How Pickled Herring and Danish Schnapps Have Impacted Fergus Henderson's Approach to Food

Back when I was studying to be an architect, I worked in Copenhagen for a couple of months for a designer who used to send me out on bizarre missions. On one particular mission, I opted for a lunch that changed the way that I think about food, and...

|
Apr 18 2016, 8:00pm

Fergus Henderson illustration

Illustration by Erik Pontoppidan

It may surprise some people to discover how the combination of pickled herring and schnapps—part of the Danish lunch tradition of smørrebrød—has influenced my thinking about food. But for me it is a fine example of a dish that makes perfect culinary sense, a thing of true beauty.

My first encounter with smørrebrød happened quite a long time ago—many, many years, in fact. Danish friends of my parents had returned to Copenhagen; I was taken to visit them and Tivolihallen, my dad's favourite restaurant. I'm ashamed to say that I don't remember much about the lunch. At that time, I think that I was most concerned with playing with the other children and getting the chocolates at the end of the meal.

A few years later while studying to be an architect, I worked in Copenhagen for a couple of months for a designer who used to send me out on bizarre missions. These missions were most often to banks to decide what should happen in a bank in terms of the interior, and thereby create a job for himself. Quite a rogue!

I tended to avoid the missions by sitting alone over lunch in Tivolihallen, which, being all white with early prototypes of Poul Henningsen lights, struck me as being quintessentially Danish. What a sense of place. With a bottle of schnapps on the table (you didn't have to finish it, and I can't imagine who would) I used to wonder whether PH had used the lights to pay for his lunches. He liked his food.

The smack and hum of the rich herring, soothed by the pork fat, lifted by the raw onion and capers. The calming structural black bread and the sense of wellbeing imparted by the schnapps. This writes itself. It is true love.

Then I got older and things changed again. One of the Danish children I used to play with had become a member of the band Kashmir and I had stopped being an architect, but god forbid that the menu at Tivolihallen should ever change. There are a whole lot of things that you should order: pork belly and red cabbage, served cold; old stinky cheese with rum and little squares of aspic; herring of every conceivable flavour. And the most perfect thing of all: pickled fish and back fat on rye. Wooah! The smack and hum of the rich herring, soothed by the pork fat, lifted by the raw onion and capers. The calming structural black bread and the sense of wellbeing imparted by the schnapps. This writes itself. It is true love.

I like the presentation of this plate, the DIY approach. I have adopted this same theme for various dishes at St. John, most notably the roast bone marrow and parsley salad. There is a positivity to this method, allowing the diner to construct rather than deconstruct his plate. Receiving an intricate tower means that the plate smacks of 'one careful owner'. It is a cheeky assumption by the chef that he can build your sandwich better than you can yourself. The intervention of the knife and fork is inevitable, so welcome the messing up process as they do with this dish at Tivolihallen.

Since I first went to Copenhagen, it has undergone a renaissance. It is part of the strange trend where restaurants make a city; Noma has spawned so many offspring. But for me, although the doctor now discourages chocolates at the end of my meal and I'm no longer trying to avoid bizarre missions (these days I probably seek them out), my heart is still a herring and I'm always careful to go back to Tivolihallen.

Fergus Henderson is a legendary English chef who founded St. John restaurant in London in 1994. He's known for optimizing British cuisine while making good use of the whole animal.