I have had a few requests for a post about what we’re eating here in Denmark: Is the food available much different than what we have in the U.S.? What are our regular meals like? How do I navigate the grocery stores? Has our ridiculously picky 4-year-old managed to find things she will eat?
When we arrived back in Denmark back in August, priority #1 was finding food (we do have 4 children, after all). The tiny hamlet where we live has no grocery store, but nearby Ringkøbing has like 7, so we headed to one, chosen at random. And that’s where the Grocery Store Saga begins.
So what’s it like for an American to shop at a European grocery store?
First thing you will discover is that you can’t just grab a cart. They are all chained neatly together beneath a pavilion of sorts. To unlock one, you must insert a 10 or 20 kronor coin (equivalent of a couple USD). The good news is, you get your coin back once you’ve returned it to the corall and sufficiently re-chained it.
You want proof of this alien practice?
Of course for those of you with experience in Canada or Europe, this cart “rental” practice comes as no surprise. Now that I think about it, I’ve never been to a grocery store in Asia or Africa, so maybe it’s actually the American grocery stores that are the strange ones with their “free range” grocery carts and their “paid-cart-retrievers”.
I have thus far discovered exactly one grocery store in Denmark that does not have the coin-cart practice, and that’s the Dagli Brugsen in Lem. Now I’m sure for Danes that mindfully-keeping-a-coin-handy-at-all-times-for-just-such-a-purpose-as-grocery-cart-rental is second nature, but since I myself am not quite so evolved yet, this is me when I go to the Dagli Brugsen:
And at this particular grocery store does the conspicuous lack of chains and locks lead to sudden mayhem? Are the carts strewn half-way across the town and haphazardly blowing in the wind endangering small children and livestock alike?
Nope, they are neatly and perfectly corralled, as always. Even without the coin as incentive, the Danes are much better trained than Americans when it comes to consistent cart returning–no doubt there’s some Pavlovian-esque explanation for this.
Okay, so once you’ve inserted your coin and retrieved your cart, you walk inside to “Generic European Grocery Store”. At first glance, it looks like a regular grocery store. But then arises a certain unsettling feeling. As your eyes settle on any particular item, you realize that something is not quite right.
Everything is slightly unfamiliar to you, as if the whole place and everything in it has somehow rotated 15 degrees. Whether it be the foreign-language labeling, or simply the strange packaging, you realize you’re not quite sure what anything is. My first attempt at a major shopping trip I quickly became so overwhelmed that I just started throwing stuff into the cart: mysterious lunch meats, myriad white cheeses, random breads and strangely packaged milks. I figured we may as well try all this stuff anyway–it’s part of the Expat experience, right?
As the months have progressed, I have been able to begin to hone in on which things our family likes. Which of the random breads, the mysterious lunch meats, and the myriad white cheeses.
By and large, we have been able to find most of the regular ingredients that we like (which is actually pretty amazing, and says a lot about how global our society has become), and I would say overall, in a general sense, we eat similarly to before, although when you get down to the specifics, it’s really quite different.
Some major differences in availability of products:
- Danes don’t seem to eat nearly as much cheddar cheese as Americans do. Cheddar is more of an “exotic” cheese here. So it’s only found in small packages and at certain stores, almost like the equivalent of some fancy, smelly French cheese in the U.S.
- What they have is lots and lots of white cheese. I still don’t quite understand it. They don’t even have a name for it, because it’s just “cheese”. Each store will have a wide selection of white cheeses, distinguished by how mild or strong they are, and how much fat content is in them.
- The most common bread is rye bread. As I’ve discussed before, rye bread has been popular in Denmark for hundreds of years. If I were to pick “the” quintessential Danish food, it would be rye bread. Sliced wheat and white bread are also available, but in far fewer quantities than in the U.S., and often in packaging that says, “American Style”. Yes, I generally hang my head and buy several loaves of “American Style” bread every week. John and I have developed a taste for rye bread, but so far the kids have not.
- The milk here comes in tiny 1 liter cartons. This is the only size you can buy. The weird thing is that the Danes drink a lot of milk, they just prefer to buy tons of the 1 liter cartons. Charlotte’s preschool/day care even uses these tiny cartons because it’s literally all that is available. The milk is delivered there by the crate load and they go through like 30 to 40 1-liter cartons each week. I was told that the milk manufacturers experimented with a 2-liter version a few years back, and it was so unpopular that it was discontinued.
- In keeping with the smørrebrød (open-faced sandwich) phenomenon, there is a plethora of lunchmeats…sliced ham and salami are the most common. A million variations on those.
