Foodie Tuesday: A Toast to Skagen

I have not yet been to Skagen, that Danish destiny so alluring to international tourists, fishermen and art lovers, but I have long since had an imaginary affair of the heart with it, thanks to the popular Swedish concoction known as Toast Skagen. It’s quite a simple thing, really, just toast points with a light shrimp salad on them, but when the shrimp are just-jumped-out-of-the-sea fresh and sweet and the preparation of them done with a delicate hand, it’s just about as good as seafood can get. So between visits to Sweden, I pine for the treat. It’s not that I couldn’t make my own facsimile of that assemblage, for even in the heart of north Texas there are places where one can lay hands on pretty good shrimp (at a price), but since the presence of briny air and piercingly radiant northern light and the lilt of Swedish conversation all around are also key ingredients regardless of their absence from the written instructions one might find for the preparation of it, Toast Skagen is still best savored in Scandinavia, and worth the protracted longings between visits.

That is why, if it appears on an even moderately trustworthy menu in Stockholm and its environs, I am likely to order Toast Skagen without even giving much of the rest of the menu a fair study. On the visit that just ended a few days ago, I did just that. Several times. And I was not disappointed—unless you count each time I ate the last bite.

The simplicity of the combination is key, because it must showcase the freshness of the shrimp, but there is room for subtle difference just as there is in any classic food recipe or combination that has survived the twin tests of time and chefs’ egos. The best preparation of Toast Skagen begins with fresh, perfectly cooked cold shrimp, is seasoned with nothing more noticeable than fresh lemon juice and fresh dill, lest the delicate salty sweetness of the shrimp be overpowered, and is bound with mayonnaise and served with or on bread. That’s about it. The subtleties come in with the proportions in the combination, the type of bread or toast, the presentation, and a few possible additional flavors and garnishes that won’t attempt to compete with the simple perfection of the concept.Photo: Toast Skagen 1

On this visit, I managed to taste three slightly different, all delicious, versions within the bounds of our ten days. I’m sure I’d have done more, but I did have to leave room for other favorites, and despite having eaten extensively and often, I did have to accept the finitude of hours in the day. Even though with midsummer daylight, those were admittedly impressive. The version of my shrimp-laden toasty dream that I’d been contemplating for the longest before our recent trip was had on our last day in Stockholm, for we had plenty of other places to go and people to see before then, but we did finally go to Sturehof, a venerable restaurant in a swanky but not stuffy neighborhood only a hop, skip and short T-bana (subway) ride from where we stayed. At Sturehof, I was greeted by lightly toasted points of white bread and a copious hillock of shrimp shaped with the help of a very light coating of mayonnaise. A toss of snipped dill, a mild dash of perhaps Dijon mustard to undergird the squeeze of lemon I’d give it, and a spoonful of Kalix Löjrom (caviar) to give a little snappy texture and sea flavor boosting, and it was a filling but refreshing luncheon to give our last day of play in Sweden a far less melancholy tinge.Photo: Toast Skagen 2

The second version of Toast Skagen was almost an afterthought in the middle of our visit, but far from negligible in the eating. My husband and I went with a dear friend to visit the fantastic Artipelag, part seaside park, part eco-tourist experiment, part art museum and all Swedish brainchild of the inventor of the BabyBjörn line of child care products. Unlike many museum cafes, this place’s eateries are worthy of a visit entirely unrelated to the call to check out all of the other wonders of Artipelag. We didn’t even bother to go up and dine in the restaurant upstairs after having a quick look at the buffet in the less fussy main level. It was an extravaganza of delicious and beautifully prepared traditional Swedish foods and their contemporary companions, and reasonably priced for such a grand meal at that. Among the attractions for me was an early spotting of other visitors parading their plates to the table with enticing spoonfuls of Toast Skagen in their midst, but when I arrived to select my foods at the board, the Skagen bowls were empty. Empty! Thank goodness I noticed that the staff continued to keep most of the dishes there overflowing with fresh batches of food, so I pulled up my fainting spirit and managed to down great quantities of other delectables before going back to find the missing delight replenished.

It was worth the wait, which, given the quantity and quality of everything else I’d been eating quite happily in the meantime, was no small feat. This version of Toast Skagen was either the plainest or the most complex of all, depending upon how one chose to dish it, dress it up, and/or accompany it when choosing from the fabulous array of salmon with baby peas, lovely cool salads, savory sausages, buttery tiny roasted potatoes, and so much more. I opted to keep it somewhat unfussy since it was really the dessert after I’d consumed so much other tasty food. There was splendid chewy, crusty peasant bread to be freshly sliced by my own hand from a warm loaf, so it seemed the obvious thing to merely take a slice or two, give it a slick of good cold butter, because to ignore good cold Swedish butter is very nearly a cardinal sin, and put a fat spoonful of shrimp on top. This variation had the mayonnaise and dill and very little else, but because the shrimp and bread and butter were so fresh and delicious, it was as close to perfect as need be.Photo: Toast Skagen 3

