The bishop and the goose

As days grow short and dark and the shops start filling with Christmas decorations, you may find yourself facing an abundance of frozen ducks and geese in Danish supermarket. Here is the explanation.

Every year on November 10th, Danes celebrate Mortens Aften – or Morten’s Eve in commemoration of Saint Martin of Tours. This is done having duck or goose for dinner.

And why goose or duck? Well …

The unwilling bishop and the noisy geese

Roast duck / (C)Zyance for WikiCommons

As the story goes – and it is a good one – Saint Martin was a good and pious munk. He lived in France in the 4th century AD. He was so popular that the people of Tours elected him as their new bishop in 371 AD.

Martin, however, was not interested. He wanted to live a quiet convent life. When the people of Tours came to collect their new bishop, Martin hid among a flock of geese. The geese, however, made so much noise that Martin was discovered and off he was dragged to become bishop.

The bishop gets his revenge

To punish the geese the new bishop decreed that every year the people of Tours should celebrate by eating roast goose for dinner on the day of his appointment to bishop.

The truth behind the legend

The historic facts seem to tell a different story. Bishop Martin become a popular bishop of his own free will. He died in 397 AD and was buried on November 11th. After his canonization years later this date became his saint-day.

When the people of Denmark began celebrating Saint Martin by eating roast goose is unclear. It is believed that the tradition stems from the Middle Ages.

(C) Pixabay/open source

In 1616 a Danish bookbinder printed a small book about the popular tradition of eating “Morten’s goose” for dinner on November 10th. The bookbinder explains that the Danes remember the good deeds of the old saint by indulging in a feast of goose or duck.

Goose for the well-off and duck for the common folk.

From Martin to Morten

But why the namechange? In 1536 Denmark became a protestant country. By 1616 the veneration of saints was therefore more or less in the past. The celebration of a roman catholic saint by the name of Saint Martin of Tours could therefore not be allowed. But honouring a pious bishop – that they could do. Especially if he bore the very Danish name “Morten”.

“Saint Martin of Tours” became “Morten Bishop”. And the Danes could continue to commemorate the story of how loudly honking geese revealed the hiding place of the reluctant bishop of Tours.

Why the Danes insist on celebrating their holidays “on the eve of” is another story for another time.

For other stories about what Danes eat at speciale times of the year, you may also like: The Wheat-rolls and the Day of Prayer:

The wheat-rolls and the day of prayer

Every year on the fourth Friday after Easter Sunday Danes look forward to one of their long weekends. Known as ”Prayer-day-weekend” or just simply “Great Prayer Day” – Store Bededag.

As the name suggests, “Great Prayer Day” is a church holiday. It was once a day of mandatory church services, fasting and repentance. Today it is a welcome day off to many. To others it is a long awaited day of celebration, being one of the busiest days of the annual wave of confirmations with churches bursting with young girls in white dresses and boys in their best of Sunday bests.

And almost more importantly: It is the day of the very special square wheat-rolls, which are eaten with great fervour on the evening before Great Prayer Day – known as “Store Bededagsaften” or “Great Prayer Day-eve”.

To these wheat rolls we shall return. But first a little history on the origins of “Great Prayer Day”.

Church vs. societal efficiency
In 1686 – some 150 years after the protestant Reformation of Denmark – the king made an attempt to cut down on the many annual days of prayer, fasting and repentance. There were simply too many days of only prayer and no work. Instead came one annual day of prayer set about a month after Easter.

There is no significance to the placing of Great Prayer Day in the spring. In fact, it would have been even more welcome during Fall, when there are next to no holidays – and thereby no long weekends. But the King often travelled during the fall and wanted to be in Copenhagen for the prayer day. And so the Danes were given another springtime holiday.

Preparations for the “Great Prayer Day” began on the Thursday evening at 6 pm when the great bells of all the churches across the country were set to ring in the holiday. On this signal, all bars, market stalls, shops and other places of business were to close down and everyone to return home for an early night.

This was to ensure that everyone could wake up bright, early and sober for morning mass the next day.

And now for the wheat rolls
The call to close down shop was to be heeded by all trades. No work was to be done by anyone including the bakers, who were usually exempt from such holiday restrictions. The “Great Prayer Day” thus became the bakers’ only day off during the year.

To ensure that the good citizens of Denmark could still enjoy their daily wheat bread, the bakers came up with a special wheat roll sweetened with cardamom: The “hvedeknop” or “hvede” – literally “wheat bud” or “wheat”. Baked only once a year and sold on the day before the holiday to be heated and enjoyed once the church services were done with and the fast could be broken.

The evening before the actual day
Danes have a tendency to celebrate their holidays on the eve before rather than on the actual holiday: Christmas Eve, Midsummer’s Eve, Saint Martin’s Eve. Thus, they can enjoy the festivities on the eve before, while keeping the solemnity of the holy day.

It is perhaps not surprising then that although the Prayer-day wheat rolls were intended for the actual holiday, they soon became popular to eat on the evening before the Great Prayer Day.

The people of Copenhagen on their evening walk before the Great Prayer Day. Andreas Herman Hunæus/1862. Copyright: Public domain / Wikimedia commons

When everything had been closed down, the streets of the cities and towns must have seemed unusually quiet. In Copenhagen, the bourgeoisie took to going for an evening walk to enjoy the quiet – and to see and bee seen. Upon returning from their walk, it became “the thing” to enjoy a late evening meal of wheat rolls, butter and tea.

