Soaked scraps of dried rye bread boiled to mush. Smooth, sour porridge topped with thick skyr or frothy æggesnaps (creamed egg yolks). Meet øllebrød: meaning ‘beer bread’ in Danish, a more accurate translation would be ‘weirdly delicious porridge’. This is oatmeal, lost to the dark Danish winter. This is food, not an art piece designed to garner social media likes. But don’t fault øllebrød for its humble appearance. After one spoonful, you’ll realise anyone can succumb to øllebrød’s spell of nostalgia, Scandinavian heritage not required.
Øllebrød, pronounced ooh-le-brooht, was a staple dish for Medieval Danes, though nowadays kids are more likely to eat it for breakfast on chilly winter mornings. The meal’s origins remain shrouded in mystery. Some believe monks invented the dish, dipping old rye bread into beer to soften the dried out scraps. The next morning, they’d heat up the crumb filled liquid and savour the resulting porridge for breakfast. Others trace øllebrød to the peasant home. Bread husks were dropped into a bubbling pot, warm beer added and the whole thing simmered. People would serve themselves periodically throughout the day when hunger stuck. Regardless of its origins, rye bread porridge has been mythologized in Danish culture and now serves as a routine reminder of the individual’s place in the nation’s history and culture.
Despite the dish’s unknown birthplace, the recipe has ostensibly withstood change. To prepare, you boil some stale rugbrød — dense Danish rye bread — and add beer — usually hvidtøl, a low alcohol brew (many modern versions omit this). Then, cook the mixture until it forms in a spoonable, mushy paste. Today’s palates might enjoy topping it with a dusting of sugar or a luxurious dollop of something cold and creamy. While øllebrød is unique to Denmark, other Northern countries serve up similar rye based dishes. Finns enjoy mämmi, a dessert sweetened with sorghum and flavoured with orange rind. Mämmi is most commonly served at Easter, while øllebrød is eaten for breakfast throughout the year. Given its cultural specificity, øllebrød serves as a way for Danes to assert their storied cultural identity on a daily basis.
As Korean parents induct toddlers into the world of kimchi, Danish adults usher children through the cultural rite of rye bread porridge. And, like marmite divides the British public, rye bread porridge cleaves Danish opinions: you love it or you hate it. Memories help Danes acquire a taste for øllebrød. Danish bloggers recall eating a steaming bowl as a special wintertime treat when visiting grandparents or as an indulgent breakfast to steel them against the cold. With the assertive tang of sourdough rye, liking øllebrød is easier for those reared with an appreciation for strong, sour flavours.
The breakfast has endured rollercoaster fortunes: popular in the Middle Ages through to the early twentieth-century, forgotten for most of the twentieth century, and newly popular in the twenty-first. A focus on rye’s health benefits and Scandinavia’s rise as an epicentre of cool have pushed this stick-to-your-ribs breakfast into the spotlight in Denmark and beyond. Øllebrød is everywhere. It is on Pinterest. It is on Instagram. Craving øllebrød but don’t have any rye bread? Try instant porridge flakes, available at your local Irma supermarket! From Copenhagen to New York, the porridge graces restaurant menus, appearing as an ice cream-laden dessert at New York’s Acme and as a hip breakfast at Copenhagen’s Grød. Bloggers embrace the porridge, citing the foodie film Babette’s Feast in which some Danish girls teach French Babette to prepare øllebrød. What was once a Danish taste has now gone global: Nordic-philes around the world masquerade as Danish children as they revel in the rustic joy of eating mushy boiled bread.
Ready to eat? Good. Here’s a simplified version — sans beer — that cooks up quickly in the morning. This isn’t your super authentic recipe. This is your adapted, non-Danish kitchen recipe (want the real deal? Try this recipe and this one). My version was tested using both Finnish-style Ruis bread —softer than rugbrød and unseeded — and a Danish-style rye bread from Bread’s Bakery in New York. Enjoy!
Quick Øllebrød — serves 1
100 grams rye bread
200 ml water
Pinch of salt
Yogurt, almonds, raisins to top
Crumble rye bread in a pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Once boiling, reduce to a steady simmer and cook for approximately ten to fifteen minutes. Stir intermittently. When the bread has completely broken down, it can be taken off the heat. Cook until it reaches the consistency you’d like (somewhere between runny and oatmeal-dense is a good start).
 Other strong, sour flavours popular in Denmark include: pickled herring, liquorice, currants.