Saturday, 5 September 2009

Wonderful, Wonderful Copenhagen

Hullo all.

Koios and I are back from an epic trip to Copenhagen where, among other things, we sampled the true delights of Noma, the world's 3rd best restaurant (according to the S. Pellegrino list). This puts our tally of best restaurants in the world up to ...



Two. Namely, St John in Smithfield and Noma. (St John is listed at number 14). Next stop has to be the Fat Duck. I wonder if I can get a table for 4 any time this century.

Anyway, back to Copenhagen. We left on Saturday morning, from Glasgow, on a 40 seater plane. Koi, who notoriously loathes and abhors flights, managed not to have a freak-out. It was a little bit like sitting next to a bull who's just gone 6 rounds with a matador, but her power of will overcame her fear and all was well. We landed without incident, and took a taxi to our hotel.

The hotel - Bertram's Hotel Guldsmeden - was on Vesterbrogade street, and when we drew up alongside I don't mind telling you that my heart sank very, very slightly. It was deeply unimpressive to look at - just a couple of glass doors in a mundane-looking street. But inside, it was all wood floors, cow-skin chairs and friendliness. Our rooms (we had a single room each) were on the 5th floor, accessible by a rickety and tiny lift which hiccupped alarmingly at the top. Having our own rooms was a luxury I'd almost insist on in the future. It gave us somewhere to flake every day, and flaking in privacy is always so much more relaxing than in company. Not that I'd have any particular bother with Koi's presence, but it's nice not to have to worry about whether the other person minds the TV, or whether the TV will bother you as you try and read your book, or whether they can hear you going to the loo, or if your feet are a bit ripe after walking on them for 5 hours ... you know. That sort of thing.

The rooms were lovely. For the rate of around £106 a night you got a queen sized bed, a sofa, and a small but practical shower room. It was all clean white cotton, animal print and organics. The Guldsmeden chain are devoted to organic, environmentally friendly ... well, everything, really. The shampoo, conditioner, body lotion, shower gel - even the tortilla chips and chocolate in the fridge - were all organic. I managed to ignore the chocolate, but one hungry day I did devour half a bag of tortilla chips before I could stop myself. Put it this way - the whole trip was a disaster for my diet, despite my best efforts to remain steadfast.

So - we'd arrived at the hotel. It was barely past 11 am. By the time we'd freshened up and unpacked, we were both ready to hit the pavements. I'm well aware that sight-seeing with Koi is like being left at the mercy of a natural disaster, but that was fine by me! It was her birthday trip, and whatever she wanted to do was grand with me - but I also had some ideas of my own. If she thought she was the only one with the desire to explore every inch of what the Danish captial had to offer, she was going to be sorely mistaken.

First things first - we were hungry! (Quelle surprise). More importantly, I'd not had a decent cup of coffee yet. So we headed out of the hotel and stopped a block or so down at a café so I could charge myself with caffeine. This duly done, we continued on our merry way, peering at everything around us with the sparkly eyes of the excited tourist.

We made our way to a food festival, consisting of many canvas awnings beneath which the stall holders were making delicacies. These were mostly dips of various kinds, and we seemed to arrive just as they were in the process of being made, so we could try precious few. We had a glimpse at what was on offer - but it was basically a farmers' market full of organic veg, which was fine - but not really thrilling enough to hold our attention. We thought there might be more of it, but no, that was all - so we went and had lunch at a nearby café instead.

Copenhagen, despite being intemperate of weather, has embraced continental al fresco eating with delight. To combat the cooler winds that threaten to upset your appetite, most cafés provide blankets, neatly draped over the back of your chair. So, cosily wrapped in cheap but warm IKEA blankets, you can enjoy dining outside but not fear for your health. In actual fact, we hardly ever needed to use the blankets. The weather was blissfully warm almost the whole time we were there.

