Denmark’s south-west Jutland has wild, empty spaces, a huge design heritage and experimental chefs who are only too keen to plunder the land’s natural larder – Anthea Gerrie
PHOTOGRAPHY ULF SVANE
In the watery flatlands of south-west Jutland, the beach creeps up through the dunes and seagrasses to deposit its bounty on your dinner table. Sand crabs are boiled in teakettles to make a sweet shell broth, beach mint is used to perfume chocolate fondant and there’s even seawater in the local ice cream.
Marine treasure is the glory of this remote region that sits at the confluence of two great wetlands, where the Danish North Sea Nature Park abuts the Wadden Sea National Park. The latter, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, includes not only a wild and wonderful coastline but also the handsome port of Esbjerg, a clutch of seaside villages built on the prosperity of the spice trade and the delightful island of Fanø – a hidden jewel of Nordic heritage.
Families in search of wild nature have made south-west Jutland Denmark’s most-visited region after Copenhagen. But now they are being joined by food lovers and fans of the country’s 20th-century design heroes. The furniture designer Hans Wegner was born here and lighting innovator Poul Henningsen spent time here too – their iconic chairs and lamps enjoy an unlikely but utterly authentic seaside setting in restaurants, pubs, homes and hotels.
Tell Copenhagen hipsters that the most south-westerly corner of Denmark is a dining destination and they’ll raise an eyebrow; this nature wonderland may be the country’s second-greatest attraction but its bounty has remained relatively unsung. However, Denmark’s Michelin-starred chefs all bow in homage; Noma, Geranium and the rest have built their reputation on the fine ingredients native to Jutland.
“This area has been our larder for decades, though we didn’t always know it,” says chef Jakob Sullested of Sønderho Kro, an 18th-century inn whose previous owners imported from France items they had no idea were growing on their doorstep. “How those suppliers must have laughed at our ignorance!” he adds wryly.
When Sullested took over nine years ago from the family who had owned the 14-bedroom inn for generations, he proudly substituted a resolutely Nordic menu for the French cuisine that had been served in the past: “Ever since I arrived, I’ve been passionate about our wonderful local products – the little crabs, oysters, sea plants and wonderful lamb from our local breed of small black sheep. We don’t have pork on the island, so I don’t serve it,” he says.
“As for the beach outside our door, I don’t just trawl it for seafood, I pick the plants to infuse in my homemade schnapps,” he adds, pointing to the enormous Kilner jars that are lined up atop a counter where fresh pancakes are temptingly piled high for breakfast alongside some homemade plum preserves.
Sønderho Kro is exquisitely authentic to its period with its wood panelling, rich, dark walls and textiles in tiny floral prints. It is the focal point of a gorgeously quaint and entirely thatched hamlet at the southern tip of Fanø, a pretty spit of land with such a rich history that it’s surprising that it remains such a well-kept secret. Only a 10-minute ferry ride from Esbjerg on the Danish mainland, this magical little isle was once the preserve of sea captains who sailed the world in search of treasure. They brought back exotic spices, and clothes and jewellery for wives who often entertained lovers during their long absences. This is the explanation for the pairs of china Staffordshire dogs seen in virtually every window on the island. Back in the day, the dogs were placed facing inward to silently convey that it was safe to call; outward-facing dogs were a clear ‘stay away’ signal that the master was home from his travels.
On special occasions, the women of Fanø still wear the rich costumes assembled from a mixture of exotic and homegrown threads, embellished with buttons of silver or locally washed-up amber. While the originals can be seen in the charming little island museum, jewellery and textile designer Gitta Foldberg, who has lived on Fanø for 20 years, crafts contemporary takes on these textiles and buttons for her boutique opposite the museum. “There isn’t anyone from here who doesn’t own a bit of the past, something brought back by a sea captain or a new wife,” she says of this distinctly bohemian island which is home to many artists. “The people are extremely open-minded, which makes them great to live with,” she notes.