- Frikadellers–my kids love these, they’re basically pork meatballs. A very common “kid food” here:
- Lots and lots of pork…Danes eat the most pork per capita in the world and pork is the most common ingredient in hot dishes. Pig farming is also a big deal here with pork being one of Denmark’s major exports.
Fun fact: there are more pigs than humans in Denmark.
- leverpostej–(remember this? It’s the pork liver pate that’s popular on the smørrebrød). There’s also a lot of other spreads, mostly seafood-based, i.e. pickled herring. These come in various mysterious jars and containers located near the lunch meats in the refrigerator section of the grocery store. I have never bought any, so I can’t tell you anything about them–I guess we here see the limits of my adventurous nature :).
- Considerably fewer canned and boxed dry goods (like breakfast cereal). The Danes seem to have a distaste for canned goods, but there is a pretty large variety of frozen foods.
- sugary foods are particularly expensive, as they are subject to an extra “sugar tax.” Ice cream especially is sold like it’s creamy, sugary gold. It only comes in small containers, and is probably quadruple the cost of it in the U.S.
- Domestically produced foods are quite inexpensive, most foods cost fairly similar to what they would in the U.S., maybe a little more. Food imported from the U.S. or other far-off lands is expensive, as are foods that have received the “sugar tax”, like ice cream, or the “luxury tax”, like nuts. Yes, there’s a tax for that. This is Denmark, after all ;).
Back to the Grocery Store Saga
So you’ve made it through the grocery store…well nearly. Your selections (for better or for worse) are in the shopping cart. Anxiety grips your chest as you realize that the hardest part is still to come: the checkout.
First of all, Danes, like many Europeans, tend to shop several times a week, if not almost daily. I like to do one major shopping trip a week, and then usually another smaller one for the stuff I forgot :). So when I go through the checkout at the grocery store, it’s usually me with a cart piled high with groceries (not to mention a couple of barely-contained small children), and then a line of orderly Danes with their liter of milk and block of cheese. So I start unloading everything onto the checkout. The cashier rings everything up. This happens mostly as it does in the U.S., with the one difference that the cashiers all sit down here rather than stand up. Not sure why there is this difference, but it somehow throws me strangely off guard.
Next, though, is the tough part, the part that causes the anxiety. This is, as I think of to myself, “game time.” As you are still unloading your cart-load of groceries, the cashier is busily ringing them all up, but there is no bagger, and the cashier does not help bag. As you get about halfway through unloading your cart, the groceries on the other end of the checkout are beginning to pile up. Now they are hitting the end of the beltway reservoir area. And the cashier just keeps on keepin’ on. Now your items are beginning to topple and your bread is getting squished. You try to unload faster, faster, as fast as you can. Finally you’re done unloading, you run to the end of the checkout–your bread is already squished but maybe you can save your produce. You quickly begin unloading everything back into your cart or bags By the way, you bring your bags. Grocery stores here don’t provide free bags. They do have bags available for sale, but they are not all that cheap, so most everyone tends to bring their own re-usable bags. (I suppose the idea is to be eco-friendly, but the irony is that then everyone buys their own packages of new bags to use in trash cans, etc. In the U.S. it was always my practice to re-use all my free shopping bags that I received at grocery stores. Now I buy such bags…same amount of bags being used.)
Okay so you’re only a quarter way through unloading and bagging your purchased groceries, but the cashier is done checking you out. You hurry and pay to avoid holding up the line. As you load a few more items into your re-usable bag, the next Dane in line finishes purchasing their bag of apples and single liter of milk. There is exactly one partition that allows for the cashier to send groceries to a separate reservoir on the belt. You’re still unloading and the next Dane checks out with one block of butter, a single cube of yeast, and a bag of flour. Now there is nowhere for their groceries to go–you are officially Holding Up The Line. You turn into a drill sergeant ordering your children, “Bag! Bag Faster!” You feel increasingly conspicuous as you haphazardly throw your groceries into bags in any random order and try to get out of there as fast as humanly possible.
Now I have spoken to other American Expats about this “grocery store checkout anxiety” situation, and it is a very common feeling. I have received the advice to just take my time and not worry about it. I know that’s what I should do, but I can’t help but feel like the weird American that’s buying an inconceivable amount of groceries and holding everybody else up. So you Americans, feel grateful to those cashiers that are helping you bag, say “thank you” to that spunky young bagger.
And to American Grocery Stores: “Never Change. I love you just the way you are.” 🙂
***I do know that there are lots of ways for me to avoid all this difficulty at the checkout, I just at this point haven’t quite pulled myself together enough to implement anything.
Continuing Grocery Store Saga…
You’re finally home, you unload your groceries from the car. You select something to eat. You open it up, aaaaand you’re like, “What did I just buy!?!”