After lunch we sought out Tivoli gardens. I don't quite know what we were expecting, but when we paid the exorbitant entrance fee, it was without knowing that inside it's basically just a vast fun-fair. As Koi hates fairground rides and I had no intention of going on any by myself (and little desire to go on any, even had she been keen) it ended up being a big fat waste of money. We wandered through, saw what it was, then just wandered back out again. It would prove to be the only failure of our trip - and quite a pricey one, at that.

I have to say - if I continue to write at this pace, not only will this blog entry be Tolstoyan in length, but nobody will maintain interest. So I shall speed things up.

Our first day consisted in a lot of wandering, looking at Copenhagen's more obvious sights, and concluded with a trip to a Vietnamese restaurant and cocktail bar not far from the hotel. The restaurant - Le Le Nha Hang - is incredibly popular and doesn't take bookings, so you just have to wait for a table. We were told it would be 45 minutes or so. We decided 'what the hell' and found ourselves a tiny spot at the heaving bar to perch. Two cocktails later - one of which was Koi's 'red dragon' - pinkish red and adorned with a slice of dragonfruit,deliciously tinged with tobasco - and we were feeling most chatty, and ravenously hungry. The food, luckily, was very good and just what you want after a day of travelling and finding your feet. Big bowls of won ton soup, dim sum, noodles, and fresh coriander flavours. Yummy. Then back to the hotel and a collapse, ready for day 2.

Day 2 was as busy and delightful as day 1. We took in Rosenourg Palace, which is both beautiful and surprisingly cosy, and houses the crown jewels (not much cop in comparison to ours). We then wandered through town, happened across the Rundhus (?spelling? Anyway, it's the Round Tower) and toiled up its sloping ramp, just as Peter the Great did ... only he did it on horseback, the lazy fecker. Half way up was an exhibition space, which is a piece of great cunning, as you're guaranteed to get weary tourists stopping for a peek, just so they can have a breather. It was full of Danish and Japanese design pieces, as part of an artistic partnership between the nations. It was ok - but there was a perfectly circular bookcase, inside which you can put cushions and create a seat. Brilliant. I loved the idea of sitting, reading, inside a wheel of books. I'm gunna get me one of them.

After appreciating the view over Copenhagen, we went and found a little café called Bliss and sat out on the street, chilling in the sunshine. Koi, despite having had a very large breakfast of yoghurt, cheese, local meats, eggs, bread and so forth, was not put off ordering exactly the same thing for lunch. And why not? It was muckle good. It was all delightfully relaxing, and we spent a good hour or so just taking the weight off our feet before continuing our sightseeing.

That evening we had steak, tried to get waffles and failed because it was too late, and so went and had dessert at a nearby café. At least, Koi had dessert - I was still trying to be good. Although the 3oog sirloin steak I'd just consumed was putting paid to any 'goodness' my lack of dessert pretended. Thence back to the hotel and a few beers in the little dining area, until, at 2am, we decided bed might be a good idea.

Day 3 saw us take an excursion to Roskilde to see the Viking Ship museum. We managed to navigate the train station - or, at least, Koios did. Getting tickets was easy as pie, but actually finding the correct platform was much harder. Anyway, we managed and were soon clacking our way towards Roskilde on what Koi deemed was the sort of train that might well take a swift diversion into a concentration camp. She based this judgement on the fact it had dirty curtains. And a large, black locomotive. True, it was a little out of date, but it got us where we wished to go.

Roskile turned out to be the highlight of my trip. We went expecting a town with nothing much to say for itself save the Viking Ship museum - and discovered a gorgous, bustling little country town, with a beautiful town hall that enticed us down the main street for a proper look. I'm very glad we were enticed. As we approached, we suddenly became aware that it was sitting next to a vast cathedral. All well and good ... so we popped into the town hall, which was also the tourist information, and got ourselves a map of the town.

First stop was the cathedral, which turned out to be 12th century, possibly built by Harald Bluetooth (of mobile technology fame) and with some wonderful medieval frescoes still very much in evidence. Almost all the Kings and Queens of Denmark are buried there, in tombs of varying grandeur, and there are some spectacular ornaments - not least the altarpiece, depicting (as the guide book entertainingly translates) Jesus's 'manhood'. Luckily, this transpired to be events from his adult life. Not his penis.