It is not possible to determine when exactly this tradition began. However, it dates as far back at least as 1747 when a new grand bell was installed in the Copenhagen Cathedral. So lovely was the sound of the bell that the Copenhageners (ie. the bourgeoisie) promenaded with the express purpose of hearing the bell.

Some still go for walks on the evening before the holiday. No longer to be seen, but rather to enjoy the onset of the coveted “bright nights” when the days grow longer and the nights shorter – should the weather allow it. It is Denmark, after all.

Others meet up with friends or family to enjoy the slightly sinful treat of wheat rolls with butter and other lovely things for a late evening meal.

The Dairy Products – A guide to the dairy section of a Danish supermarket

Danes like dairy. A puzzling variety of dairy it seems. Or so I gather from the exclamation of two expat friends when asked about Danish peculiarities: “The DAIRY PRODUCTS! Why are there so many of them?!”

And yes. We Danes like our Dairy products. From our milks to our cheeses, our butter to our “cultured milk products”. In this we do not vary greatly from other agricultural cultures. But we do have products, which are not cross-culturally mainstream.

Thus this short guide to the dairy section of the Danish supermarkets: From the different types of what is essentially yoghurt to the colour scheme, which has helped Danes identify their milk since the 1960s.

To each his own – sweet, light, mini or skimmed?
Milk has been an invaluable part of survival in what became Denmark since the Neolithic age. When previously nomadic peoples settled down and began living off the land – in approximately 3700 B.C. – milk became one of the basic foodstuffs and it is still very much a part of the Danish identity.

Today you may find these choices in most supermarkets:

Sødmælk, Letmælk, Minimælk and Skummetmælk – the four variations of Danish milk products in their colour-coordinated cartons.

Literally “sweet milk”. For many years the only type of milk with a fat content of 3.5%

“Light milk”. Introduced in 1973 with a reduced fat content of 1.5%. From the early 80s onwards, this was the most popular milk until the arrival of the “mini milk”.

Introduced in 2001 as part of the low-fat trend of the new millennium. Sports a 0,5% fat content but similar in taste to Letmælk (NB! … this can be contested and spark serious discussions).

With only 0,1% fat and for many years thought only of use for feeding animals.

All of these come – naturally – as both “normal” and organic.

How to navigate in the supermarket … the secret is in the colour
In 1964 a colour scheme for the packaging of milk products was decided upon to help the consumers identify, which milk was at hand: Dark blue for Sødmælk. Red for whipping cream. Green for buttermilk (kærnemælk). Brown for chocolate milk.

As products with reduced fat were introduced, the colours were adjusted within this colour scheme. The paler the colour, the lower the fat content: Letmælk = light blue. Minimælk = pale blue. Skummetmælk = grey. Reduced cream = orange.

Today the dairy colour scheme is as much a part of Danish culture as the Little Mermaid. A rogue dairy did once try to switch things up by introducing Sødmælk in a red carton, but the experiment ended as unhappy consumers complained at having grabbed the wrong product.

The yoghurts – or the wonderful world of Danish “cultured milk products”
It is when looking at the “thicker”, breakfast-oriented milk products akin to yoghurt that the “Danish way” starts flying solo. For next to the “regular” yoghurts you find a range of Danish dairy particularities, which are in effect variations over the theme “lactic acid bacteria”:

The people of Caucasus have their kefir. The Icelanders their skyr. The Danes have their A38, their Tykmælk and their Ymer. All may be eaten alone, with müsli or with the all time Danish favourite “rugdrys” – crumpled ryebread mixed with brown sugar. All may seem to taste somewhat the same, but most people tend to have their favourite.

The “cultured milk” section of a supermarket. Unfortunately, there is no colour coordination when it comes to these products – A38, Ymer, Tykmælk and Ylette. As the largest dairy producer, Arla, has started marketing all products under an “A38” heading, things have not been made easier.

A-38 is the all-time bestseller among the cultured milk products.

Tykmælk or literally “thick milk” is the richest and oldest of the products, having been on the market since about 1880.

Ymer is named after the character Ymir from Norse Mythology who was present at the creation of the world – and it is higher in protein than Tykmælk and A38.

Ylette is the “skinny” version of Ymer. Same protein, less fat.

Milk by subscription and a little sunshine on a spoon
To sum it up – Danes still are very much a dairy nation and the Danish Health Authority recommends an intake of half a litre of milk a day. For many years now, it has even been possible to subscribe to milk in the Danish schools, so that your child receives .25 litres of milk with their lunch every day.

And then, of course, the reliance on dairy has resulted in some quite delightful products. A personal favourite is the “little sunshine on a spoon”: The typical Danish summer dessert Koldskål (literally “cold bowl”) – made with Tykmælk, buttermilk, eggs and vanilla. It is a cool and sweet way to finish a summer meal and may in case of summer inertia even substitute the evening meal entirely. That it is eaten with small biscuits that are only slightly less sugary than the vanilla cookies Danes eat for Christmas makes it no lesser a delight.

And with this, there is nothing more to say than – go forth and conquer the Danish dairy section.