With a week to go till the Big Day, you might be just starting to feel festive. But in Denmark, they’ve been knee-deep in Christmas cheer for a long time.
Batches of honey-cake hearts were made by the end of November, to allow the taste to develop in time for the big day. Living rooms have been aglow with advent candles counting down the days since the first of the month. Bundles of the traditional æbleskiver have long been available street stalls and cafes, and devoured greedily on the street.
For many of us, Christmas is all about food - the people and traditions it reminds us of, as much as the way it tastes. And this is where Denmark’s second city, Aarhus, comes into its element. If Copenhagen has the Scandi cool, Aarhus has hygge: that untranslatable concept of feeling cosy and warm, wrapped in blankets with loved ones - and eating delicious, comforting food. It is the only place I’ve heard someone lovingly describe a bakery as “cosy”.
Aarhus sits next to the sea and the forest, on the east coast of rural Jutland. At this time of year, fairy lights and foliage decorate the cobbled streets and the commercial district alike, while wafts of Danish rum punch, hot chocolate and deep fried pastry wafts from stalls at the city’s many Christmas markets. A brief wander reveals the best sweet treats to snuggle up with at Christmas.
What begins as a quick peek into the "Ridehuset" Equestrian Hall’s Christmas market, tempted by glow and music from inside, leads to a long wander around the 80-plus stalls offering food and crafts from all over Jutland.
One of the prettiest Danish Christmas treats on show is the Honninghjerter, or “honey heart”. The honey cake, from the southern town of Christianfeld, is similar to German gingerbread and available all year round, sometimes with a buttercream filling. But at Christmas it is baked in hearts of all shapes and sizes, often with a festive Santa, or the iced name of your sweetheart, on top.
Lene Kiel Jensen, founder of Bistad honey, tells me that her honey goes into many cakes available across the city. Considering the only other core ingredients are flour, buttermilk and egg yolks, as well as spices, the vast amounts of honey used mean it needs to be good stuff, she tells me.
They look pretty enough to be tied to a Christmas tree. But then “that’s what they did in the olden days,” I’m informed by her teenage son.
Rice pudding in Denmark can be traced back to the 1600s and it’s still eaten today in abundance. My serving from a street vendor comes with a massive dollop of salty butter, icing sugar and jam, and is a welcome winter warmer.
But at Christmas, it’s usually a more deluxe version that graces the table: rice pudding mixed with whipped cream, chopped almonds and a side of cherry sauce, all served cold. Instead of our traditional penny in the pudding, Danes pop a whole almond in the risalamande, and whoever gets the nut gets a present. Which presumably serves as an incentive to wolf it down after a hefty Christmas Eve dinner of many courses. A bowlful of rice pudding is also left out for the house elves, so they don’t cause too much mischief.
In Den Gamle By, Aarhus’ Old Town museum, you can wander through old houses trapped in time and trace Christmas traditions back to 1625, before presents were such a big deal and when homes were covered with straw to replicate the Bethlehem manger.
There is also the chance to taste the changing traditions. The original Apple æbleskivers consisted of apples cut into rings, dipped in pancake batter and fried in a vat of pork fat. And yes, you can taste the pig. They have since evolved into small waffle-type balls, and the apple has disappeared from many of the modern varieties. Instead they are served hot with a sprinkle of icing sugar and jam, and a mug of “gløgg” (see below).
Is there a mulled wine equivalent for every culture? It seems that the need for a hot, sweet alcoholic drink is almost universal. But especially in Scandinavia, where it’s practically essential to battle with the cold.
Like mulled wine, but with a much more evocative name, this Danish drink varies depending on who’s making it. There appears to be no hard and fast recipe, but the key ingredients for gløgg are wine - red or white - along with rum, spices, raisins and almonds.
These cookies are probably what comes to mind when you think of traditional Danish butter cookies
Though they have become popular Denmark all year round, the vanilla flavoured wreaths are ubiquitous in Aarhus’s cafes and kitchens in the run up to Christmas and are begging for a ribbon through the middle, either for presents or for the tree.
Back in the Den Gamle By bakery, they use a recipe dating back to 1866 which includes the essential chopped almonds to add a grainy texture. And a taste test proves that 150 years of cooking evolution can’t improve on the original Christmas biscuit.