We drank in the cathedral with great glee, then walked down to the harbourside to buy tickets for the Viking Ship museum. We had high hopes, having been blown away by the Viking Ship museum in Oslo when we were there. At least, Koi had high hopes, being, as she is, mad for all things maritime. My hopes were set on being taken out onto the fjord by a real Viking Ship. Well, I mean, not a 'real' one. They're quite leaky. I mean a 'real' one as in a recreated one that takes a bunch of tourists out for little trips. You have to row and everything. So, we went down to the harbour - after taking a random detour thanks to Koi's dodgy map reading. I should add, however, that she did all the map reading while we were in Denmark, and did so admirably, while I just followed like a lazy lap dog.

At the museum, we were told that the next free boat trip wasn't until 3pm, which left us a good hour and a half to kill. So, naturally, we went and had lunch. This involved walking back into town up a nasty hill, so I was very ready for sustenance at the top.

Back for our 3pm boat trip, we were told that, due to an accident with one of the staff, we wouldn't be able to go out in the big Viking Ship after all. We'd have to go out in a smaller trade vesel - and not all of us could go. Some people would have to wait until 4pm. But those people couldn't be guaranteed a trip out at 4pm either, because the boat was already fully booked. Naturally, this led to everyone looking aggressively at each other. Luckily, for whatever reason, it turned out the smaller boat could take everyone after all - so off we went.

The young lad who was in charge of the boat started off by asking if anyone had done any rowing. I nodded at him, which he saw, and two middle aged blokes put up their hands. He told the two middle aged blokes to take the first seat and be pace setters. Fair enough. Except the middle aged bloke on my side turned out to be utterly, totally inept and at one point I ended up chanting loudly "in - out - in - out" in time with the strokes, until everyone found the rhythm. Even then, it wasn't likely we'd be up for any raping and pillaging. When I mentioned this to the woman in front of me, she said:

"I think we'd be the ones being raped and pillaged anyway."

Speak for yourself! I nearly hollered, in a ridiculous outburst of feminist fury. After all, at 5' 8" and considerable breadth, I'd have been considered some kind of giant - even by the Viking men - and not only would I have had a good chance of defending myself, but I'm not entirely sure they would have considered me particularly shag-worthy. More likely they would have set fire to me as a sacrifice to Odin. Anyway, as a feminist outburst didn't seem all that condusive to a harmonious boat, I just concentrated on rowing and not tangling my oar with the woman behind me - who was even worse than our pace setter. Koi was doing fine with her oar, but her side was just as inept as mine - so it was slow going. Anyway, it was all good fun and we got some sailing time before hopping out and going off to see the museum.

The museum wasn't great, actually. The most interesting thing was the film of the Danish crew who sailed their newly built longboat from Copenhagen to Belfast and back a few years ago, with much spewing and misery along the way. Other than that, there were the scant remains of 3 Viking boats, a room with a replica of a trading vessel, and a lot of bumf about the people of the time. With this bumf was a written source from an Arabic traveller who spent some time with some Russian people, and relayed an account of the funeral rites of a 'great man.' I read it, and really, truly wished I hadn't. It involved the detailed account of the sacrifice of a slave girl, which made me feel sick to my stomach. Koi had the good sense to walk away without reading it, but I was stupid enough to take it all in and found the imagery haunting me all the rest of the day. I'm kind of astonished there wasn't any warning about it. I can't imagine a 12 year old would be very happy reading it. Then again, maybe a 12 year old is less sensitive than a 32 year old woman with a very active imagination. Anyway, I still think a little warning before launching into a graphic description of rape, torture and murder might be in order.

But Viking Ship disappointment aside, it was a brilliant excursion. Back in Copenhagen we found ourselves a light supper and collapsed for a good night's sleep.

