0.86 (2 pints)
£0.76 (1 L equiv)
(half dozen)
Not available
22.95 DKK
Wholemeal sliced bread
17.95 DKK
18.25 DKK
150g fruit yoghurt
Not available
4.95 DKK
500 ml Fairy washing up liquid
Not available
(Alternative brand 8.50 DKK £1.00)
16.95 DKK
£1.00 (433 ml)
£1.15 (500 ml equiv)
250g Lurpak butter (unsalted)
Not available
18.50 DKK
6 x 330 ml Coca cola Zero
Not available
46.95 DKK
6 x 1L San Pelligrino sparkling water
Not available
79.95 DKK
2 kg potatoes
16 DKK
25 DKK
£1.29 (2 kg)
£1.61 (2.5 kg equiv)
60 Active Fit nappies
Not available
(Alternative brand
equiv 117 DKK £13.76)
99.95 DKK
Converse trainers
279 DKK
Not available
Not available

Perhaps it isn't surprising that some things cost more here but Lurpak butter?! That's Danish!!

Supermarket shopping here is not all bleak; the fresh fish counter is something else and we always stop by to say hello to the lobsters...

Monday, 21 March 2011

Something sweet for new friends: Kartoffelkage

Since arriving in Copenhagen in February, I have had the pleasure of meeting lots of new people - mainly other ex pat mums also living in Denmark with their little ones while husbands take up work here. We've all got our stories to tell and hints and tips to share - passing around the benefits of our individual experiences.

This weekend I met up with two of my new mummy friends for a girls night - no children, no husbands just the three of us, some delicious food and a bottle of wine (or two!). My contribution was to take along something sweet and I chose another recipe from Trina Hahnemann's Scandinavian Cookbook.

Kartoffelkage literally means potato cake but there is in fact no potato involved. The name apparently comes from the fact that the pastries look like potatoes!! Not sure that's a selling point.... These are essentially the Scandinavian variation on what the English would call an eclair and a more refined version would be a French profiterole.

And thus I was introduced to the art and joy of making choux pastry. Now, Ms Hahnemann does warn that making the kartoffelkage is something that takes time and my husband very obligingly took the children off my hands for a couple of hours so that I could lose myself in the kitchen without distraction.

How my arms ached from beating the flour into the boiling butter and water and then, in turn and bit by bit, adding the eggs. Watching the clock on the cooker and waiting for the dough to cool felt like an eternity - I'm a choux pastry novice and I wanted to move on to the piping...

It was my chance to use a gadget that has been in its unopened box in my cupboards since I went to a Pampered Chef party in London a few months ago. This piping bottle for cake icing is really simple to use (it concertinas to force the icing out of the nozzle) and makes less mess than piping bags.

The finished pastries did rather resemble potatoes but it didn't matter, I was thrilled, the dough rose beautifully. The filling is a vanilla custard cream, light and delicate, that required constant stirring and a watchful eye - hence the lack of photographs! Topped with a piece of marzipan and then dusted with cocoa powder, compared to eclairs and profiteroles, these are a lighter pastry - the flavours are more subtle.

I had a wonderful evening with my new friends and the kartoffelkages made it in one piece despite being carried in a bag dangling from the handlebars of my bike as I rode across town....

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Danish life: Børnehave or the international pre-school

My son is going to turn 4 in July. He has been at a montessori nursery in England since he was about 2 years old and when we left in January, he was happy in the routine of spending the mornings and a couple of full days at school. For the last 6 weeks since we've moved to Copenhagen, he's been at home with me whilst we tackle the question of whether he should go to a Danish børnehave (kindergarden) or the international pre-school. Tomorrow he starts school...

Before we moved here there was no doubt in my mind that the international pre-school was the answer. I figured that with all the change that was going on, he needed to be in an English speaking environment and putting him through the Danish system would only set him up for frustration and isolation. The international school followed the British key stage 1 and so if we returned to the UK, his education would not suffer.

However, since we've moved here I have given the matter further thought. By English standards, the Danish education system could be considered 'slow'. Danish children start school at the age of 6 and until then there is no formal teaching in literacy (reading or writing) or numeracy. The focus is on developing curiosity through play, allowing children to have a childhood and to learn the skills of socialisation (a feature at the heart of Danish culture).

The Danes also prize time spent playing outdoors and in every børnehave there is a playground and a good part of the day is spent in the fresh air. I have even heard of some where children are taken to the countryside all day to play in the forests and explore nature. These are all things that seem very attractive and valuable for children but for us there is still the language problem.

It was difficult to work out whether the attraction of the Danish system was a romantic dream or whether we wanted the børnehave to be part of our Danish adventure. I have spoken to so many other ex pat mothers about the decisions they've made and I've visited the børnehave to see for myself the learning through play. After much deliberation and heartache, we've made a decision and tomorrow a new chapter begins.

I actually don't believe that there is a right or wrong answer to the dilemma but isn't this true of most decisions we make as parents? Aren't there always benefits and sacrifices? We'll see. In the meantime, I know that I am going to miss him like crazy and in these pictures I am posting, I am sharing some of the wonderful highlights of the last 6 weeks.

