In 1559, while sailing through the Dano-Norwegian kingdom (at the time, the two were united under the Danish crown), a Scottish admiral fell in love with the daughter of the Danish admiral (who was Norwegian). They married, and he whisked this Norwegian noblewoman off to his faraway land.
But be not misled. This deceptively romantic scene – what sounds like the start to a Renaissance fairytale – was merely an overture to what was surely one of the most bizarre dramas in history involving a cast of the most unlikely and unlovable creatures.
After marrying the Norwegian Anna Throndsen, James Hepburn, the 4th Earl of Bothwell and Scotland’s Lord High Admiral, abandoned her, and married a Scottish noblewoman, Jean Gordon (daughter of the Earl of Huntly). Barely a year into that second marriage, Bothwell filed for divorce (on shady terms). In the meantime, he was implicated in the famous Kirk O’Field plot that resulted in the murder of Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, the young consort to Queen Mary of Scotland (and father to her only heir, who would later found the Stuart line on the English throne as James I).
Perhaps emboldened by his acquittal for the murder of Darnley (for which most historians agree he is guilty), Bothwell then abducted the newly widowed Queen Mary and raped her. Despite his detestable behavior – or, perhaps threatened by it – the Queen bestowed more titles on Bothwell, elevating him to the Duke of Orkney and the Marquis of Fife. Even more shocking, a few days later, after Bothwell finalized his divorce from Gordon, the Queen married him.
Things began unravelling quickly thereafter for Bothwell and the Queen, as the Scottish nobility rose up against them. The two were forced to separate. Queen Mary was captured and imprisoned in the island castle of Loch Leven (from which she eventually escaped to England, only to be imprisoned for the rest of her life there by her cousin, Elizabeth I). Bothwell took to the sea, whereby he hoped to gain support from the Danish king for his cause. It was during this spirited maritime campaign that the long, vengeful arm of the Danish admiral’s daughter – Bothwell’s abandoned first wife – reached out from the icy waters of the North Sea and caught him off the coast of Norway. He was hauled into the port of Bergen and clapped into the prison at Rosenkrantz Tower.
After settling accounts with Throndsen (he owed her the dowry of which he defrauded her in abandonment), Bothwell probably would have been set free had Frederick II, the king of Denmark, not received word that Elizabeth I was hunting Bothwell for the murder of Darnley. Realizing that he had a potentially valuable pawn in his possession, Frederick II had Bothwell transferred out of Bergen to Denmark, where the Scotsman eventually ended up prisoner in the dreaded Dragsholm Slot, where he died in 1578 (after some reports of having gone insane).
Why am I telling you this ridiculous story?*
Because, it is the backdrop and context for my latest trip to Denmark.
I love history. I always have. It verges on obsession.
So, knowing well the story of this overly ambitious Scottish nobleman and his ill-fated demise, I have naturally taken an interest to Rosenkrantz Tower on my many, recent trips to Bergen, Norway. It still stands, proud and gloomy, overlooking the mouth of Bergen harbor (today, the sprawling lawn behind the fortress serves as one of Bergen’s largest outdoor concert venues).
But what about Dragsholm Slot, the castle where prisoners of the Danish crown were sent, and where Bothwell died?
It must have been my morbid interest in this creep from the pages of history, stirring in my sub-conscience, that prompted me to mention it, off-handedly, one day in a text exchange with my friend Will. Will is an Australian who has been living and working in Denmark (at Restaurant Geranium) for some time. In sorting out my plans for an upcoming trip to Copenhagen, I told him that I’d like to get out of the city for a change. And that’s when, wondering aloud, I mentioned Dragsholm Slot. Not expecting Will to catch my aside about this obscure castle or my interest in its even more obscure inmate, you can only imagine my surprise when Will not only confirmed that the castle still exists, but that it has been restored and converted into a nice hotel, with a nice restaurant. In fact, his friend works there.
Unfortunately, Will also said that a recent fire in the kitchen had shut down the operation for a few months, and it would not reopen until after my impending trip. Luckily, another opportunity to visit Denmark arose shortly thereafter, and this past June, I finally got to Dragsholm.
Landing at Copenhagen’s Kastrup airport in the morning, I rented a car and went straight into the city to meet Will and our friend Andreas for lunch at Schønnemann, a restaurant that I have only mentioned in passing on this blog before. This institution, dating to 1877, is known for its “herring, beer, and snaps,” and traditional, Danish smørrebrød, which the restaurant serves on beautiful, Danish-blue china. Unaware that Danish smørrebrød is such a hearty fare, the first time I ate here, I unintentionally ordered too much. Having not learned my lesson, apparently, I managed to do so again on this, my second visit.