Day 4 was The Day of Noma. We took a cab to the harbour on the south side of the city, where Noma is to be found, in an old converted warehouse. It was quite quiet - although it filled up while we were there - so the atmosphere was a bit lacking, but not as much as the guide book would lead us to believe.

We were there an hour before even getting our starters - and not because the service was rubbish. No indeed. Instead, before you even think about eating the food you've chosen, you get a series of chef's titbits. First was a little savoury biscuit with a tart blackcurrant topping. I thought the biscuit lovely, but the blackcurrant wasn't really for me. Koi loved it. Then came a long wafer made of chicken skin (on the bottom) and nutty rye on the top. I thought this delicious, but Koi wasn't so much of a fan. (She called it 'unctuous'). Then we had one of the restaurant's specialities - a flower pot full of edible earth (ground up rye and nuts, basically), into which have been 'planted' baby carrots and radishes. It looks fabulous, but, to be honest, it's raw carrots and radishes in a nutty 'soil'. Nice - but the taste is very obviously second to the visual delight. Lastly we had a light-as-air wafery biscuity thing in a wave shape, with vinegar powder and herby accompaniment. Utterly divine. Melt in the mouth. Stunning.

Then we ordered our food.

To tide us over, we had a beetroot and dark gooseberry salad while we waited for our starters. I thought this was astonishing, but a little much. It was brilliant, the way the flavours began with sweet fruitiness, then took in the herbiness of the salad, and then ended with a subtly growing perfume from flowers and seeds. Unfortunately, I found the perfume a little much - but I did appreciate the skill of the piece.

My starter then arrived. I had poached hen's egg in brown butter, with a salad of seasonal vegetables and nasturtium leaves. De-li-cious! The brown butter was slightly caramel-y, the egg rich and smooth, and the vegetables (radishes, courgettes, carrots etc) a perfect crunchy partner to the smoothness. Nasturtium leaves proved a revelation. They taste like watercress used to taste when we were children - really peppery and enlivening.

Koi's starter, though, was something else. She'd ordered steak Tartar, which was done in small flakes of raw meat made into a patty, and adorning the top was wood sorrel. A dusting of juniper and a smear of watercress 'dip' finished the plate, and you were supposed to eat it all with your fingers. So: a pinch of the sorrel-topped Tartar, dipped in juniper and then watercress, and popped into the mouth = utter heaven. Koi pronounced it one of the finest dishes she's ever eaten - and not surprisingly. She loves aniseed, and the wood sorrel was wonderfully rich in it.

Starter finished, we had a short pause to catch our breath before the main course was brought. I'd ordered duck with an August pear, and it was gorgeous - but, again, Koi got the cream of the crop. She'd ordered musk ox, and although she said it was quite a tradtional dish, I have to disagree. Yes, there was nothing outrageous done to it, but the meat itself was allowed to stand on its own terms. Musk ox is a darker, richer form of beef, slightly gamey and yes - I detected a slight muskiness to the flavour. Remember the Body Shop's White Musk perfume? It was very faintly like that. But very, very faintly - to the extent that I might just have been looking for it. Anyway, it was gorgeous.

No sooner had we drawn a deep breath after our main course than our plates were whisked away and a post-main course dish put before us. This was an opportunity for the chef to use another part of the animal we'd eaten, so I had a salad with duck's heart and tongue, whilst Koi got ox-tail. Both were utterly divine, but this time it was I who came out top trumps. Koi is squeamish, so she was brave in tasting my heart (the tongue was too much for her) but she had to admit it was wonderful. Soft, melt-in-the-mouth and rich meat with herby salad, which had been dressed with ... I don't know what, but it looked like a bisque, and tasted marvellously sweet and salty at the same time. Even I had a moment's pause when it came to the tongue. It did, after all, look just like a duck's tongue and - more to the point - rather fatty and yellow in colour. But I shrugged it off and chomped it down. It wasn't anything to write home about, save for the fact that it gave a bit more body to a delicious mouthful of salad.

