Our European Summer part I: A Taste of Copenhagen

Ah summer, how I love thee, let me count the ways.

Our first full summer back in Spain is coming to a close. It’s been long, gooey warm, and wonderful. I am excited to share some of its magic with you through a couple of blog posts.

We knew we wanted this first summer back in Barcelona to be a European one (though my kids are, after a year here, already eager to visit their friends in California), a Mediterranean one. As we donned our down jackets in the Bay Area faux-summer year after year, we dreamt of the bright Mediterranean sun, lounging on a Greek island, wearing next to nothing, bathing in blue waters. When we decided to move back, we knew Greece would be our first family travel destination.

However, a somewhat improvised trip to Copenhagen (Europe’s polar opposite, perhaps) ended up coming first. Life does that. While I was on my Japan tour with a group in late May, Is. called me on the phone to inform me that The Other Favorites, an American band he and Bruno are fans of, were touring Europe, and the cities we could choose from were: Munich, Berlin, or Copenhagen. Go for Copenhagen, I said without hesitating (I love Berlin and spent summers 2000 and 2001 there learning German and doing research for my dissertation; I definitely want to take my kids there someday ). For once, I left the planning to him (well, for the most part, control freak that I am) and just came along for the ride.

We spent five glorious days in a city that has, in recent years, after an unassuming past -and largely thanks to chef Rene Redzepi, his restaurant Noma and its food revolution- made it to the map of most desirable places to visit.

The Danes are known as the happiest people in the world (read this book to learn more on whether/why that’s true), and to us southern Europeaners, the state of wellbeing was palpable all over. There’s an aura. It’s super clean, people are nice and seem in a good mood, everything feels mellow. For a capital city, Copenhagen is amazingly green (must be all the rain) and unstressed. Or maybe it’s the summer; I wonder what the looks on their faces are in wintertime. For us, after an intense July of extreme Barcelona heat, it was a respite to spend a few days in mild weather. In Northern European countries, people are soooo happy in the summertime! Everyone’s outside, radiant, happy to be spending as much time in the streets as possible. As a friendly woman in a ceramic shop said to me “one doesn’t live in Denmark for the weather”.

Here go some very biased highlights of our brief stay, in no particular order:

1. Street Food

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polenta food truck at Reffen

polenta food truck at Reffen

One of the biggest surprises was the overwhelming amount of incredible street food. Why is it that cold, northern cities have more activities in the streets than the sunny Mediterranean ones? Somehow that doesn’t make sense to me; I remember visiting amazing flea markets of cities like Vienna or Berlin in the middle of winter, with goods displayed over a blanket of snow; nothing gets cancelled due to weather, people just dress in extra layers. We arrived in Copenhagen famished after a very early flight, and right by our Airbnb an amazing street food festival was taking place! A long row of impossibly cute and colorful food trucks lined up on the shore of one of the city’s lakes (there are three of them curving around the western part of the city center). Every single one seemed appetizing (I have pretty high standards, so that’s not too often for me), it was hard to choose, as there were foods and drinks from every ethnic origin and they all looked amazing. I ended up going for a Japanese-style ochazuke (green tea soup) made with local fish and sea vegetables. The next day, we took a boat to Reffen, a playground by the water of mouth-watering food trucks from all ethnicities, along with some crafts stalls thrown in to boot. We were constantly amazed by the lack of crowds, used to over-exploited Barcelona, where everything cool, sadly, goes hand in hand with long lines and too many people. Every stall was cuter than the previous one, and the entire place had a chill, authentic vibe. Not made for tourists, but for everyone to enjoy. Used to the hoards of people that populate our city (now year round), it was entirely refreshing to be able to go to cool places and not be packed like sardines, or standing in long lines. And the quality of the food was exceptional everywhere.

2. Volunteering at Gro

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Our family meal

Our family meal

This was perhaps my favorite day. Not only were we in a beautiful place, contributing doing something we believe in, but also, in today’s over-exploited, tourism-centered Europe, spending your time in a non-touristy way feels like a gift. This is easier when you do things the Sobremesa way: either have some kind of previous contact with locals, or do a ton of research (or both), which wasn’t the case this time. I have to give the credit for this one to Is., who stumbled upon it and knew right away that I would love the idea. Gro Spiseri is a restaurant and rooftop garden on top of an industrial building, inspired by the ones in Brooklyn. They run a CSA for 40 lucky families, as well as a private restaurant in a beautiful greenhouse, where a team serves a 6-course dinner service Thursday through Monday, prepared with produce from the garden, as well as food sourced from local purveyors they partner with. On Wednesdays, you can volunteer in the garden and eat a fresh community lunch with fellow volunteers and Gro staff, cooked by the same team. Is. and I spent the morning under the gentle Danish sun harvesting tomatoes, and picking seeds out of dried wildflowers. We then sat down to our well-earned meal (it was not hard work, I admit) with a lovely crowd of locals and foreigners. Livia, one of the main organizers from the start, was a pleasure to meet and work with, and her dad was around helping out and filling us in on the place’s history. The city government is apparently quite proud of their unique concept and their success, in spite of having made things not quite easy for them to start this venture to begin with. Typical, huh? Here’s a photo of our meal. It was Hasselback potatoes (though the one in this pic is a twisty version of which there were only a few, which the chef said were way too much work), spaghetti squash with homemade mayo, samphire, and local edible flowers (picked by the same guy who sells to Noma, we were told), and zucchini noodles with tomato sauce. I even asked for seconds, shamelessly.

