Bike the culinary backroads of Denmark
This Nordic country is famous for its great food and cycling culture, so it makes perfect sense to explore the former by means of the latter.
Standing in the vast dining hall at Kronborg Castle at Helsingør, I struggle to grasp the excess of the banquets hosted here by the Danish King Frederick II and Queen Sophie in the 16th century. This is my first stop on a bike tour of North Zealand, a mission to explore the heritage and variety of kitchen culture in this part of Denmark.
Before I continue my cycling circuit, I drop into the subterranean Maritime Museum of Denmark, occupying a former dock. The absorbing exhibits make due tribute to the historic role of seafarers in importing foods once considered exotic, now considered Danish staples, such as coffee, fruit, and sugar. In the museum café, I enjoy a lunch of fishcakes and seaweed. The café shop promotes all-things-seaweed – tang in Danish – from akvavit to confectionery.
Bike friendly Denmark
North Zealand is superb cycling territory, with enough ups and downs and scenic variety, but sufficiently level to make decent daily distances feasible. The Danes have sensibly placed the calorie-consuming bicycle on a par with the motor vehicle. Helsingør is a manageable half-day, 40-kilometre spin along the coastline north of Copenhagen, and bike rental shops are in all the towns. You can also take your bike on the train.
Helsingør’s well-marked cycle lanes give way to small country roads as I pedal away from the coast, glimpsing deer through the woods and passing thatched cottages straight out of a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale.
Just outside the village of Gurre, I indulge in something I wouldn’t have expected to find in this remote and rustic setting. At the end of an avenue of towering beech trees sits the manor house of Ørsholt and behind the manor I arrive at the Peter Beier chocolate shop and factory.
Surprisingly slender considering his reputation as Denmark’s top chocolatier, Peter Beier greets me in the shop. We walk through displays of pyramid-shaped chocolate cream puffs and nut-centred “Love Bites.” After some indulgent tasting, I remount my bike and head through lush forest and pastures inhabited by shaggy cows. By the time I arrive at Domain Aalsgard, Denmark’s oldest vineyard, I’m ready for the white wine refreshment offered in the thick of the vines by owner-manager Lars Hegerman. Another surprise: a small but thriving viticulture enterprise in the heart of the Danish countryside.
“This part of North Zealand is drier and has more sunshine than other parts of Denmark,” says Hegerman, who also grows peaches and apricots here. “I was a university biologist but I’m 75 now and this is my pensioner pastime. I grow early-ripening German varieties, and it sells well in the markets and Helsingør shops,” he says.
My early evening ride from the seaside town of Ålsgard takes me back through Helsingør to the fishing village of Snekersten and the snug comfort of the Hotel Villa Brinkly. This is a favourite haven for cyclists and the centre of a catering service run by Erik Steen and Annette Buch Petersen, who greet me the next morning with a sumptuous breakfast of fresh rolls, dark bread, cheese, eggs, cold meat, skyr yoghurt, and coffee.
“We started the hotel so we could have a big kitchen for our Food by Heart catering service, but it also meant that we would meet people – so thanks for coming!” says Steen.
He waves me off on my last cycling day, which is punctuated by lunch with Helle Simonsen, communications manager at Esrum Abbey, a restored red-brick Cistercian monastery close to the shores of Esrum Sø lake. She guides me round the Abbey garden.
“We want to tell the story of the place using food – to make the visitor part of the experience. We serve a medieval brunch buffet. It might come as a surprise that coffee was available to the monks. Or that monks would only eat animals that run fast. Learning something like this makes people want to find out more,” says Simonsen.
My exploration of Danish food concludes with a four-course flourish at the Badehotel restaurant on the headland above the fishing town of Gilleleje. After a steam bath in the spa to soothe my well-pedalled limbs, I dine on lemon sole, roast veal, and crème brûlée. A mere snack for King Frederick II, a replenishing feast for me.
Text and photos Tim Bird