I do hate silly squeamishness when it comes to food. It's a sign of a spoiled, pampered, weak people when you find that curled lip, squealy response over anything that isn't hamburger. People who eat meat don't get that sneering, disgusted look over eating a great hunk of blood and muscle when they stuff a steak in their stupid, undiscerning mouths. Why is heart, for example, so disgusting? It's just muscle - same as your delicious fillet steak. And do you really think I want to look at your sneering reaction when I mention my enjoyment of heart, or liver, or kidney? Or watch your self-righteous disgust as I take a mouthful? All I can say is this: when the shit hits the fan and all you've got to eat is what you can catch, gather or kill yourself, I'd like to see how long you can live off a disgusted expression.

Anyhoo ... we both adored my salad, and Koi's oxtail was gorgeous too. We were buzzing with pleasure, and we hadn't even got to dessert yet!

In fact, dessert was a disappointment on my part. I ordered Nordic cheeses, and was given 3. That's a poor show for a top restaurant - and even poorer when one of your cheeses tastes so exactly like a billy goat's stall smells that I found it hard to swallow. Koi, actually, really liked the strong goaty one - but she doesn't have the mucking out of billy goat stalls as a reference point. The other two cheeses were only ok, too - a blue one that was quite mild, and a hard, grainy one that was tasty but not anything special. I suppose we're quite spoiled in Britain, with so many delicious cheeses to call our own (although not as spoiled as our French brethren).

Koi, though, ordered Ollebrod. This is based on an ancient Viking breakfast, where they used to leave their rye bread in the ale pot overnight, then eat it with milk on the following morning. Here, they'd sweetened the bread, boiled the ale to remove the alcohol, and served it under frothed milk, Icelandic skyr (like a creamy yoghurt) and with a simple sorbet on the side. I tried it and it was utterly delicious - almost like a crumble. Koi was well pleased.

We had two glasses of wine to accompany the starter and main courses, chosen by the sommelier, and a glass of dessert wine with pudding. We followed these up with brandy (for me) and a Noma-made cherry liqueure (for Koi) and coffee in the 'lounge'. Actually, I found the 'lounge' (a small, slightly separate area with leather seats) a big disappointment. The chairs were horribly uncomfortable on my long back, and so slippery I couldn't stay upright. Koi, though, had no such problem and lounged with a look on her face reminiscent of the Cheshire cat after a bloody good session with Mrs Cheshire cat.

We'd gone in for lunch at 1pm. We left at 4.30 - and service had been slick, friendly and without delay. That, my friends, is the sign of a bloody good lunch.

There was just time enough for us to walk over to the harbourside and catch a canal boat ride. It was a blazing hot day, and we enjoyed the late summer sunshine as we motored through the canals and out into the harbour, past the opera house, the library, and alongside the Little Mermaid (whatever. She's small and naked). The canal boat was an unfortunate magnet for the deludedly romantic, so we were subjected to necking couples wherever we looked - which wasn't great for the digestion. But apart from that it was a very successful way of rounding off our excursion.

The evening saw us seek food (I know!) at a little wine bar, where we enjoyed antipasti, a few beers and - prior to that - waffles with ice cream (I know!!). And then back to the hotel for a couple more beers and bed. A brilliant day.

Day 5 - our last day. Our flight was at 3, so we had to leave the hotel at around 1, giving us time to wander the streets of Copenhagen for a couple of hours and see things we'd missed. This led us to do a spot of shopping in search of gifts for our beloveds - fruitlessly, it turned out - and grab a final lunch at a café called Salt at the harbourside. Thence to the airport and the return flight.

And so we bade a sad farewell to a lovely, relaxed and food-filled city. Koi was a little more nervous on the return flight, but the bones in my hand remain intact and her panic lasted only briefly. Fisher was there to pick us up from the airport and be bored to tears by our travel tales. I was delighted to see her, having wished she was there with us on more than one occasion. On the other hand, Koi was a great travel companion - and, if there are any donkeys in Denmark with their hind legs intact, it isn't down to our efforts!

A fabulous holiday.