Harvesting tomatoes at Gro

Harvesting tomatoes at Gro

my not-so-little one

my not-so-little one

our first course: cabbage with salmon roe

our first course: cabbage with salmon roe

3. Meal at Ancestrale: Nope, I didn’t go to Noma. It is surely a once-in-a-lifetime experience but, in addition to not being ready to fork out that amount of cash, I knew that finding good food wouldn’t be an issue. A few weeks before the trip, however, I couldn’t resist and did get on the waiting list, putting myself in the uncomfortable dilema of “what will I do if we get in?” (And yes I did get a couple of emails saying there were spots available but no matter how fast I clicked on the reserve button, someone had always clicked faster.) The night of the Other Favorites concert, our last night in town, was reserved for Olivia and I to have have a special mother-daughter date. Things have been a bit bumpy (to put things mildly) between us of late, as Olivia, or Lea as she now wants to be called, is in full pre-teen force, and I’m not great at dealing with it. I was looking forward to a relaxed evening in which we could talk without feeling like we were on opposite sides of a battlefield, and without the inevitably constant competition of her older brother. We dolled up and hit the Vesterbro neighborhood. I’m happy to say the evening exceeded my -high-expectations, possibly helped by the utterly hygge ambiance at Ancestrale, my place of choice, a Danishly-decorated (lots of natural light accentuated by candles, and sparse pieces of midcentury modern wooden furniture) wine bar specializing in natural wines, with small (tiny) plates to go with. You can choose among a selection of 5 seasonal plates or have all 5, which is what we shared for dinner. The menu rotates frequently, and is produce-forward, subtle, unfussy, and delicious. Even for my picky pre-teen, who devoured it all (/sans/ wine) with gusto. Her favorite was a hake fish with fried Swiss chard leaves -and at home she refuses to eat fish unless it comes from a can or jar! The other dishes we had were boiled cabbage with salmon roe and local herbs and flowers; cauliflower with preserved lemon sauce and samphire; braised carrots with rosemary cream and crunchy rye; the above-mentioned hake, and a sweeter one to finish of crunchy oats with blackcurrant ice cream and tarragon sauce.

I suspect it will be a night to remember for both of us.

4. Biking

my happy place

my happy place

Just like with the street food and flea markets: why is it that the coldest cities seem to be the most biker-friendly ones? Barcelona is better now than it used to be, but still eons from cities like Amsterdam, Berlin or Copenhagen, where the bike rules. Apparently, taxes for driving a car are so high that people avoid them as much as possible, resulting in a cleaner, less noisy, more bike and pedestrian-friendly city. Plus, it’s very flat, so that helps. (Now that we live in the mountain I miss biking, which is eco-friendly but also good for the body; no wonder everyone seems so fit in Denmark, they cycle just about everywhere.) We rented bikes for a day and rode out of the city all the way to Jægersborg Dyrehaven (a huge natural park with wild deer), about an hour, and then to the nearby town of Vaedbekal to have lunch at Rosenhuset café, another manifestation of /hygge/ with its pink prettyness. We stayed so long it turned into tea time as well; their cakes are pretty damn good. On our way back a tremendous downpour of rain surprised us (I guess that can happen in Denmark) and we were forced to settle and rest a bit in another gorgeous café by the coast.

5. Ceramics

MK Studio

MK Studio

Copenhagen is a ceramic-lover’s paradise. I spent an entire morning on my own exploring potters’ shops and workshops, drooling over Danish design and craftsmanship.

My favorite of all was perhaps MK Studio, pictured on the right, run by a marriage between a potter and a chef. Great combination, right? It just makes sense. Their pieces are mostly porcelain, with the most beautiful glazes, and designed to be functional and food-friendly.

I was soooo good on minimalism that I didn’t buy a single piece, but this trip definitely was a feast for the eyes.

Also not to miss: Tortus, another local ceramicist specializing in tall, colorful vases, and Yonobi, with beautifully curated pieces from all over the world.

6. Cafes

Copenhagen is for coffee drinkers.

The Lab Kitchen: minimalism and amazing coffee

The Lab Kitchen: minimalism and amazing coffee

In addition to several gourmet coffee trucks at the street food markets, there were countless cafés we saw, I would have loved to down and chill for the entire afternoon in so many of them, but, alas, there is never enough time.

Some favorites that we did sit down at were:

The Lab Kitchen, extremely hidden in an industrial building, but so worth the hunt to get there; the coffee was amazing, and that said by someone who doesn’t care too much for Joe).

Atélier September: a bit too crowded, but they have matcha from Uji, artisanal kombucha, and a few delicious plates for breakfast or lunch.

Darcy’s Kaffe, which was a last day find just around the corner from our Airbnb. The owner, Darcy the man, is a lovely British transplant, and he introduced me to a wonderful new companion I’m thoroughly enjoying the teas from London-based Postcard Teas.

good tea and good reads at Darcy’s

good tea and good reads at Darcy’s

All the money I didn’t spend on ceramics went on tea; but that’s perishable so it doesn’t create clutter and feeds my body and soul!), a company focused on lovingly sourcing small-farm, organic teas around the world. I tried a powdered oolong which will become a warm afternoon pick-me-up throughout my crazy upcoming months, to remind me of my time in Copenhagen. Funny, tea from Taiwan, purchased in Copenhagen, enjoyed in Barcelona. That's today’s world, I guess.

Stay tuned for part II of our European Summer: Sifnos island.