Schønnemann’s smørrebrød menu rambles on for pages, but is helpfully divided into sections: herring, shellfish & eel, salmon & halibut, veal & beef, pork, duck & chicken, tartlets, and so on. As the word smørrebrød (“buttered bread”) suggests, it’s an open-faced sandwich served on bread (most often rye, or brown bread) with a generous smear of butter.
The amount of butter consumed by Danes is remarkable, if not horrifying to this American. Done properly, Danish bread should be spread so generously as to promise the appearance of tandsmør. Literally translated as “tooth butter,” the Danes use this word to refer to the teeth marks that can only be achieved with an adequate pavement of butter.
Everything that I’ve tried at Schønnemann is great.
The pickled herring is wonderful – the tangy sweetness of its pickling juice is cut with the sharper edges of warming spices – served with capers, red onions, and sour cream. The smoked eel is terrific as well, especially with fluffy, scrambled eggs.
This time, I ordered a “tartlet,” which my friend Andreas said is quite traditional. The order came with not one, but twin, fluted pastry shells filled with shrimp and dill swimming in Hollandaise (tartlets can be ordered with other fillings, like salmon, chicken, and vegetables). Just as I was about to comment on how generous they had been with the sauce, our server – an older gentleman with a dry wit – arrived with a small pot of yet more Hollandaise, which he liberally ladled over the tartlets before I could express any sign of hesitation, completely drowning them. Without missing a beat, he turned to me and asked, “would the gentleman like to change his order and have me select something lighter for his second smørrebrød?”
I had ordered “Simon’s Favorite,” a daunting combination of smoked salmon, creamed spinach, and poached eggs on butter-fried toast. But, given the lake of Hollandaise I now owned, I thought it prudent to scale back. So, for my second course, my server brought out a simple smoked salmon smørrebrød with little more than some dill, asparagus, and a tandsmør of butter. Slimming in comparison to Simon’s Favorite, this was still a feast.
The tartlet shells were thick and sturdy, but ultra flakey – the type of flakiness you only get with a lot butter baked into the crust. The shrimp – these were small shrimp – were plump, and the Hollandaise in which they were enrobed was warm and velvety. It was a decadent dish. And I loved it.
Following tradition, snaps (or schnapps), which my two friends ordered and drank as if water, was streamed from a bottle held high above our table. Our server poured until the liqueur crested above the tops of the snaps glasses in a quivering dome, held from breaking over the sides by just the right amount of tension. He did this repeatedly, and never missed a drop, always bidding us “skål” as he retreated. In order to drink it without spilling, my friends had to crane their necks down and bring their lips to the glasses to sip off the top, careful not to breathe too hard, or shake the table.
While my friends napped off the snaps, I drove us west, out of Copenhagen, towards Dragsholm Slot, which is about 40 kilometers (or an hour and a half driving) west.
The castle feels as medieval as its origins in the 13th century, although it has been rebuilt many times since. It’s not a particularly pretty structure. Square and chunky with high, thick walls, it squats like a block of chalk on a small hill, circled by a moat. Given this look, it’s not hard to understand why it was the preferred keep for state prisoners.
But, from the castle’s front gates, looking west, the land sprawls, uninhibited, into the shimmering sea, not more than a mile away. This view and the castle’s grounds are, by far, Dragsholm Slot’s most handsome assets.
A number of ghosts are said to haunt the castle, seen often by staff and guests alike. We were reassured by all that they are “friendly” ghosts, who never interfere, only observe. One of them is the man who led me to this corner of Denmark: the 4th Earl of Bothwell, who reportedly appears in the courtyard at night.
Two other ghosts, who appear with more frequency, are the “grey lady” and the “in-wall girl,” so named because she was bricked into a wall of the castle alive – not with a cask of amontillado, but with her baby – by her “noble” parents when they discovered that she had been impregnated by the “help” with whom she had fallen in love. What was passed along like a campfire myth for centuries was discovered to be true when, in the last century, her remains were discovered between two walls during a round of renovations. The hole in the wall where she was found has been left open to commemorate the horrible incident. Her bones, having been removed for a proper burial, have been replaced by fake ones. My lucky friends were assigned to a room directly across the hall from this sad grave.
Despite the reminders of its more savage past, the interior of Dragsholm Slot is quite lovely. It’s clearly the product of renovation, restoration, and redecoration. And it’s all tastefully done, with an eye towards authenticity, though certainly not blinded by it. As a hotel, it offers all the conveniences and amenities required by modern guests.
My room was in a more remote corner of the castle, tucked behind the theater. I loved my backstage quarters, with windows that looked out over the moat across a generous lawn that disappeared into forestland. But, I did not love getting to and from my room late at night, when the vast labyrinth of halls inside the castle went pitch black, lit only on the command of motion sensors. Spooked I don’t easily get. But that night, there were moments when I had to resist the urge to go running down the halls like mad King George to hurry the lights.