Weird things I’ve bought:
Not once, but twice I have bought large boxes of rock salt, thinking I was buying regular “eating/cooking” salt. Even when I try really hard to distinguish the packaging, I seem to be incapable of doing so. And why is there so much rock salt in the baking aisles here? Now that I don’t know.
Licorice flavored stuff–I kept accidentally buying licorice flavored stuff: licorice flavored gum, licorice flavored ice cream sandwiches, a chocolate bar with licorice bits. The Danes loooove licorice. They have licorice flavored everything, and every variety of licorice candy imaginable. They particularly like “salty” licorice, which is quite a strange combination. Once I (finally) figured out that the Danish word for licorice is “lakrids”, I began to be able to avoid the problem of surprise licorice.
Saft–our extremely picky 4-year-old happens to love juice, and this is pretty much her only source of fruit, so it was important that we find something she liked. The apple juice here is quite a bit more tart than what we are used to in the States–John and I like this, but the kids are disturbed by it. So I have purchased several other kinds of juice for C to try. One of them was called “Saft”. It was a reddish color and had various grapes and apples and such on the carton. I poured some into C’s sippy cup. She tried it and immediately said, “Yuck!”
So I gave some to A to try. (After all, no reason for it to go to waste). Her response? “Ewww, it tastes like medicine!”
John grabbed the cup, and,”She’s right, it does taste like medicine!”
Oh it can’t be that bad, I thought, taking a small drink. It was pretty bad–syrupy sweet, thick and strong…much like cough medicine, in fact. I dumped the full carton into the trash.
This episode occurred 5 months ago, and it wasn’t until recently that the mystery was solved.
We were invited to a brunch at a friend’s house. She had a couple of juices, one of them being “saft”. The friend asked me what saft called in English. I told her I thought we just called it juice. She said, “Yes, but it’s different, it’s far more concentrated.”
I decided to try some to see if I could think of the American equivalent. I poured a bit into my cup, took a sip, and quickly recognized it as the same syrupy stuff we had all sampled several months prior.
And then something my hostess had said earlier came back to me:
“It’s very concentrated…”
A light turned on, “Wait,” I said turning to the group, “Am I supposed to add water to this?”
“Oh yes, yes! Of course!” everyone said, laughing. “You’re supposed to add a lot of water, and just a bit of saft.”
Okay. That explains so much.
But why would they make and sell juice like that, in a carton that looks like it’s ready to be consumed, and yet it’s not ready to be consumed? the American in me wonders.
Well, as it was explained by a Dane, “Why would we pay for the water?”
I guess they have a point.
And, in case anyone was concerned, the 4 year old did find a juice she liked…strangely it is the “exotic tropical” blend…pineapple, oranges, and bananas. I for one consider it an improvement. In the U.S. she only got one fruit (apples in her apple juice), and now she’s getting 3!
To wrap it up:
So more or less we eat fairly similarly to before… being that I am “mostly vegetarian,” I don’t cook meat for dinner all that often, but I buy lunch meats because Jeffrey and John like them. We eat a lot of Mexican, a lot of soup, a lot of pasta, potatoes, homemade pizza, chili, oatmeal, fruits and vegetables. We don’t eat as much cereal or ice cream as we did back in the U.S., and that is probably not a bad thing. We’ve also added in a few new things, like frikadellers, rye bread, remoulade, and Danish meats, cheese, and salamis.
And the ridiculously picky 4 year old, has she found things to eat? Well, a few. I still worry constantly about her getting adequate nutrition, but that is no different than it was in the United States.
One of the interesting things that I’ve noticed is that even the food I am buying (even on purpose), and the supposedly familiar foods that I am making generally have some slight way that they are different, some little twist that reminds us that we are in a foreign country.
For example, the brown sugar…totally different thing…different flavor, different texture, much more…moist. The apple juice, as I’ve said, is more tart. The bread in general more dense. The milk comes in tiny cartons but the yogurt comes in huge ones.
Another random thing we’ve noticed, as a family that loves Mexican food: the small amounts of salsas, Mexican sauces, etc that are available here all have a distinctive “chili” flavor. And although this flavor is not like anything I’ve tasted in the U.S., it is evidently quite popular to the Danish palate. Not once but but twice I have accidentally bought “Chili” tortilla chips, thinking I was buying regular tortilla chips. (It was easy to accidentally buy them because the packaging featured the words “tortilla chips” in large letters, with a picture of regular-looking tortilla chips, and then, as an apparent insignificant afterthought, the word “chili” at the bottom in small letters.)
But, as it happened, after buying them (accidentally) two times, and eating them (on purpose) two times, I developed a taste for them.
And now, I buy them on purpose.