15 June 2012

15 June - Valdemarsdag; Smorrebrod

Weather: If Saint Vitus Day be rainy weather, it will rain for thirty days together.

If it rains on St. Vitus’ day, the year will be fruitful.
                 on the other hand
When it rains on St. Vitus’ day, half of the grapes will be destroyed.
When St. Vitus’ day is rainy, the oats will not thrive.

Gardening: It is traditional to sow cabbages today.

This is Valdemarsdag – Valdemar’s Day – in Denmark, honoring one of their greatest kings and their country’s flag.

Valdemar II “the Victorious” (1170-1241), was the younger son of Valdemar I, “the Great”.  After his elder brother’s death in 1202, he was proclaimed king with the general consent of the nation. In his own age and in those immediately succeeding his death, he was looked upon as the perfect model of a noble knight and royal hero.

The first half of his reign was an almost unbroken period of conquest and prosperity. Valdemar was invested by the Emperor Frederick with Holstein, Lauenburg, Schwerin, and other north German provinces which he had conquered, while the Pope granted him sovereignty over all heathen lands that he might convert to Christianity.   With this in mind, he embarked in 1219 on a crusade against the pagans of Estonia and their allies who were devastating the fledgling Christian communities there.

“For this purpose a most formidable naval armament was equipped, such as had never been known in the North. The fleet is said to have consisted of 1400 vessels of various descriptions; 500 were of the small light barks called snekker, containing, besides the steersman and rowers, one man-at-arms, with an archer; other 500 were long ships, called dragons or serpents, each carrying 120 men; the remaining 400 were left behind for the defense of the seacoasts. The monarch was accompanied with the flower of his nobility and prelates…”  and an army numbering, in one account, about 60,000 men.

This was terrifying enough to the locals, and they immediately capitulated.  Or said they did.  Some three days after this feigned submission, they attacked the Danes on the 15th of June while the king and his army were at Mass.

Tradition says that the hard-fought battle was going against the Danes, when a red cloth with a white cross on it dropped from the sky, a miracle which put new heart into the Danish forces, so that they were able to defeat the Estonians.  This cloth – the Dannebrog – became the national standard.

In the years before his death, Valdemar worked to codify the mixed and heterogeneous legislation which up to this time was made at the local level.  The Code of Jutland was published at the national assembly of the Dannehof in 1240, and continued in force until 1687, when new laws were framed.

An amusing tale is told of Valdemar, in which Saint Anders, upon petitioning the king on behalf of the people of Slagelse, was told that the king would give them as much land as the holy man could ride round “on a colt a day old, during the time the king was in the bath.  He took the king at his word, and rode with such speed that the courtiers were obliged, from time to time, to run to the king in the bath, saying that if he did not make haste, St. Anders would ride round the whole country. To this act the town of Slagelse is indebted for its extensive town fields.”

Valdemar’s death in 1241 was followed by internal struggles between his three sons and a period of decay, so that his reign seemed a golden age, the height of Danish glory, when her ships ruled the waves and her warriors conquered wherever they fought.  Despite the loss of his German territories, he was regarded as the greatest of the Danish conquerors, and the most patriotic of their early kings.

So in honor of Valdemar and the Danes, fly a Danish flag and enjoy the open-faced sandwiches called SMØRREBRØD, literally “buttered bread”. 

Rye is traditional, sour rye preferred, but I’ll admit to heresy and say that I’ve also used rye crisp bread – though only for appetizer-size smorrebrod.  The first layer on the bread is butter or a savory dripping from roast pork or bacon in which onions have been fried.  After that, it is up to you.  Thin slices of raw, cooked, or smoked meat (roast beef, pâté, sausage, bacon), cooked or smoked fish and shellfish (including pickled herring), cheeses like Camembert or Danish Blue… topped with colorful garnishes: scrambled or sliced hard-boiled eggs, sliced fresh tomato, pickled cucumbers, fried onions, lemon slices, sprigs of dill or parsley…  Endless possibilities.

My favorite is Roget Laks, smoked salmon with raw onion rings, followed by a spread of Camembert topped with slices of cooked bacon and fresh tomato.  And then there’s… never mind.  Check out the smorrebrod recipes here, with photos and instructions on how to set up each creation.  He even includes instructions for curing salmon.

These are good for lunch, of course, but you can also make a festive dinner out of them, by passing the buttered bread, and then the toppings, so that everyone may build their own.  Pour a good Danish pale lager into a pilsner glass and enjoy.

Image: Coin minted for King Valdemar II of Denmark, swiped from Wikipedia.