Words and Photos by Bruce McMichael
Over one week in October I was lucky enough to be invited to the Danish Oyster Festival on the island of Rømø, a press invitation that coincided with another invitation from The Guild of Food Writers to compile a diary of my days over a week. What follows is an edited version of my diary which ran from October 8 – 15, 2021.
A week in the life of Bruce McMichael, from thelemongrove.net – Day 1 … Danish Oyster Festival
Boiling slivers of grapefruit seven times in clean, fresh water before adding honey and fermenting the mix for several months may seem obsessive but for one up and coming Danish chef it was a vital matter of time, experimentation and discovery.
I’m talking with Jonas Harboe (pictured) at the Danish Oyster Festival (of which l’m a guest) which spreads over a long weekend in south-eastern Denmark. It’ an ever changing seascape of land reclamation, salt marsh lamb, and sadly thousands of tonnes of aggressive, invasive oysters that are thriving in this all-you-eat buffet of native oyster, mussels and shrimp.
So the ever practical Danes thought, let’s have a festival where people eat thousands, watch shucking competitions, enjoy new recipes created by local and international chefs and get people eating these invaders to save the natives.
Jonas shucked dozens of oysters over the weekend for tasting, using his potions, ferments and pickles … grilled fig leaf oil, pickled mulberries and ‘Nordic wasabi’, his foraged horse radish!
Citrus is a natural pairing for oysters, and Jonas’ grapefruit pickle was a complex mix of being deeply sweet, warming, fresh, bright and simply delicious.
So far I’ve met four food and travel writers from Denmark, Germany and Finland with more arriving today, Saturday, including new Guild member Birgitte K. Kampmann .
As on many press trips, time is spent rushing from one event to another; ‘dump your bags and come with us, now!’ – chatting, note scribbling, fiddling with ISO numbers and taking pictures, swapping business cards (still important) and Instagram handles, late nights and early mornings to watch the sunrise. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Having grabbed the top two spots in the recent World’s Best Restaurant award with Noma and Geranium, and Alchemist coming in at no. 58 the Danes are buzzing with excitement, with the journos sharing tidbits of kitchen gossip!
Day 2. Familiarisation, Starchitects and Marsh Lamb Dinner
Weather … Misty mornings, little wind, sunny midday, warm evenings
Breakfast … post (ed…?)-Covid hotel buffets are back. Prepared by Danish chef Mette Meldaard we had the best rye bread, øllebrød, foraged mirrabelle plum and raspberry jams and elderflower conserve
Today (Sunday) the Danish Oyster officially opens so yesterday was all about understanding more about the life day culture of the region and it’s constantly evolving relationship with the capricious waters of the Wadden Sea.
We met local producers of gin, chocolate, cheese, beer and cider and ate salt marsh lamb.
The real ales were dark and heavy and kept in martini cognac or bourbon barrels for months, the perfect use of pandemic lockdown time. A new initiative seeks to gather such producers together promote them and the region as a food and travel destination.
I also interviewed Bjarke Ingels, the rock star architect whose practice is responsible for buildings such as Google’s new London headquarters, the Via 57 West Apartments in New York and the Mountain Dwellings in Copenhagen.
He flew in by helicopter to officially open the Marsk Tower, a remarkable double helix structure made of steel (see pictures). Fascinating to talk about his design philosophy and how public art can transform a place.
Dinner was prepared by Mette and we had that round table introduction so beloved of event organisers. As the only UK resident l get asked, often with in a sympathetic tone; ‘Why are your supermarket shelves empty, what’s happening with the petrol, you eat turkey at Christmas (!) what do you think of Brexit, and Boris? I sometimes struggle to answer. It’s amazing how well informed people outside the UK are about what goes on inside the UK.
But today is all about oysters. Read all about it tomorrow, and thanks for reading today!
Day 3 … Competition, Mudflats and FOMO
Weather … beautiful sunrise, wind picking up, but Rømø is on a small island surrounded by the Wadden Sea. Clear skies, no need for pullovers under light jackets
Lunch … one blue token gets me two slices of rye bread and butter, two crumbly palm sized fish cakes, and rémoulade (was actually the best part … mayo, piccalilli and seasoning). I swap another token for a large pile.
