Bornholm gastronomy is unique. Local food producers and growers make their own products with pride and care, and new food entrepreneurs are moving to the island to start up their own food production. One reason for this is the mentoring services provided by the island’s local government for anyone with a new business concept. The established business community also lend a hand wherever they can, providing advice, guidance, traineeships and apprenticeships. Because on Bornholm, other businesses do not regard you as a competitor – but as a colleague! When you get right down to it, this is the key that unlocks the secret of Bornholm’s successful produce ventures.
Bornholm has been renowned for its food products for a long time. Ever since the Middle Ages, in fact. Because that was when the “golden age of the herring trade” started. Up until a century or so ago, millions of herring came to the coasts of Bornholm to spawn. The shoals of herring are reputed to have been so dense that they could sometimes be shovelled up from the quay. Herring were usually caught from 23 July to 9 October, as stipulated by law. As the season approached, merchants, fishermen, labourers and all sorts of opportunists would travel to the island to get a slice of the cake. Even local farmers and peasants left their farms to get a share of this seasonal abundance, which was also a source of winter food supplies. Booths and temporary sheds were set up, and herring were incessantly fished, salted, traded and loaded on board merchant ships. In the evening, the fishermen would set out on their “herring wrecks” (a nickname for their small fishing boats) returning and landing the herring in the morning, preparing them by late morning, then selling them and shipping them in the afternoon. After that, the herring were shipped to different places all over Europe where they were resold at a handsome profit. In other words, it was a hectic time of year, but also profitable, due to strong demand for salted herring further south, where people abstained from meat during Lent. This widespread abstinence was weakened by the Reformation in 1536, and herring exports slowed to a trickle. But herring fishery continued, as there was still a domestic need for this vital source of food.
About a century ago, ordinary people ate herring twice a day. The herring were often eaten directly from the barrel, with the head, skin and bones still intact. One can only hope the meal washed down with beer and schnapps. Interested to hear about the origins of the local Bornholm dish ‘fried salt-cured herring’? This dish astonishes people who haven’t tasted it before, by the way. It consists of a salt-cured herring fillet, slightly marinated (or, if you don’t come from Bornholm, very marinated). The fillet is breaded in rye flour and fried in butter. It is then served with pickled beetroot, rye bread, plenty of fried onion and mustard. Beer and schnapps are a matter of course.
There are still traces of the golden age of the herring trade to this day. Take a walk from Hullehavn in Svaneke towards Aarsdale. When you get to Frenne, you can still see what’s left of the small harbours and the foundations of sheds from that era.
The tradition of producing smoked herring began in the early Middle Ages. The earliest reports of Bornholm fishermen exporting smoked herring date from the 1600s, but larger-scale, more systematic production began in the 1870–1880s. Only a handful of the original smokehouses are left on the island today, and only one of them still smokes fish the old-fashioned way – in an open oven where smouldering alderwood is dabbed with a wet cloth hanging on a long pole to prevent flames from forming.
The herring used to be caught locally, but now that the biggest buyers of herring are tourists, the vendors have started buying their herring elsewhere in Denmark. There are two reasons for this: partly, declining stocks of the Baltic herring; and partly because a customer visiting a smokehouse to eat a delicious herring pays per fish. The herring from other areas of Denmark are generally bigger than the Bornholm variety, so consumers feel they are getting more for their money when they buy imported herring. This is a little annoying, because many people consider the small Bornholm herring to be more of a delicacy.
In the early 1990s, a “new” golden age of Bornholm produce began, and this trend has accelerated year by year. It all started when a group of people discovered that Bornholm’s unique climate conditions made it possible to grow durum wheat here. At almost the same time, Lehnsgaard began production of rapeseed oil. An ice cream maker opened his own shop selling organic Italian-inspired ice cream in Snogebæk, and soon there was a small network of food entrepreneurs. Durum wheat was cultivated at Frennegaard Farm outside Svaneke. That was where the idea of producing pasta from this protein-rich grain variety arose, and the farm’s “Pastariget” (Pasta Kingdom) still exists. The pasta is of such high quality that, when the owner, Susanne, handed out samples to locals in Turin during the “Slow Food” trade fair, they loved it. Isn’t that quite something, when Italians are enthused by your local pasta from Bornholm?
Another food pioneer is Hallegaard, which started out by making a few different types of sausages based on old Bornholm recipes in small, humble facilities. Quite a lot has happened since then, and Hallegaard now has its own butchery, a small café, and a wide selection of sausages and other hand-made delicatessen goods. Visiting Hallegaard on a summer’s day means having to slow down and set aside a little time. It has become a very popular destination for excursions.
As time has passed, there seems to be no limit to the variety of local produce to be found on this small island. Several breweries, quality bakers, a flour mill so highly acclaimed that it also produces flour for other labels all over Denmark. And quite a few restaurants, as well. The Michelin-starred variety, of course, but also other great venues; something to suit every pocket. Most of them are so keenly interested in serving quality food – the hallmark of the Bornholm food brand – that they take pains to have as big a variety of local produce as possible on the menu.
If you would like to try some local produce, most of the island’s supermarkets carry a wide selection. It’s more fun finding out how to visit the producers and growers themselves, however. Most combine their production process with a unique experience for you to enjoy. So just set out and explore the island to find your own favourites.