Denmark doesn't hold a monopoly on debauched Christmas parties; Xeroxed butts and infidelity behind the stationary cupboard are universal disciplines of the seasonally depraved. But Danes do Christmas lunch with a certain panache and appetite for indulgence, and it is always catalyzed by that perilous pairing: pickled herring and 80-proof akvavit.
This match is a Scandinavian staple that is sometimes seen as a culinary crime by the uninitiated, who fail to grasp the beauty of washing down pickled fish with chilled shots of nuclear-strength booze. Akvavit—also known as snaps or brændevin (which literally means burned wine, but this is pure firewater)—is distilled from potatoes or grains and can be traced back hundreds of years. It was initially intended for medicinal purposes, but crafty pharmacists soon found a wider market of people simply wanting to get hammered. Danish akvavit is traditionally flavored with caraway and has a Quaalude-like ability to render you into an incompetent and incoherent mess after a rapid succession of shots. In Sweden, they like to serenade each toast with a song; in Denmark, drinking normally descends into increasingly primal growls of "skål". Akvavit, a friend remarked, can turn a Dane from gentleman to Viking in the time it takes to empty a glass.
The Nordic taste for herring dates back to the Viking ancestors, and cries of "Herring is goooood!" used to ring around Copenhagen back in the day when fishmongers flogged their catch by the inner-city canals. The old-school method of preparation is to cure the herring in barrels before they are filleted and pickled: chop off the heads, throw the whole fish into a barrel with salt, and leave for at least six months while salt and enzymes from the entrails cure the fish. You can also pickle the fresh fillets or flavor the herring with spices, mustard or herbs. No matter how you prepare or serve it, herring is big business. Danes eat 15 million jars every year, but less than 10 percent of the herring come from local waters, mainly because consumers want the larger varieties which are caught in northern Norway.
At Restaurant Gammel Mønt in Copenhagen, head chef and owner Claus Christensen is using freshly-caught Danish fish to make another seasonal favorite: fried pickled herring. Claus—or Røde (red) as he is known to regulars—is a larger-than-life character who champions traditions and shuns gadgets at his 25-year-old restaurant, which is housed in a red timbered building in the heart of the city. "It's about classic virtues," says Claus. "That's it!" Here, tweezers are used for pulling out fish bones rather than fussing around with wild herbs and flowers. His basement kitchen and dining room doubles as a gallery space. On the walls are 1960s photographs of the Rolling Stones, and next to the impressive Molteni stove stands a 30-inch bronze sculpture of Mother Teresa, who looks like she is about to strangle a child.
Claus seasons the fresh herring filets with salt and pepper, dips them in flour, and pan-fries them in butter until the fish turn golden. The herring is soused in a pickling liquor made with bay leaf, sugar, and peppercorn and then served with rye bread and krydderfedt, a spiced lard spread made from rendered pork fat and duck fat, thyme, and juniper. Claus describes herring as a Nordic answer to sushi. "It is part of our common understanding. Traditionally, it's always been the poor man's food. Growing up, we had fried herring with parsley sauce and potatoes; the leftover herring were pickled and served the next day with boiled eggs."
The fried herring at Gammel Mønt is plated alongside fresh pickled herring, salt-cured herring marinated in tomato and Madeira wine, and herring in a creamy mustard sauce. It is all indulgent, delicate, delicious, and with none of the overly acidic or saccharine tang you sometimes find in shop-bought jars. I wash down the herring with a golden firewater which is aged in oak and flavored with aniseed. Each sip of the brændevin sends a hair-raising jolt of warmth through every bone of the body and every pore of the skin. It's the perfect partner in crime for the fish—the Bonnie and Clyde of the Christmas table. The akvavit cleanses the palate, lifts the spirits, and raises an untamable beast within after a few glasses and a few bites. "It can make you go beserk," says Claus. "People used to drink it to keep warm, not for any particular enjoyment. You drank it to get drunk and forget your misery."
Akvavit and herring are still a vital and cherished part of the Danish Christmas lunch, but misery is reserved for your head in morning; merry holidays are why the Viking nations pickle their fish and lubricate their throats with firewater.