It was a beautiful, blue-sky day. So, my friends and I spent the afternoon on the castle’s generous patio overlooking a beautiful herb garden maintained by the hotel’s two restaurants. Will’s friend – Adrien Norwood, an American who works at the Gourmet Restaurant, the higher-end of the two restaurants at Dragsholm Slot – generously brought out a plate of housemade charcuterie, and some beer for us.
As the sun dropped towards the horizon, we moved around to the front of the castle, popped a bottle of Champagne, and watched it set into the sea.
Afterwards, we moved inside to the Gourmet Restaurant, which is located in a sunken part of the castle, for dinner. The kitchen cooked for us, taking us through about a dozen courses between snacks, main courses, and desserts.
The cooking at the Gourmet Restaurant was surprisingly ambitious. I would describe the style of food here as New Nordic.
At times, I thought the plates were a bit busy, fraught with too many competing flavors – the course with raw scallops, smoked lamb brains, and squid ink sauce pushed the limits for me. But, at its best, the cooking was wonderfully simple, like a rosy round of beef served with little more than coins of fermented carrots and some young pine shoots. That was a delicious dish, my favorite course. And, I particularly admired the terrific display of vegetables at dinner here: asparagus, onions, new potatoes (the size of marbles), salsify, and ramps, which we would find carpeting the forest floor on a walk the next morning.
After dinner, my friends and I took in some fresh air outside. The night was as clear as the day had been. And despite the almost blinding, full moon hanging low in the sky like a spotlight, the inky canopy above sparkled with stars.
Haunted the castle is, and, that night, haunted the castle looked.
Apparently, we three passed the night uneventfully.
With no ghost sightings to report the next morning (and despite the warning, I found no evidence of them in my photos either), we met for breakfast outside on the patio (cold cuts, cheese, and a selection of breads and spreads). Afterwards, we took a walk through the castle grounds.
We crossed the lawn that I had admired from my room, towards the forest, where the air became suddenly musky with the smell of garlic. As I mentioned above, we stumbled upon a field of flowering ramps; it stretched into the woods as far as we could see.
In a clearing, we arrived at the giant rhododendron that we had been encouraged to find. The enormous plants were in full bloom, an explosion of pink and white pom-poms that seemed to capture the enthusiasm with which summer had arrived.
It was another beautiful day.
After dropping Will and Andreas off in the city, I headed to the airport to pick up my friends Paul Qui and Deana Saukam, with whom I had been but a few days before in Bergen for the fifth Friends of Lysverket dinner. In the days that I had spent in Helsinki and at Dragsholm in between, they made a quick, three-day tour of Stockholm. Now, we met back up in Copenhagen.
With our car full of luggage, we left the city and headed north to Helsingør. Perhaps better known to English-speakers as Elsinore, this breathtaking promontory, jutting out into the narrow strait that separates Denmark and Sweden, is home to Krongborg, the fabled setting of Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet.
With its rows of cannons, high turrets, a sturdy, fortress base, and the blue sea beyond, Kronborg is as winsome as it is imposing. And yet, despite its intimidating presence, there’s something unexpectedly peaceful and modest about it. Strategically positioned on the water for defense purposes, the castle’s seaside site also guarantees the type of galloping gale required of scenes in which charming princes rescue damsels distressing under banners ripping heroically in the wind.
Kronborg is picturesque and perfect. I loved it.
Not far from Kronborg is the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art (the Danes pronounce it LOO-see-an-na). This stunning complex of buildings, branching off from a seaside summer home built by a Danish nobleman (who happened to marry three women all named Louise, hence the name of the museum today), is, to me, a magnificent study of negative space.
While the art here was certainly impressive, the museum, taken as a whole, was the main attraction for me. Its campus spreads over a considerable amount of land, which has been thoughtfully designed to give visitors the feeling of intimacy and discovery. Yet, as I tried to make sense of the seemingly random use of space, and the seemingly endless choices with which it presented me, I began to realize that the space had, in fact, been subtly framed for me. The museum offered countless proscenia in the round that dictated where I went and how I saw things. I wasn’t just wandering aimlessly. I was wandering aimlessly in a prescribed manner, with my eyes being directed this way and that.
If you go, allow yourself ample of time to linger on the lawn. There’s also a café with a huge deck looking out over the water. It offers cold food – smørrebrød and cakes, coffee and Champagne – and a convenient excuse to pause for a mid-day snack, as we did.**
Paul, Deana, and I ended our long day of sightseeing at Søllerød Kro, a restaurant that, I was told, has been in operation since 1677 – the date that, along with its name, stretches in large, iron figures across the outside of this ancient tavern.