The Danish Oyster Festival officially opens with a high octane shucking competition. Fellow guild member Birgitte K. Kampmann saved me a seat near the front for the view while press pack writers, bloggers and photographers and a Los Angeles-based tv crew jostled for space. As a business news reporter in the 1990s, it was the TV crew that grabbed the best spot. Not here, they had to sharpen their elbows with the scribblers and their iPhones!
I watched the first round in which three young chefs were given 30 farmed (equally sized oysters) to shuck in the quickest time with time penalties given for poor presentation, drops of chef blood on the oyster or torn flesh of the mollusc. The atmosphere was hyped by joyful, rollicking Irish folk music.
Then on the bus to the sandbanks revealed by low tide to hand gather the invasive Pacific oysters. Fascinating stories shared by the wardens about floods, shifting sands and wellies lost in the gloopy mud.
Insta live from the oyster beach
There’s a little film of an Instagram Live I did about this on @lemongrovepics … picking, cleaning, shucking and eating super fresh oysters hundreds of metres from the seashore. Briney, clean tasting with a bright, delicious minerality. ( Watch the recording on my instagram page @lemongrovepics )
Lots to do and see, with many of feeling FOMO … fear of missing out! I sadly missed demos on sensory perception engaged through pairing Talisker whisky (with its sea salt nose), and why champagne and oysters work so well.
Day 4 … Oysters as Dessert, Natural Wine, Goodbyes
Weather … we’ve been lucky, another lovely sunrise and warm air with a few short, gentle showers at sunset.
Lunch … tasting as many of the various oyster preparations as possible and a glass or two of natural French wines from @paris90_cph
It’s our final day at the Danish Oyster Festival.
Pencils are sharpened and camera’s recharged, while all eyes and taste buds are seeking out the chefs oyster cooking competition (they should all fit into one oyster shell) to see who has the most innovative recipe, who makes the best savoury dish, who has the best sweet/ dessert dish and who best represents the most sustainable. For example, winner of the Sweet Category’ Magnus Carlsen from Alchemist, Copenhagen used chocolate, caramel, grapefruit, Talisker whisky and a cocoa sponge.
Initial results are in my Instagram feed @lemongrovepics while a full report will appear on my website www.lemongrovepics.net soon.
Time for goodbyes
It’s also time for goodbyes to the press pack. Lots of ‘great to meet you’, and see you ‘Copenhagen, Paris, Hamburg, Galway or Tunbridge Wells!’
While our busy lives usually mean that we are unlikely to meet again, it’s rewarding to grow my contacts book.
It will take a few days to digest the emotions and gained knowledge from the past few days and fully decipher my scrawled notes. It has been a fascinating, fun and inspiring insight into how a community is working to boost tourism and create awareness of an amazing destination that to date had mostly welcomed Danes and visitors from northern Germany.
I’ve been talking non-stop for the past four days, unusual for me as I often work from home alone. As I told the taxi driver to the airport at Billund, ‘I’m running out of words ’. But I now know plenty about Danish taxi law, depreciating values of Mercedes A-Class cars and Legoland, which is headquartered in Billund.
Day 5 … Writers’ Hour, Expenses, Fossils
Oysters … you may think that after eating them for four days I might want a break, but no. They are £7.20 for six in my town’s fishmongers, and I late-night ordered (wine was not involved) a folding Opinel shucking knife – from Sous Chef using the Guild’s discount code.
Travel … our Ryanair flight leaving Billund was badly delayed by the most assiduous Covid form checking, and zealous bag checkers.
Back in the the UK now, reflecting and writing after a stimulating time at the Danish Oyster Festival in southwest Jutland, right on the Danish/ German border.
My first port of call is London Writers’ Salon where hundreds of writers from around the world Zoom in to write in companionship and accountability. I aim for the 8am hour (London time) and sometimes check in at 4pm or 9pm. It becomes addictive after a while. There’s a good community of Guild members dialling-in including Jenny Hammerton Di Murrell Nicolas Ghirlando Elisabeth Luard Sam Kilgour (apologies if I have missed anyone, if I have let me know and I can add you).