The first, and not least, helping of this craved creation that I had on the journey was on a tour boat that we took with other great local friends, while cruising leisurely through the archipelago‘s canals to have a short walking tour in Sandhamn before boarding for a leisurely dinner cruise back to town. The dinner onboard was a very pleasant, well-prepared selection of Swedish favorites, like the Artipelag buffet, but at this sit-down meal one had the choice of two fixed menus, with or without drinks and dessert, and ours had an option for my object of Swedish shellfish lust on it, so that was a foregone conclusion. This was the prettiest plating of the three, and had a couple of good signature tweaks worth mentioning. Besides the creamy, dill-speckled shrimp salad and a scoop of Löjrom for that snappy seaside pizzazz, there was a small stroke of Balsamic reduction brushed onto the plate and its piquancy gave a sweeter buzz to the usual lemon spritz, the latter still perfect in its way. And the garnishing lettuce and cucumber on the plate were so bracingly fresh that I only barely resisted turning Toast Skagen into Vietnamese-style salad rolls for the occasion. I munched the greens as a mini side salad, instead. Great textural contrast in one uncomplicated gesture.

Now, should you think I was so obsessed with this specific dish and with All Things Swedish All of the Time, I can assure you that my euphoric revisitation of beloved Stockholm and environs was filled with beloved friends, too, and yes, lots and lots of non-shrimp-toast-related food. More on that later. For now, be content that you know a plain yet elegant dish worthy of single-minded pursuit, and go forth in search of it yourself.

18 thoughts on “Foodie Tuesday: A Toast to Skagen

    • The nice thing about this dish is that if you have access to fresh ingredients, it’s unbelievably easy to make a version you’ll love. I’m not at all convinced that the flavor specific to Gulf shrimp fits my Skagen ideal, so will have to wait for times in Scandinavia or the US west coast, where the shrimp are more similarly flavored and textured, but that’s part of what makes a dish special when it’s so simple, isn’t it! 🙂

  1. When it comes to really great tasting food, simple is often best, especially when the ingredients are fresh, like the shrimp in Toast Skagen. This sounds wonderful, Kathryn. I really do enjoy getting to the coast and enjoying truly fresh seafood — except that I do have to return home where “fresh” isn’t quite the same thing.

    • Good excuse for a trip to the coast, you know! But then, where you are you have access to some amazing goodies of the mountain, lake and grassland-source varieties, so you’ll never go hungry for great stuff there, either. Smoked Trout Skagen, anybody??? 😉

  2. Thank you for your kind comments, Kathryn. I’m delighted to meet you! I’m starting to read your wonderful blog and am presently struggling with whether to make mad dash to the grocery store for some shrimp or to just book a flight to Stockholm and suffer until it’s time to leave. That’s some of the best food writing I’ve read and the photography is irresistible!

    • Thank you so much! I wouldn’t hesitate to advise a trip to Stockholm anytime anyone can get there, of course, but when that’s impossible, a meal of Toast Skagen could at least transport you there in spirit for the short term. 😀

  3. My mouth is watering and we just finished dinner! Sounds yummy, Kathryn! You do have a lovely way of writing in general, not just about food! I hope you’re doing well! My husband and I just returned from vacation and now I’m playing catch up. I wonder if I’ll win! 😉 Take care of You! xo

    • Thanks, Sweetie! Hope you’re continuing to see more daylight, too, behind the stacks of To Do that one always finds waiting at home. 😉 You *will* conquer! We’re just in turnaround, ourselves, because we’ll soon have the short workshop gig of R’s in WA to attend, and are attaching multiple dashes to family things and a couple of other business-related items to the trip, so we’ll keep busy with that right up to zipping home to restart with the regular Fall schedule of school, church and other work. 😀 Never a dull moment! Needless to say, I’ll be fueling myself on the coast with as much shrimp, crab and salmon as I can get!!!

      • You are certainly busy, K, and I’m exhausted just reading about your schedule. I’m sure you’re having fun, though, and your musical moments remind me of my high school and early college days. Sometimes, I wish I had stayed with music and singing and I even joined a choir a couple of times when the kids were little. It wasn’t the same and neither is my voice now. 🙂 Anyway, have fun and enjoy that seafood. YUM! Have a blessed Sunday, too! ♥

        • Beautiful, I’ll bet your voice is still fantastic. But I think life offers us far too many great options for us to be able to choose and continue all of ’em, so the many other arts you’ve continued to dedicate your life to (not least of all raising wonderful kids!) deserve the same admiration and respect, and I give those wholeheartedly. A lady with your gifts need never feel sorry about the road not taken unless the urge gets strong enough to go down that path anew and you don’t pursue it *now*. As if you have too little keeping you fully occupied! 😉

  4. When you’re not busy being an artist, or a writer, or a photographer, you REALLY should be a food writer for some swanky foodie magazine! Show a few of your Foodie Tuesday blogging bits to anyone, starting with this one, and they would hire you on the spot. Sounds delicious, and the photos are superb to help illustrate the point. The first thing that came to mind was a quote by Jing-mei Woo’s mother, (Suyuan Woo), from Amy Tan’s book The Joy Luck Club; everything about this blog entry is absolutely the “BEST QUALITY”.

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