Pastry Pastimes: Where Does The ‘Danish’ Come From?

Food has become an important lifeline during Melbourne’s strict second lockdown. After suffering through a brutal wave of new infections, residents of this once bustling city of five million are confined to their homes. Movement is restricted to five kilometers from home, only limited exercise is allowed and there is a nightly curfew. Shops and restaurants are closed, but bakeries and cafes are allowed to operate for takeaway.

In such a bleak period, people turn to food. On a sunny day, Melburnians take advantage of their limited freedoms and walk to their local cafe. With morale low, simple joy can be taken from enjoying a coffee you didn’t make yourself or biting into a flaky, sweet treat. Feeling the early spring sun on the unmasked part of your face, coffee in hand, strolling home through the backstreets, is a welcome delight in this difficult period. As I sunk my teeth into one particularly flaky, fruit-filled pastry purchased from my local, I began to wonder about its historical journey. I discovered that similarly to the history of the flat white coffee, the story of the ‘Danish’ is one about cultural crossover.

In many English-speaking cultures, filled pastries are called Danishes. In German-speaking places they are often called Kopenhagener (Copenhageners) and in Denmark they are called Wienerbrød (Vienna bread). These names provide some clues about the history of this delicacy. 

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Vikings, Strikes and Migrant Labour

The Danes say their pastry traditions come from the Vikings. In the style of the Great British Bake Off, Viking men would present home-made pastries to the family of their prospective bride. If there was more than one man interested in a girl, the man with the most mouth-watering pastry was selected by the girl’s family to become her husband. While pastry-based matrimonial selection is sadly no longer a part of Danish culture, pastry making and eating certainly is.

The history of the Danish pastry as we know it today is entangled with the labour rights movement. In 1850, Danish bakery workers began demanding better working conditions. Astoundingly, they wanted to be paid in cash, rather than just bed and board! They decided to strike. Their bosses were not so easily swayed. Due to the workers’ outrageous demands, bakery owners were forced to import replacement bakers all the way from Austria. This ensured that the Danish people were not deprived of their fruit-filled pastry snacks.

For the Love of Butter!

The Austrians had themselves gained their pastry knowledge from French patissiers. From France, flaky light pastry had made its way to Vienna, and from Vienna it traveled to Copenhagen. The Austrian bakers made use of rich Danish butter in their own recipes and introduced the fruity and creamy fillings so beloved in traditional Viennese confectionery.

Eventually, the great Danish bakers strike ended and the Austrians packed their bags back to Vienna, leaving the world of pastry forever transformed. The Danish people had become accustomed to the Austrian flavours and pastry techniques and in gratitude named these creations ‘Vienna bread’. The Austrians, in turn, named their butter-enhanced pastry recipe after Copenhagen. From Europe, the Danish pastry then traveled to the United States and beyond. Now it is found all over the world, including in the suburbs of Melbourne.

While lockdown here means that for now, the world seems very small, the food that we eat can transport us to far-away places. For hundreds of years, sweet-tooths the world over have wiped pastry flakes off their chins and licked powdered sugar from their fingers – these days followed up with a squeeze of hand sanitiser.

Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

Cover photo by Harshal S. Hirve on Unsplash

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