Nordby – the pretty red-brick town with a feel of New England where the ferry arrives on the doorstep of the museum and Gitta’s emporium – is more urban but every bit as picturesque as sleepier Sønder, a hamlet of thatched cottages, and the beating hub of the island. The two are separated by a coastal road and a beach so broad and flat that many take to the wheel along the sands with legal blessing.
While Sønderho Kro is the place for leisurely romantic dinners – this is where the aforementioned sand crabs are cooked into a sweet broth in a kettle “like I see people doing all the time on the beach,” says Sullested – there are more casual daytime eats in Nordby. At Rudbecks Ost & Deli, Tilde – the talented daughter of organic farmers who switched to catering for the pleasure of showcasing local products – combines buttermilk with a touch of seawater to create a delectable ice cream with a true sense of place. She also bakes organic bread for foot-long smørrebrød (open sandwiches made with rye bread) topped with local bounty including bakskuld – traditional Danish sand dabs cured in the smokehouse across the strait – and churns her own butter.
Rudbecks is also where visitors can taste the fabulous biodynamic cheese made by Vagn Borg and his wife Hanne at the Kristiansminde Dairy on the mainland. It’s named after the family farm Borg inherited from his grandparents; the couple were in the vanguard of Denmark’s artisanal cheese movement and among the first to go biodynamic.
Another fine showcase for local produce is Kellers Badehotel & Spisehus where an equally big draw is the schnapps, infused with all manner of local berries, beach herbs and spices to knock back with herring, locally caught squid or island ham.
Both restaurants serve the fine craft beer of Fanø Bryghus, the unlikely fruition of a dream born in Rottingdean. “I lived in Sussex for 15 years working for American Express but most enjoyed standing in for the landlord at my local pub while he was on holiday,” says Claus Winther, who opened this exceptional brewery championed by Noma of Copenhagen, as well as by bars and restaurants throughout Scandinavia.
“I got into the real ale thing in Britain – so much more interesting than the industrial beers, which were then all we had over here. When we returned to Denmark I started visiting all the small craft breweries that were opening up in 2000, and a few years later we moved to the island, bought these premises from a brewery going out of business – and I’ve never worked so hard ever since,” he explains.
The Bryghus, rated in the top 50 of 13,000 world breweries in an international competition, is one of a small Danish consortium that has developed a native Nordic yeast. “We really wanted to bring a sense of local ingredients into our brewing, and are working on an alternative to the English and American hops we use at present,” Winther remarks. Perfectly complementing his award-winning IPA – he makes six year-round and two seasonal beers – is a smoky bivalve sizzling outside under the eagle eye of Jesper Danneberg Voss, Fanø’s self-styled Oyster King. Voss runs weekly safaris for visitors who are prepared to don waders and shuck their catch on the beach but he also makes occasional appearances in the brewery yard to fire locally caught specimens on a barbecue, deliciously caramelising their shells.
While Fanø is a destination in itself, it would be a crime to come so close and miss the national parks and other high points of the mainland, in particular the almost deserted little hamlet of Henne, which has two distinct but equally unmissable hospitality offerings.
Nature lovers in the know head four kilometres down a remote gravel track to Henne Mølle Å Badehotel, a simple hotel in the midst of wild nature, which is the only such dwelling designed by lighting architect Poul Henningsen (better known as PH). Now owned by a trade union whose members visit often, outsiders also benefit from its very low prices. While the place’s raison d’être is its proximity to dunes and the thrillingly broad, shining beach a few minutes’ walk along a scenic estuary, the uber-fresh local produce is also a draw, not to mention the visual pleasure of PH’s iconic light fittings that hang throughout the split-level dining room. Ironically, Henningsen designed the room to be lit with candles when he designed the place in the 1930s – his fittings were brought in decades later as a tribute to the building’s heritage.
