The Danish word ‘sanke’ means ‘to gather’ and derives from the Norse expression samka. It’s no coincidence that the word’s etymology is Nordic in nature, because for centuries it was a tradition – even a necessity at times – in the Nordic region to go out into the wild to gather food for daily meals – or for pickling and preserving for the winter. But this tradition was not part of the gourmet dining segment of Denmark’s cookery world until the renowned restaurant Noma, in Copenhagen, made New Nordic Cuisine and sankning world-famous. The venue recreated and renewed the sanke tradition which has left its mark on subsequent generations of top-flight Nordic chefs.
One of the young Danish chefs who has embraced the sankning concept is Steffen Thomsen, chef at Stammershalle Badehotel. It is a cold, clear autumn day when I meet him near Døndalen valley. We’re going for a walk together to gather the ingredients for Stammershalle’s menu of the day. Fortunately, the sun is shining and the blustery winds of the day before have died down. Steffen seems quite at ease venturing into the wild to find ingredients for his cookery. “Sankning simply makes sense to me at all levels,” Steffen explains. He seems relaxed and down to earth with his feet firmly planted in the Bornholm topsoil. Steffen was born and raised in Allinge in the ‘north country’ of Bornholm, and throughout his childhood he spent hours outdoors in nature areas gathering berries and mushrooms. Many other locals will definitely recognise and recall the family outings of their childhood to gather remote elderflower in bloom, wellies wet from mushroom picking at the family’s secret location for chanterelles, blackberry-coloured fingers after an excursion to the Hammer peninsula, or the itchiness of the rose hips that would be transformed into a delicious jam back home.
Steffen’s interest didn’t come from strangers, because both his father and big brother are qualified cooks. His big brother has been a role model and a source of enormous support and inspiration throughout Steffen’s childhood and apprenticeship. After completing his cook training programme, Steffen spent two six-month stints in Iceland to work at a restaurant there and soak up some of Iceland’s culinary culture. Even so, neither traditional Icelandic nor Bornholm cuisine is reflected in Steffen’s culinary productions, so there is no need to be anxious about being served a fermented cod’s head or other curiosities at Stammershalle. The venue serves exclusively gourmet food of Nordic inspiration and lets the food taste of the natural surroundings in which it was created. The menu is seasonal and contains seasonal produce at the different times of the year.
The silence among the trees in Døndalen valley is striking, interrupted only by the distant roar of the tall waterfall at the head of the valley and the honking of a few geese migrating south for the winter. The tranquillity experienced here is energising, and Steffen takes this back with him to the kitchen. “The best way to start my workday is to come here and let these natural surroundings soak in,” Steffen explains as his adept hands carefully cut a handful of wood sorrels from the forest floor. “One of the obvious side benefits of gathering in the wild is that you start off your day in a relaxing, natural setting that evokes personal reflection.”
But this is far from the only benefit, of course. To Steffen, gathering is not only about splendid tastes and nutritional value but also sustainability and price. It is a matter of course for him to buy things locally, but when given the opportunity to gather his own ingredients, Steffen considers this an ideal eco-friendly, reasonably priced option. “Why buy wood sorrels for a high price for the starter when an entire slope is covered with them only two kilometres from the kitchen?” he laughs. Today, Steffen intends to combine the gathered sorrels with exquisite horn of plenty mushrooms (Craterellus cornucopioides), which are in season from August to October.
Steffen knows that he is privileged – and fortunate – to live in a place where the great outdoors is so close by. He especially experiences this when he is visited by chefs from Copenhagen who come to Bornholm for knowledge and inspiration. “They are green with envy at the abundant opportunities to gather the ingredients we have here on the island,” Steffen recalls with pride. This is also true when a whole red deer has to be butchered and each part of the deer is carefully carved out and used. The bones are boiled to make stock, because nothing must go to waste. Everything can be used. This is part of the gathering philosophy, because when you are fortunate enough to have the cornucopia of nature right outside your door, there’s no excuse for not exploiting it to the full.
Gathering and picking ingredients obviously requires the gatherer to know a lot about which plants, berries and vegetation are edible, particularly when it comes to mushrooms. One of Steffen’s sources of knowledge and inspiration has been Thomas Guldbæk, Bornholm’s herbal expert, whose day job is at Gaarden, the Bornholm Centre of Culinary Culture, in Melsted. “He’s thoroughly versed in the specific herbs that are found here on the island and how to use them,” says Steffen, who has frequently accompanied Thomas on a walk or made use of his informative videos online. Through them, Steffen has gained insight into wild plants and herbs and their medicinal properties.
The peak gathering and picking season is June to September. In this period, it is possible to pick an abundance of wild sea buckthorn, junipers and blueberries and gather thyme and coriander in the woods. Salt meadows and the beaches themselves abound with plants and herbs, too. “There are around 100 different edible plants within the strip of land starting at the water’s edge and extending 100 metres inland,” Steffen explains, as we stand on the beach later on, looking out across the rocky coast. We are now on the other side of the road where Døndalen flows underneath Strandvejen. This is where Steffen often finds the flavourful, purple-flowered beach pea or the sea sandwort, also called ‘beach cucumber’ due to its taste.
If you have the desire to gather or pick things yourself, it is important to know the rules: you are allowed to pick and gather plants, mushrooms, berries, fruit and nuts for your own use in public areas. The rules were laid down way back in the year 1241 in the Danish Code of Jutland, which ruled that people could gather an amount that could fill their hat. In modern times, this ‘hat principle’ is translated as a small bag, basket or bucket. It’s good practice to leave something behind for others; in other words, refrain from picking a bush clean of berries but leave roughly one third for the next gatherer/picker. In general, you should respect the natural environment and avoid damaging plants and trees. In return, it is possible to gather and pick for your own use in public woods and beaches and on other public property. Obviously, gathering and picking on private property is not permitted unless you get the owner’s permission, a rule that still applies.
After almost two hours in the Bornholm outdoors, we conclude our gathering trip with an abundant harvest. Steffen has found a lot of wood sorrel, which was what he came for, but at this time of year we also could have picked or gathered large bitter-cress, watercress, sweet cicely, a few mushrooms or even bladder wrack. The wind has picked up and the sun is now being overcome by light but greyish clouds. It has been inspiring and educational to accompany one of the young chefs on his daily gathering trip, and it’s nice to imagine how the freshly picked wood sorrel will look on the plates when they’re served this evening to the restaurant’s patrons.
It is especially satisfying in its own right to have picked part of my own dinner, and if you’re on Bornholm, it is easy to get started on picking and gathering. All it takes is a warm sweater, a pair of wellies, a basket and a paring knife. Novices will benefit from taking part in a gathering/picking excursion with Thomas Guldbæk, through Gaarden Culinary Culture Centre in Melsted, and the island’s bookshops abound with helpful literature about the cornucopia of nature, especially books on mushrooms. If you don’t feel like taking books out into the wild, you can download the app ‘Atlas of Danish Fungi’ jointly developed with leading scientists at the Natural History Museum of Denmark. The app can assist with the important task of identifying mushrooms using your smartphone. A similar type of app is available for plants. The ‘Vild Mad’ app was jointly created with the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration and instructively leads you to edible plants right where you are. It even provides optional recipes that include any ingredients you have found.
On Bornholm, the great outdoors is ready and waiting, offering its ‘crops’ all year round. It’s always possible to find some additional ingredients for your next meal close by. Being able to harvest without having planted anything first is somewhat of a luxury. Whether alone or in the company of others, gather or pick with joy and common sense.