Expenses and London Writer’s Salon
The second task was to insert my expenses to the spread sheet, cognisant of useful nudges Helen Best-Shaw regularly offers. Gone are the days when I struggle to account for late night beers (I mean Subsistence) or to read crumbled receipts for notebooks bought in on one of the those ‘fragrant’, specialty stationery shops the French, Italians, Spanish … do so brilliantly. Well, perhaps a Moleskin was a bit extravagant but hey, if Bruce Chatwin used one then so will I!
Oysters have been eaten for millenia by many different peoples and cultures. There history is full of imaginative cooking, shifting social mores and over gathering. A Swiss sommelier at the festival joked that his country didn’t have oyster beds, before I mentioned that millions of oyster fossils dating from the Jurassic age make up some the Alpine rock strata (I read Mining Engineering at Leeds University in the early 1980s).
Day 6. Online, Singing, Macaroni
Work … writing about oysters, ordering on line, buying books
It’s reassuring how many times during the day I come across a Guild member’s work. I’ve been reading with interest the reports about suspected plagiarism in the recipe and memory book Makan, recalling the words of Basu Mallika through her Guild Zoom event earlier this year about cultural appropriation. Untangling these complex, long-standing issues requires this open debate and questioning. I believe recipes will be written and recorded differently in future, which also makes me revisit my notes from Orlando Murrin and Ruth Watson’s Zoom on recipe writing.
Then I spotted Orlando seeking musical talent for a Christmas event. Should I dust down my alto Sax and playing again … no, he was looking for singers! I will offer up my voice, but not before a very musical friend gives me a few tips and lessons, and perhaps I might hire an auto-tune machine.
Hunting for Freekeh
I’ve been vainly searching my town for freekeh, the green durum wheat that is roasted and rubbed to create its nutty, smoky flavour, since I logged onto a cooking class organised by member Birgitte K. Kampmann with a Lebanon-based chef. I’ve now found some online, from Sous Chef, and doing an online search came across a biography of Christine McFadden who states that freekeh is one of her favourite ingredients. Then I switch on the radio and listen to Professor Tim Lang explaining to a BBC Radio 5 Live presenter why the British food system is broken and how to fix (spoiler alert, it’s going to take years, buying more local, and we’ll be paying more).
As the evening set in, I logged onto a discussion between Rachel Roddy author of ‘An A-Z of Pasta’ and Massimo Montanari, the much-respected Italian professor and Medievalist with a special interest in agrarian history.
Lovely to eavesdrop into a very knowledgeable (but worn lightly) discussion about Massimo’s latest book, “A Short History of Spaghetti with Tomato Sauce’. Great to understand the etymology of the word macaroni, how pizzas in Naples are so very different from those in Bologna and debunking the myth of Marco Polo introducing pasta to Italy from China. Both have new books out, and I’ve ordered both (don’t judge me Julie Elizabeth Friend).
Following a couple of delicious breakfasts in Denmark during my recent trip, I am now firmly back on Team Cream for porridge, and in future will be making my own granola.
Day 7 … Projects, SEO, Handover
Dinner/ supper/ tea (depending on where in the UK you grew up ) … Roast Savoy cabbage from my veg box with bacon bits, and freekeh, boiled. I’m looking forward to my son (26) returning home soon and us cooking together for a few weeks after all, as we all know, Two’s Company!
A slow day and a come down from the excitement and sensory stimulus of my recent press trip to the wild oyster fields of southeastern Jutland. And while the day was not as productive as I’d hoped as I sipped my wake up coffee, I didn’t beat myself up as I may have done in the past but went with the flow.
I’m working on a couple of projects including a new quarterly food magazine and website (currently focused on content development, media pack and seeking funding), and a personal ambition to publish a short series of zines (A5, illustrated) about citrus (again seeking finance, starting with a round of crowd funding).
New project planning
In addition to freelance writing, cooking demos and teaching food writing I am now working to monetise my website and have bought a package with US-based Food Blogger Pro. So I’m grappling with SEO, video editing, podcasting, taking better photos, making the most of WordPress … the list goes on!
Many thanks to everyone who has read my diary over the past week, commented, sent me private messages and ticked the Like button. I very much appreciate your support. Also thank you to this project’s admin Julie Elizabeth Friend and the Guild for providing this space which is inspiring and informing so many of us.