Although examples of Denmark’s famous mid-century design abound in Jutland, the owners of Henne Kirkeby Kro, now one of Denmark’s finest dining and sleeping destinations, were determined to create a thoroughly contemporary experience on the site of another 18th-century roadside inn. However dramatically gorgeous, if minimalistic, the rooms may be, the real pull is British-born chef Paul Cunningham who has cooked in Denmark for 21 years. Long before Noma was invented (Cunningham was invited to launch the restaurant but declined, recommending instead his one-time sous-chef René Redzepi), he earned a Michelin star for his food at The Paul, the restaurant in Copenhagen that he gave up in 2011 before decamping to the west of the country.
It’s a move he has never regretted. “This is where everything comes from – the best fish, vegetables and meat – all this is on Henne’s doorstep. We breed our own lamb, make our own honey and take all our inspiration from the kitchen garden, like a dish of nasturtium leaves we’re serving tonight wrapped in ham we’ve made ourselves. We make not only our own charcuterie, nine different bread doughs every day and churn our own butter, we’re expanding our cheese-making to a second variety,” he says proudly.
Cunningham revels in the new categories of comestibles that are evolving to serve an increasingly discriminating local population. “Ten years ago, Denmark didn’t even have an artisan cheese tradition; yet now we have excellent dairies, and where once there was only industrial beer we have great craft breweries. We even have a whisky distillery on our doorstep,” he observes.
Flying in the face of those flying the flag for New Nordic Cuisine, Cunningham chooses to weave his favourite flavours from around the world into his creations. Veal fillet is smoked with coffee as well as bone marrow, and the roast duck with local cherries is scented with five-spice. While other Scandinavian chefs fall over themselves to stick to only what grows around them, Cunningham is resolutely unapologetic: “I’m not a fan of the exclusively Nordic kitchen, and while I support local fishermen and butchers, I spice my kitchen with my travels.” In that sense, he is merely following long-held local tradition. This westernmost tip of Denmark has always faced outward to the wider world and has imported spices from afar for centuries. It’s the local ingredients which have expanded and improved over the past decade, along with the gastronomy, in the hands of an open-minded population that is prepared to combine them with a taste of the exotic.
Anthea Gerrie and Ulf Svane travelled to south-west Jutland courtesy Visit Denmark (visitdenmark.co.uk).
South-west Jutland is three hours west of Copenhagen. Denmark’s currency is the kroner, and the country is one hour ahead of the UK. In June, the average high temperature is 160C and the average low is 70C.
British Airways (ba.com) serves Billund, the nearest airport, daily from London and three times a week from Manchester. Ryanair flies to Billund from London Stansted three times a week (visit ryanair.com).
South West Denmark Tourist Board (sydvestjylland.com/en) has plenty of options of things to do and places to go in south-west Jutland.
Paul Food (Grub Street Cookery) documents Paul Cunningham’s favourite recipes over nearly a decade of cooking in Denmark.
The Year of Living Danishly (Icon Books) humorously charts British journalist Helen Russell’s experience of the region and its customs, after moving to Jutland with her husband.
To offset your emissions use the carbon calculator at climatecare.org, which uses donations to support environmental projects around the world.
Where to stay
Britannia Centrally located in the centre of south-west Jutland’s main city, this hotel – furnished in classic Danish style – offers excellent value for money.
(Tel: (0045) 75130111 or visit britannia.dk)
Henne Kirkeby Kro An updated historic inn offering stylish modern decor, the main reason for staying here though is to enjoy a long and memorable tasting menu from one of Denmark’s top chefs, Brit Paul Cunningham. It was recently awarded a Michelin star.
(Tel: (0045) 75255400 or visit hennekirkebykro.dk)
Henne Mølle Å Badehotel Built by one of Denmark’s most famous lighting designers, this simple motel is notable for its fabulously secluded setting amid dunes close to the sea, and a decent dinner table.
(Tel: (0045) 76524000 or visit hennemoelleaa.dk)
Hjerting Badehotel This is a charming 100-year-old seaside hotel situated right on the boardwalk in a village to the north of Esbjerg. It offers spectacular sea views and serves local fare that is imaginatively prepared.
