Last week my eldest daughter and I made a trip to one of my favourite towns in Denmark; Helsingør, or Elsinore as it was called in Shakespeare’s time. This small town, with its massive fortress of Kronborg overlooking the sound to Sweden oozes history with every cobbled step. I always find that if I need to clear my head and get a new perspective on things, then a windswept walk with Holly the dog around the massive ramparts of the castle always does the trick. The views are extraordinary; with the short four kilometer crossing to Helsingborg in Sweden making it one of the busiest in northern Europe, with 13 million people transported every year. The huge ferries ply their way in an almost haphazard fashion every 20 minutes, and from where we sit on the pebbled beach look surreal and higher than us. Always moving, this frenetic man-made view is so mad and so very inspirational.
It’s always been busy; if you drag your hands through the shiny pebbles on the beach you uncover a fistful of sea-worn artifacts. From softly sandblasted glass fragments of dark green, royal blue, turquoise, grey and brown to terracotta jug handles, tiles, red bricks, patterned plate fragments and rustic mediaeval faience wear. Last summer I was lying on the beach making pictures of galleons out of the clouds with my youngest daughter and casually remarked that I knew that I would find some treasure. Minutes later, as I dredged the stones behind my sleepy head I came up with a twisted pewter spoon. The story lies so close by on this energy charged shore; this place where we sweetly lay was composed of moments of time. With every turn past the red brick battlements or whitewashed interior dungeons, you feel that if you had glimpsed half a second earlier you would see someone. Layer upon layer of lives, all churned by the constant tide and scattered across the beach. You just need to know how to look.
The town itself of Helsingør is bursting with stories untold too. Modern day tales begin immediately as you close your eyes and hear the jolly rattle, jingle and thump of beer crates being pulled on trolleys across the old cobbles; as day-tripping Swedes hastily purchase cheap Danish booze to take home to their prohibition ridden land. Summer café terraces are filled with their pissed fellow countrymen, as they dribble into their beer and marvel at the salacious nature of cousin Denmark in the cold Christian heart of Scandinavia. It’s an unrewarding occupation watching them though; they are like kids in a candy shop and you are the bored shopkeeper.
Last week it was terribly cold, with a wind-chill taking it down to a minus 18 c on a February day. Helsingør is situated on a very cold and draughty corner between the Kattegat and the Baltic, even in Shakespeare’s Hamlet there is mention to the extraordinary cold two times! We knew what he meant, snow flurried around us as we scrabbled our way up one of the straight mediaeval streets, thinking of our favourite bakery and the hot coffee and delicious cakes waiting for us. On either side of us the tall brick Dutch renaissance style merchant houses, the stucco facades of embassies of world powers from the 17th century nestled in between more modest half timbered taverns and chandlers. Underneath the grand old bones of these once noble buildings were housed booze shops, flower shops, chemist shops and discount stores. Helsingør has declined since its heady days as the Dubai of the middle ages and most frequented port of call in the north rather badly; she was after all the spoilt mistress of a very wealthy idea indeed, which spanned 400 years.
During the last quarter of the sixteenth century Denmark was the most powerful Continental kingdom in Northern Europe, the reasons for this rise to wealth, riches and fame were conceived one hundred and fifty years earlier by a young king named Erk of Pomerania. Erik had the unenviable task of finding himself as the sole ruler of the United Kingdom of Scandinavia; Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, the Orkney islands, the Shetland islands and Schleswig-Holstein in Northern Germany, all shining jewels in the crown of fifteen year old Erik. This Kingdom was very big by contemporary standards, indeed a huge swathe of far-flung lands that became immensely costly with the administrative expenses that were incurred in order to rule them. Previously, huge shoals of herring had more than adequately filled the royal coffers, but these oily fish had mysteriously slipped out of the hands of the Danes to move elsewhere.
Young Erik tackled the winds of change with a stroke of genius, and in 1423 summoned a group of merchants from the powerful Hanseatic League and informed them of his cunning plan, an idea so brilliant that it has been described as “400 years of legal piracy.” He informed them that henceforth he intended to levy a new toll; every ship wishing to sail past Helsingør, whether on its way out of or into the Baltic, would have to dip its flag, strike its topsails and cast anchor so that the captain might go ashore and pay to the customs officers in the town a toll of ‘one English noble.’ At the time equivalent to the price of an ox. Naturally all the horny crew would disembark too and spend their time and money in whorehouses and taverns, whilst supplies would be replenished, ropes and sails mended, the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker all visited and for some reason the paper work would take weeks. The final flourish of this scam to end all scams was then that the numerous ship captains would have to wait patiently for the right wind to fill his sails.
If you look at the faded beauty of Helsingør you can glimpse flashes of her charms in hidden courtyards, where third-rate pizza restaurants try to recreate Italy on a budget. In ochre, red and brown half-timbered houses, where a cat sits in a window and a candle burns in another. In the many 18th century delightful carved and decorated doors, that must have competed with each other to become the most original or in vogue. The streets run straight and in an almost American style, young Erik wanted the town to be quickly built to reap in the Sound Dues with a simple grid plan.
Our beloved bakery was on Stengade (Stone Street). Named thus because it was the main street and the only paved one in the bustling town. Last week my daughter and I ran to the shop with heads down to protect us from the icy blast, with Holly the dog leading the charge. We arrived breathless to find the pretty old-fashioned frontage smashed and in the process of being gutted, after 155 years the bakery had been sold to a steakhouse chain. We were gutted too. For twelve years we have always ended our tour of the castle shore with a steaming cup of strong coffee and something scrumptious to eat from the bakery. In all these years the baker himself would wander amongst the clientele of day trippers and old ladies in hats. Sometimes he would offer us a stale meringue called a “Kys.” He would blush when I laughed when he offered me a kiss and genuinely didn’t realise that he had been funny. One day he wandered amongst us and enjoyed the laughter and smiles of his guests: perhaps only later finding-out that he had a small lump of dough with a raisin on it on his long nose.
To me the passing of this institution is a tragedy. One more bright ribbon is snatched from the hair of the once beautiful mistress of Kronborg. I grieve that I never photographed or sketched the coffee cup rattling, the arthritic old ladies with splendid hats, 1950’s décor and large deposits of crumbs under the table legs. I grieve that I never encouraged my eldest daughter to write her story of “Mike and Spike,” the two fat mice who lived so well in the bakery and who slept in a fake wedding cake. Everything was so loved and familiar.
I can offer you an edible memory though, a Danish cake that will confidently hit the spot and needs no further explanation for its delicious self:
Danish Apple Pie
Preheat the oven to 160 C
Take 100 g butter and melt it in a medium-sized pan. Add 175 g sugar, 100 g plain flour, 1 tsp baking powder, 40 g desiccated coconut and 1 egg. Beat with a wooden spoon until blended.
Line a small cake or flan tin with greaseproof paper.
Take 2 apples, peel, core and cut into segments. Lay in a spiral pattern over the cake mixture. Sprinkle with a couple of dessert spoon full of sugar and cinnamon. Bake the cake for about 40 minutes, or until an inserted knife comes out cleanly.
Serve with creamy crème fraiche and strong coffee. I tend to double the quantities as it is so irresistible!