If you can pronounce the fruit porridge “rødgrød med fløde,” you’re automatically Danish
After dinner last December in Copenhagen, Denmark, our server suggested my girlfriend and I try the Danish hallmark dish "rødgrød med fløde" for dessert. We took his advice, but we did not understand what we were about to get, let alone the words he'd used to describe it. He pointed to the tongue-twister on the menu so we could see its three Øs, two guttural Danish Rs, and four tricky soft Ds. "Could you, uh, say it again?" we asked. He grabbed a pen and wrote Ø on the paper table mat and said "Øøøø."
"Oouerh," we replied.
He chuckled and came back with a dinner-plate-sized bowl of a mysterious red pudding, over which he poured a healthy pitcherful of heavy cream. The name of the dessert, rødgrød med fløde, literally translates to "red porridge with cream," which is descriptively precise. It's a compote of red fruits, typically strawberries, raspberries, blackcurrant, or rhubarb (the "rødgrød"), thickened with starch and topped with whipping cream (the "fløde"). It's very unexpected, very hard to pronounce if you're not from the culture, and very Danish.
As Denmark's food culture has morphed and developed over the past 300 years, rødgrød has withstood the test of time. Through each epoch in the growth of Danish gastronomy, rødgrød has evolved in lockstep. And even today, as Danish cuisine is taking another leap forward with the New Nordic movement spearheaded by chef Rene Redzepi's Copenhagen restaurant Noma, rødgrød is coming along for the ride.
Back in the 1700s, when most Danish citizens were rural farmers, rødgrød was a predominantly starchy grain-based porridge that was simply colored red with fruit juice. But in the mid-19th century, Danish agriculture began to change. Rødgrød did too.
As farmers shifted away from single-crop cultivation in favor of a more diverse variety of seeds and plants, Danes could more easily access root crops, berries, and refined cane sugar. In turn, rødgrød flipped from a grain-forward dish into a dessert with fruit in the starring role and starch as a behind-the-scenes thickening agent, according to Danish food writer Heidi Svømmekjær. That same agricultural evolution also brought more dairy production to Denmark, which is where the fløde—cream—enters the rødgrød med fløde picture.
By combining homegrown fruits and grain and dairy—and because the colors of rødgrød med fløde match the red-and-white Dannebrog, the Danish flag—the dish became a potent culinary symbol of Danish national identity and self-sufficiency.
Rødgrød was a staple of most Danish menus until around the 1960s, when it started to fall out of fashion, as Danish food historian Else-Marie Boyhus noted. Rødgrød, again, was responding to broader changes in Denmark's cuisine. From the second half of the 20th century until about 15 years ago, much of the traditional Danish food culture was pushed to the wayside. In its place, French ingredients, recipes, and techniques reigned supreme, said Stephen Haar, the head of press and communications for the Food Organization of Denmark, a nonprofit that promotes modern Danish gastronomy.
"Before Noma opened in 2003, Denmark was kind of a gastronomic wasteland," Haar wrote in an email, referring to the influential New Nordic restaurant that focuses on local and seasonal ingredients. "There was much more status in a carrot bought in the market in Paris than one that has been growing at a field outside your restaurant [in Denmark]. People did not consider the Danish ingredients luxurious."
But now, due to Noma's influence, Svømmekjær said, that paradigm has been shifted back toward valuing homegrown Danish cuisine, and rødgrød, a proud national symbol, is here to stay. Haar said the classic red porridge is making appearances on the menus of some of the trendiest Nordic restaurants, and chefs are continuing to innovate with the dish as they push Danish food culture forward.
Even non-Danes who don't eat at hip Nordic restaurants are hearing about rødgrød med fløde as viral YouTube videos of foreigners trying to pronounce the phrase garner hundreds of thousands of views. "Rødgrød med fløde" acts as a sort of shibboleth phrase for Danish speakers, demarcating the natives from the newcomers, Svømmekjær said. Indeed, legend has it that "rødgrød med fløde" is so difficult for non-native speakers to say that Danish border guards during World War II made people entering the country repeat it to prove they were actually Danish.
In a blog post, Svømmekjær transliterated the name of the dish for us English speakers as "roygroy ma flyrr," which, had my girlfriend and I known earlier, would have helped us navigate the dessert options at that Copenhagen restaurant last December. But even this anglicized spelling doesn't fully capture the singsong idiosyncrasies of the Danish alphabet nor the sly smile on Danes' faces when they show off their skills for non-Danophones.
Despite this linguistic barrier, it appears that amid the New Nordic renaissance in Danish food culture, rødgrød med fløde has staying power as a touchstone for Denmark's local cuisine.
"You only need a few ingredients," Haar said, "but if they are good it can send you to heaven."