Don't get me wrong, having a pre-schooler at home full time is hard work and there have been lots of tears and tantrums (and I'm not just referring to the kids!!). One of the other paradoxes of motherhood is the absolute love and absolute terror that children can instil. I love being a mother and I love my children. I don't know if I've made the right decision about school but I'm 100% certain that after getting up early tomorrow morning, cajoling him into his clothes, the bathroom and then downstairs into the bike, cycling for 25 minutes to get him there on time with his running commentary on the road, finding his peg and hanging up his new school bag, kissing and waving him goodbye, I'm going to miss my munchkin...

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Cinnamon rolls - Kanelsnegl

This week has been tough: hard work and unrelenting. I've been desperately seeking sublimity. And I found it hiding within the pages of my new Scandinavian cookbook and in the experience of baking my first batch of authentic cinnamon rolls.

Everyone knows that cinnamon rolls are at the heart of the Danish pastry scene. What is less widely known is that in Danish they are called kanelsnegl (cinnamon snails, commonly abbreviated to just snegl when ordering across the counter!!) and the cinnamon is in the filling, not the pastry dough (the dough contains ground cardamon).

I made cinnamon 'buns' at Christmas time using a recipe from my favourite food blog 101 cookbooks. However, that one was for 'buns' not 'rolls'(!) and called for dry active yeast, whereas this time I used the real thing!!

Some of my earliest memories of going food shopping with my mother included going to the 'deli' counter in our local supermarket (in my hometown of Middlesbrough in the north east of England!) and her asking for fresh yeast. It didn't come pre-packaged and couldn't be found in the big refrigerators, she had to go to the counter and ask for it and it was measured out for her. Apart from those early memories, I have never seen fresh yeast in the stores (I did once try to buy it at my local Waitrose in London, without any luck).

Here in Copenhagen, breadmaking seems to be a regular pastime. I will write more about this one day but my initial observations are that (i) every supermarket has a wide selection of breadmaking flours, (ii) nearly every basket at the checkout contains a bag of breadmaking flour and (iii) fresh yeast is for sale in 50g packets in the refrigerators next to the butter!!

Just buying the fresh yeast made this baking experience feel more authentic and immediately took me back to memories of my mother's baking, in itself a wonderful tonic. The recipe was from The Scandinavian Cookbook by Trina Hahnemann and they worked a treat. The dough is proved twice and so this isn't a recipe to be rushed but in fact it was perfect for me: I love recipes that mean I can take breaks to give the two small children tugging at my apron strings some of my undivided attention. Dissolving fresh yeast in warm milk, mixing soft butter with cinnamon and sugar and painting the rolls with glaze - each step so beautiful and comforting.

Sublimity has been restored. I now have home made pastries for breakfast tomorrow and I have even managed to freeze some uncooked rolls for those mornings when I need a little something to go with my morning coffee.

By the way, HUGE thanks to my photography mentor over at Myriad Me for her hot tips on making up photo collages. Oh what fun...

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Danish life: Fastelavn

A couple of weeks ago my friends at emmerys were telling me about a festival on 6 March when children dressed up in pirate and princess costumes and beat a barrel with a stick. There was a picture drawing competition being held in the coffee shop and my son and I were invited to take part. We (or rather, I) sketched as I sipped my coffee, wondering what the festival was about and how much had been lost in translation. Pirates beating a barrel?!

Over the weeks I have done a little bit of research, listened to some amusing anecdotes and pieced together what fastelavn appears to be about and today we actually witnessed the barrel beating...

Fastelavn was originally the feast enjoyed before the lent fast. I guess in that respect it was a Christian or religious festival. At some stage the pagans took it over and introduced the beating of the barrel. The Danish phrase or slogan for this practice is slå katten af tønden, which means 'beat the cat out of the barrel'.

In times past a barrel containing a cat would be hung up for people to beat with a stick until the barrel broke and the cat escaped. The cat would, perhaps unsurprisingly, scarper. This superstitious ritual resulting in the fleeing feline was said to represent the warding off of evil spirits.

Nowadays, the health and well being of cats has prevailed and the practice has evolved so that the barrels contain candy and the children take it in turns to beat it. When the barrel is broken, the children all dive to the floor for a share of the loot. If you can imagine all the neighbourhood halloween treats being rained down upon children in a single strike, you get the picture!

As an outside observer, it did look like fun - at least for the children wielding the bats. I have to confess that I had expected the wooden barrel to have been replaced by a paper mâché model. But no, a wooden barrel hung from the ceiling and the children hit it with a wooden baseball bat! There were some fleeting moments of nervousness when the barrel would be swinging out of control across the room full of children, who incidentally weren't wearing hard hats. Maybe its just the ex-personal injury lawyer in me...

By far the most attractive aspect of this festival for me has been the fastelavnsbolle, the Danish pastry created for the occasion. The idea behind these buns comes from the original notion of the feast before the fast. Innocent enough from the outside, buried inside these pastry devils there can be fillings of cream, jam, chocolate - in sufficient quantity to put one off anything sweet for life.

Getting into the spirit of the festival, I can report that having witnessed the beating of the barrel I have also enjoyed a lovely chocolate feast this evening. As I lick my fingers clean, I vow not to eat chocolate for the next six weeks. It really was the feast before the fast...