If one needed any further examples of how much technology can distract and distance us from reality, one should look no further than a screenshot from my phone that I uploaded to Facebook last week. This was taken from my language-learning app, which had made a triumphant sound and presented me with a page declaring that I was ‘25% fluent in Danish’, thanks to my daily practice of 15-minute sessions over the last week, matching word pairs, translating small sentences and picking the correct word out of possible options. This sounded excellent, and I was ready and willing to crow about my progress to anyone who would listen, until I realised that I am only fluent in a particularly niche subset of the Danish language, one comprised entirely of sentences along the lines of “the turtle is drinking the milk” or “elephants are vegetarian” or “the horses do not eat steak”. This would be fine if my new job were taking me to work in some kind of hipster Danish zoo, or a supermarket catering to the dietary needs of exotic fauna, but unfortunately I am moving to Denmark to work in a university that, as far as I know, does not have resident turtles or elephants and probably won’t require me to inform my students that ‘the girl is eating the oranges’ or ‘he has a dog and horses’.
The statement that I am 25% fluent in Danish also entirely fails to differentiate between spoken Danish and written Danish. I am rapidly discovering that this is an important distinction. Written Danish is fairly grammatically simple, and vaguely similar to German or Old English. Spoken Danish bears absolutely no resemblance to anything on the page, and seems to defy all laws of logic, pronunciation and common sense. Whole polysyllabic sentences are condensed into single guttural syllables, while letters take on a life of their own. ‘D’ is often pronounced as an ‘L’, and entire sections of words are elided together into one indefinable grunt. Sentences with several pronouns often sound like just one word, and an indistinct and vague one at that. Just to be on the safe side, I have started pronouncing all Danish words as ‘blegh’, which is essentially the same as being fluent.
So, if you think the title of this recipe is pronounced ‘mad-brod’, you would be oh, so, hilariously wrong. ‘Mad’ sounds something like ‘mel’, and is the Danish word for food. ‘Brød’ is, of course, bread, but spoken sounds more like ‘brerl’, with a guttural, slightly French, back-of-the-throat inflection on the ‘R’. So instead of trying to learn Danish, I have decided that I am simply going to lock myself away in a small expat cave, drinking PG tips and Pimms and eating marmite and watching repeats of the Great British Bake Off and moaning about the weather and subsisting almost entirely on these breads, which I will defiantly refer to as ‘Mad breads’, because that is what it looks like and is a much better and catchier name than ‘melbrerls’.
As the name suggests, this is a meal on top of a piece of bread, rather like a Danish version of a pizza but heartier and more substantial because this is Scandinavia and we need all the help we can get to stay warm, especially because, much to my astonishment and dismay, the streets of Denmark are not lined with saunas. The first madbrød I tried, from a bakery in Aarhus, was gorgeously adorned with a dramatic purple scattering of beetroot and feta cheese. I couldn’t resist its outlandish colours, although I feel my experience of eating it might have been even better had it not occurred on the tray table of a Ryanair plane while trying not to be sick (I think from my flying phobia rather than exposure to Ryanair, although I can’t be sure).
To rectify this, I replicated it in my own kitchen a week later, using a basic white dough enriched with rye flour (I’m 25% Scandinavian already after all) and topped with sliced roast beetroot, a mixture of goat’s cheese and feta, fresh thyme and crushed pink peppercorns. It might be the prettiest thing I’ve ever baked, a glorious medley of smashed purple and Barbie pink, flecked with snowy white, slightly singed clouds of salty cheese. I had some tomatoes in the fridge begging for my attention, so they went on top of another piece of dough along with a generous glug of olive oil, fingerfuls of fragrant fresh oregano and some crumbled labneh (strained yoghurt cheese). This made something that tasted like a pizza but with an infinitely satisfying, toothsome thickness about it, particularly where the soft labneh and tomato juices had soaked into the dough.
There are endless possibilities with these breads. The basic dough makes two large breads, perfect for slicing into squares and sharing as a starter or lunch, or you could make four smaller breads as a good portable lunch or picnic. I’ve listed some topping suggestions below, but let your imagination run wild. Make these for friends or for yourself, proudly announce them as ‘melbrerls’ and you can safely say you are at least 15% Danish. (Add some Lurpak, bacon or Lego as a topping and you can legitimately raise that figure to 80%).
Madbrød (Danish ‘food bread’) – makes 2 large or 4 smaller breads:
For the bread:
- 400g strong white bread flour, plus extra for dusting
- 100g rye flour
- 10g salt
- 7g sachet instant yeast
- 300ml tepid water
- 4 tbsp fine cornmeal/polenta, for dusting
Put the flours in the mixing bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a dough hook, if you have one, or a large bowl if you don't. Put the salt on one side of the flour and the yeast on the other. Add the water and bring together to form a dough. Knead well on a floured work surface for 5-10 minutes until the dough is soft and elastic (add a little more water if necessary). Put the dough back in the bowl, cover with a tea towel and leave to rise until doubled in size.
When the dough has risen, knock the air out of it by kneading briefly, then leave it to rise until doubled in size again.
When the dough has doubled, gently tip it out onto a work surface dusted with flour and half the cornmeal, then divide it into 2 or 4 pieces (depending on the size of the breads you would like), trying not to knock any air out this time.
Pre-heat the oven to 210C. Dust a large baking sheet, or you may need two, with flour and the remaining cornmeal. Gently stretch the pieces of dough into rectangles or flat circles, around 2cm thick. Top with your choice of toppings (see below) while the oven heats up, then bake for 20-30 minutes, until the breads are firm and golden. Leave to cool before eating.
Tomato, oregano, labneh and olive oil: slice some large tomatoes thinly, arrange the slices over the bread, scatter over fresh oregano or thyme leaves and pieces of labneh (or goat’s cheese/feta/mozzarella) and drizzle generously with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Season and bake.
Beetroot, feta/goat’s cheese and pink peppercorn: wrap some beetroot in foil and bake in the oven at 190C until tender (around 45 mins to 1 hour, depending on the size of the beetroot). Leave to cool, then peel and cut into chunks. Arrange over the bread, then crumble over some feta or soft goat’s cheese (or a mixture of both), scatter over some fresh thyme leaves, and crush around 1 tbsp pink peppercorns with your fingers, sprinkling them over the beetroot and cheese. Season and bake.
Fruit, cheese and nut: top the breads with slices of fruit, then scatter over some cheese, herbs and chopped nuts. Good combinations are pear, blue cheese, sage and walnut/pecan; peach, feta, thyme/lemon verbena and pine nuts; apple, goat’s cheese, thyme and walnuts; grape, Gruyere, thyme and pine nuts.
Roasted vegetable and pesto: top the breads with grilled or roasted summer vegetables (make your own or from a jar), then dollop over some good-quality pesto and scatter over some pine nuts before baking.