Since I've already gone back to the US six times in the last year, I decided to stay in Europe for the holidays, sticking around Copenhagen for Christmas, and then visiting friends in Budapest over New Year's. This has allowed me to stay off the trans-Atlantic air travel merry-go-round, sit around with my feet up for a few days and, luxury of luxuries, enjoy Christmas Eve dinner with my good friends, Henrik and Ulla, and their extended family. Now although it's not uncommon to pick up a stray or two, a traditional Christmas Eve dinner in Denmark is a family affair, so I really appreciated the invitation to be included. Also, since Henrik is a master chef who could probably open a Guide-Michelin-rated restaurant if he ever decided to give up science, I was selfishly anticipating a memorable dining experience. Never mind that there would be 18 people to cook for, and that the cumulative effect of traditional Danish Christmas Eve fare is reputed to be comparable to a stomach full of lead shot, I knew Henrik would pull this together in his usual masterly fashion.
So, following pre-dinner cordials, we sat down around 7 PM to take in the programmed two rounds of roast duck. The first course of duck was breast meat dressed with crispy skin and a rich wine-reduction gravy, served with a variety of vegetables, including the required traditional local small potatoes, a red cabbage dish, and beets simmered in cream. A non-traditional helping of mashed sweet potatoes was added. In Henrik and Ulla's house, the womenfolk are traditionally excused from the second round of duck, and can opt for just another helping of duck gravy. I don't believe any of the women near me actually gave up the second round, which is a duck leg, again served with the crisped skin intact. I swear I got the largest limb of anyone at the table. Throughout dinner, most of us I believe were drinking a very fine riserva Chianti Classico, supplied by Ulla's father.
After everyone has thoroughly killed themselves with duck, the traditional slice of pork roast, topped with a piece of crisped pork rind, is brought out, and a third helping of vegetables is passed around to go with it. This includes another traditional dish, very small potatoes in a caramelized sugar sauce. After that, everyone is completely dead, so it's time to bring out the rice pudding (ris à l'amande) with warm cherry sauce. At least two helpings are de rigueur. Along with a ton of slivered almonds, the pudding also contains one or more whole almonds (more than one is optional, depending on how many people there are). If you find a whole almond in your portion, you are supposed to trade it in for a small present. The real jokesters hide the almond so they can watch everyone else eat additional portions of pudding as they keep searching for it. Eventually, if it isn't found, some may start "fiskering" (fishing) for it in the serving dish, which is laughingly frowned upon.
The atmosphere was warm and friendly, and the food was all wonderful.
After dinner, they all link hands and dance in a slow circle around the "Juletræ" (Christmas tree), singing songs. Very charming. I was unintentionally in the bathroom when they started, and tried to sit it out, but they insisted I join them, even though I didn't know any of the songs. Henrik thought I ought to be able lead an English version of "White Christmas", but I was too brain dead by this time to remember the words. After this, the presents are brought out from under the tree and handed out by the oldest guy in the family wearing a Santa hat and false beard. In this case, it was Ulla's dad. Since there were a lot of presents, this looked like an exhausting business. While that's going on, of course, there has to be coffee, cake, heaps of homemade chocolate, liqueurs, single malt whiskeys, cognacs, port wine, etc.
After the presents were given out, we ate and drank some more (a round of Swedish caviar, accompanied by fresh bread, chopped red onions, sour cream, fresh dill, etc.), until finally the eldest grandparents had fallen asleep sitting up with empty wine glasses dangling dangerously in their hands. Those who had to head home finally left around 1 AM.
Fortunately, unlike the natives, I had no commitments Christmas Day that would require further eating or drinking. By the afternoon, I was sufficiently recovered to go out and run ~3 miles around the "lakes" (Peblinge Sø and Sortedams Sø), feeling very virtuous, if not completely healthy. I took my very survival as a sufficient blessing.