A Taste of Modern Danish Pickling
Little has been done to modernize pickling in Denmark, even as the wildly popular New Nordic culinary scene continues to reimagine Danish cuisine. Little, that is, until Syltet.
There is a long-standing tradition of pickling in Denmark. Tangy agurk salat (pickled cucumber) has been a fixture in Danish pølsevogne for as long as anyone can remember, thick slices of pickled rødbeder (red beets) are the natural accompaniment to a smørrebrød of leverpostej (liver paté), and no Christmas dinner would be complete without a generous helping of pickled cabbage alongside caramelized potatoes and a crisp, roast duck. Surprisingly, little has been done to modernize pickling in Denmark, even as the wildly popular New Nordic culinary scene continues to reimagine Danish cuisine. Little, that is, until Syltet.
I first met Rie Schimmell, founder of Syltet, under a busy tent in Torvehallerne during the Copenhagen Cooking and Food Festival. She was prepping for her next pickling workshop, engaging customers with her trademark enthusiasm, and handing out samples of pickled gulerødder and havtorn (carrots and sea buckthorn) atop crisp rye bread crackers with a soft, mild cheese. For many, it was the first time they considered snacking on the wild citrus berry, let alone pickling it. “I wanted to do something new and innovative,” Rie would later tell a group of eager picklers. “Danes have bought more or less the same pickled veggies for years and years. So many food categories in Denmark have been upgraded. Why not pickling?”
Pickling has changed little in Denmark since the 1930s when the now iconic Danish food producer Tørsleff’s developed a series of products and services that transformed everyday cooking and canning. First was Atamon, a liquid preservative that reduced or eliminated the need for sugar and alcohol in homemade preserves, substantially decreasing the cost of canning for the average Danish household. Then came Melatin, a quick acting pectin powder that further reduced the need for sugar and cut the amount of time required to make homemade marmalades and jams. A few years later the company published Den Grønne Syltebog, a little green book of canning recipes. The book, which cost 1 Danish kroner in 1938, became one the country’s best-selling cookbooks and featured jam, marmalade and pickling instructions using Tørsleff’s liquid Atamon and Melatin powder. But Tørsleff’s pièce de résistance was its Husmoder Service (Housewife Service). Created less than a year after Den Grønne Syltebog, the service included cooking courses, recipes and a daily phone line where women could call in and learn more about Tørsleff’s products and uses. As women entered the labor force during the post-war period, Tørsleff’s quick acting products and Husmoder Service were regarded as handy resources for the busy Danish woman.
I can smell the boiling Mormors lage – traditional Danish brine of equal parts water, sugar and vinegar; affectionately called Grandma’s brine – when I meet Rie and her father John in the industrial kitchen they’ve rented for the day. At an hour when most Danes are hygge’ing at home, Rie and John are assiduously weighing, washing, chopping, peeling, boiling, baking and packing jars of pickled products. “We try to handle the vegetables as little as possible,” Rie notes while roughly chopping heads of organic purple cabbage. “I want the vegetables to be preserved as they are. To taste like how they are supposed to taste. I also want Syltet to be handmade… Just maybe not always with our hands.” She smiles and looks at John who quickly sautés the first batch of cabbage. He nods silently in agreement. We all start to laugh.
Rie started Syltet almost two years ago, after a weekend of pickling with friend, and Michelin-starred restaurant chef, Rasmus Bundgaard. “I had an idea of [which vegetables] I wanted to work with, but I knew before I started that I had to involve a chef. So I packed my car with red and yellow beets, onions, lemons, carrots and sea buckthorn and drove to [Rasmus in] Aarhus.” More than a dozen recipes and a few months later, Syltet had its first products. “But I had no customers!” Rie laughs while chatting over brine. “I biked around Copenhagen identifying shops [where Syltet would be a good fit], talking to owners and giving out samples. Everyone said, ‘No.’ But I lived above a deli, and after a bit of hesitation they agreed to stock three of each product. I promised they would sell everything.” They did. And with one shop on the list others quickly followed. Less than a year later, Syltet’s pickled beets, cabbage, onions, and carrots with sea buckthorn can be found in 25 shops across Denmark, including the artisanal delicatessen in the famous Danish department store Magasin Du Nord.
So what’s next for the hands-on, organic pickling company? Building the brand at home. “I’m excited to work with different organic farmers and experiment with new recipes.” The boxes of fragrant, grape-sized green tomatoes to which Rie is referring have not gone unnoticed. “I still deliver each Syltet order in person. [It gives me a chance to] talk directly to shop owners and customers, get feedback. I want to continue doing that for as long as possible. If I can talk to people and tell my story, I know they will share it with others with the same passion for Syltet that I have. You don’t have to love pickled veggies, you just have to love mine.”
Syltet, which means “pickled” in Danish, was created with the Nordic cuisine in mind. In addition to traditional Danish pairings, Rie recommends adding Syltet’s rødløg (pickled red onions) to salads and gule beder (pickled yellow beets) to hearty meat stews.