6710 Esbjerg V
(Tel: (0045) 75117000 or visit hjertingbadehotel.dk)
Hotel Arnbjerg Simple, cosy hotel in a parkland setting, and an easy walk from the town of Varde.
Arnbjerg àlle 2
(Tel: (0045) 75211100 or visit arnbjerg.dk)
Hotel Sønderho Kro Exquisitely preserved 18th-century inn on the southern Fanø shore, owned by one of the area’s best chefs.
Sønderho 6720 Fanø
(Tel: (0045) 75164009 or visit sonderhokro.dk)
Where to shop
Gitta Foldberg Design Beautiful textiles and jewellery that are based on traditional objects and patterns of Fanø.
Hovedgaden 25 b
(Tel: (0045) 29248252 or visit gittafoldberg.dk)
Kirsten Winther Johannsen This Henne artist makes and sells beautiful pottery out of her home.
(Tel: (0045) 23849954 or visit henne-keramik.dk)
Where to eat
Chhat Food & Wine Deli owner Claus Skov took the building next door in the resort of Blåvand to serve simple brasserie food with a modern Scandinavian vibe. Pick the terrace if the weather is good.
(Tel: (0045) 21335333 or visit chhat.dk)
Henne Kirkeby Kro Paul Cunningham’s restaurant was recently awarded a Michelin star, serving a stunning tasting menu.
(Tel: (0045) 75255400 or visit hennekirkebykro.dk)
Herregårdskælderen Basement dining including wine matching in the ancient vaulted kitchen of an elegant manor house with an exquisite country garden.
(Tel: (0045) 75383866 or visit sonderskov.dk)
Kellers Badehotel & Spisehus Pretty seaside cafeteria with a large terrace – a perfect spot for fair-weather dining. Don’t miss one of 20 varieties of schnapps – these come infused with everything from beach herbs to liquorice and brown sugar – the ideal accompaniment to a predominantly fishy menu.
(Tel: (0045) 75163088 or visit kellersbadehotel.dk)
Rudbecks Ost & Deli Delicious sandwiches, cakes and ice cream laced with local seawater in a gorgeous family-run daytime cafe with attractive mid-century decor. Local craft beer is the thing to wash it all down.
(Tel: (0045) 24938505 or visit rudbecks.dk)
Strandpavillonen A charming restaurant overlooking the sea on the outskirts of Esbjerg, serving fresh, local seafood that is imaginatively presented.
6710 Esbjerg V
(Tel: (0045) 75117000 or visit hjertingbadehotel.dk)
Bakskuld Smoked common dabs
Rullepølse Rolled pressed pork belly with herbs, served cold
Smørrebrød Traditional Danish open sandwich
Marineret sild Pickled herring
Vadehavsreje Local Wadden Sea brown shrimp
Vadehavslam Salt marsh lamb
Fanø laks Salmon smoked over beech on Fanø
Stenbidder rogn Lumpfish roe
Stjerneskud Traditional plaice and shrimp dish
What not to miss
Fanø Skibsfart & Dragtsamling This museum documents the island of Fanø’s rich cultural heritage with an engaging exhibition of local costumes, buttons, jewellery, artefacts, the history of shipping, and photographs of festivals and ancient local customs.
(Tel: (0045) 21140043 or visit fanoskibs-dragt.dk)
Kunstmuseet i Tønder A museum largely devoted to the work of legendary mid-century designer Hans Wegner whose chairs are exquisitely displayed on every floor. The town centre nearby is also worth visiting to view furniture and accessories by Wegner and his contemporaries in a pair of neighbouring top-end shops.
(Tel: (0045) 74728989 or visit museum-sonderjylland.dk)
Man Meets the Sea Svend Wiig Hansen’s monumental sculpture of four figures looking out to sea is a thrilling landmark on the Esbjerg seafront.
Stauning Whisky A young distillery whose hooch is served in many of Denmark’s most prestigious restaurants and is already winning awards. Tours and tastings for visitors are available by arrangement.
(Tel: (0045) 93391122 or visit stauningwhisky.dk)