Do the holidays better and take a cue from the Danes. Skål!
What do you get when you combine rice pudding, akvavit, and the cozy, feel-good mood of hygge? Julefrokost, one of the most beloved rituals of yuletide in Denmark.
“Julefrokost is a really big thing in Denmark," chef Gunnar Gíslason of Agern, a Michelin-starred restaurant with Nordic roots in New York City’s Grand Central Station, told Travel + Leisure.
It pretty much means a holiday lunch — with a lot of booze.
While Gíslason is a native of Iceland, he based the Julefrokost menu at his restaurant off the traditional Danish feasts, as remembered by owner Claus Meyer (whose name you might recognize from Noma, re-opening in Denmark next month).
“In Iceland, everybody would do the same thing [as Julefrokost], but for dinner,” Gíslason said. “We can’t do day-drinking like the Danes, I guess.”
Throughout December — “usually, everybody starts in the last weekend of November,” Gíslason added — Danes will gather with family, friends, and colleagues for this winter ritual. “Companies will all go together and have a Julefrokost, and then you have to go with your family, and your wife’s family, and on and on.”
Whether you’re celebrating at a restaurant or at home, there are some basics that are fundamental to every Julefrokost. People typically start with cured fish, and follow it up with meat — often pork — and potatoes (in Denmark, they’re crispy, and in Iceland, they’re boiled and caramelized in sugar). Other classic sides include apple salad and red cabbage. For dessert, there will be risalamande: a rice pudding that’s synonymous with the Christmas season for most Danes.
“The idea is that everything’s shared,” said Katie Bell, Agern’s general manager. “It’s lots of passing, family-style.”
During a Julefrokost feast, the table will be piled with so many plates they start to overlap. Everything will be extremely hygge. You will drink a lot. You will cheers every time a new dish comes out, and there will probably be singing involved. And, when executed correctly, you’ll be at the table for a long time.
The two-course Julefrokost menu at Agern, available at lunchtime throughout December, features shared plates and a show-stopping pork belly main course paired with plenty of beer and akvavit (a traditional spirit) — and pastry chef Isabel Zamora’s riff on risalamande, made with preserved cherries and locally-grown rice.
In Denmark, each risalamande has a single customary almond hidden inside, and a prize is awarded to whoever finds it. Tradition dictates that the almond-holder must keep keep his or her discovery secret, so as to force everyone to keep eating dessert in search of the treasure. This convivial fun coupled with gluttony is, it seems, what Julefrokost is all about.
New Yorkers looking to sample another Nordic yuletide tradition should stop by the St. Thorak’s Day festivities at Agern on December 23. Gíslason will be cooking up a typical feast from his home country, featuring traditionally-prepared skate wing and a hefty list of Scandinavian draft beers.
Even if you don't get a reservation at Agern, you can still celebrate the holidays like the Danes and host a super-hygge Julefrokost of your own making. All you need are almonds, akvavit, and a distinctly Scandinavian tablescape.
The risalamande almond is a very important almond. Search for the perfect one to burrow in your pudding for a guest to find, and then crush the rest to boil with rice, vanilla, and cinnamon.
This caraway-flavored spirit, also known as snaps in Denmark, is essential to a good Julefrokost.
“As Americans we were thinking we’ll drink beer with the meal, and then snaps with the desserts," Bell told T+L. “And then literally the first two tables of Scandinavians that came in were like, ‘What are you doing? Akvavit now. We start with akvavit!’”
“You really want that hygge, that coziness,” said Gíslason of the Julefrokost setup. Achieve this by dressing your table with pine, plenty of candles, and stars — a traditional Nordic holiday motif.