I had heard much praise for this restaurant, which is still celebrated as one of the original standard bearers of fine dining in the country. The era of its glory is unmistakable from its interior, which is a short page-turn back to the Michelin-starred houses of France just a decade or two ago. It is the familiar look of traditional fine dining, with elegant, linen-draped tables, flickering tapers, and simple, classy, Federal style furnishings that happen to appeal to me tremendously.
Not that these superficial dressings should prejudice me. But, like the clever use of space at Louisiana, I both wanted and hoped that they would serve as visual cues, nudging me toward a certain style of cooking and experience – that is, the Continental style, leaning heavily on classic French cooking, for which Søllerød Kro became so revered.
This was not the case.
The influence that New Nordic cooking has apparently had on Søllerød Kro was unexpected. It was perplexing, and somewhat worrisome.
On the one hand, it is perhaps unfair of me to expect that a restaurant that is older than my country should resist the call of progress and change, that it should stay forever loyal to one style of cooking – especially since it is so close the epicenter of the new, culinary order. On the other hand, it is hard for me to refrain from cynicism when I encounter a style of cooking where it has not naturally evolved, and does not seem to belong.
But my chief complaint isn’t that Søllerød Kro seems to have done a culinary volte-face, abandoning its former style of cooking for a newer, shinier one. I wouldn’t have minded if Søllerød Kro had served me a compelling New Nordic meal, even if it might have seemed misplaced in its surroundings. In fact, done well, it would have been welcomed.
Rather, I was more bothered that Søllerød Kro did not seem to commit to either style of cooking, new or old. Instead, our tasting menu see-sawed schizophrenically between courses that seemed New Nordic – raw scallops with cucumber, cauliflower, and horseradish ice, for example; or a dessert of lemongrass sorbet with woodruff ice and wild flowers – and those that were more classically based – like a beautiful strip of pork with sage and jus, or roasted lamb with olives and potatoes (the insertion of a cheese course – an all-French selection – also fell heavily in this camp).
Perhaps I caught the restaurant in a particularly awkward phase of transition. Or, maybe, the tasting menu we ordered that night happened to be a poor representation of the restaurant’s normal service. Or, maybe I misread the situation entirely. These are all possibilities.
But, from what I observed, experienced, and ate, I left Søllerød Kro feeling that the restaurant was struggling with its identity. If this is so, I hope that it is being prompted by a desire for change and not by a pressure to conform.
Please note: the competency with which the food was cooked and the service we received are not among my complaints here. To the restaurant’s credit, the front of the house staff was well-trained and gracious. And the food – all of it – was cooked with care (especially a pan-fried strip of sole that was so light and delicate that it had the texture of soufflé). The kitchen here is clearly talented. I just wished it had shown a little more resolve and direction.
After two adventurous days on the road, filled with history, fairytales, some good food, and lots of laughter, I returned to Copenhagen that night with Paul and Deana. I had a couple of more nights in the city, and a few more that I spent on a hunting trip on the Danish island of Fyn. I’ll record those parts of my trip in the next two blog posts.
Here are the photo albums for the places and restaurants that I mentioned in this post.
* All of this, and more, is recounted in painstaking detail by Antonia Fraser in her incredible rendering of the Scottish queen’s life, “Mary Queen of Scots.” I highly recommend it.
** Kronborg and the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art can be easily coupled into a day trip out of Copenhagen. If you don’t have a car, both the museum and the castle can be reached by train (on the same line) from Copenhagen’s Central Station. I have heard that both sites are within walking distance of the nearest station.
Photos: The front gate at Dragsholm Slot, Denmark; Rosenkrantz Tower in Bergen, Norway; the old, tavern-like interior of Schønnemann in Copenhagen, Denmark; Andreas Bagh and Will King-Smith sipping snaps at Schønnemann; the moat surrounding Dragsholm Slot; a clock in Dragsholm Slot; a plate of house-made charcuterie on the patio at Dragsholm Slot; skyr (an Icelandic yogurt) dessert at the Gourmet Restaurant at Dragsholm Slot; the great, rhododendron on the grounds of Dragsholm Slot; Kronborg, Helsingør, Denmark; smørrebrød and drinks on the café deck at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebæk, Denmark; the interior of Søllerød Kro in Søllerød, Denmark; Ibérico pork with sage, honey, and jus at Søllerød Kro; ginger sorbet with white chocolate at Søllerød Kro; an awesome statue of the sleeping giant Holger Dankse in the casements at Kronborg; and Andreas Bagh and Will King-Smith popping a bottle of Champagne as the sun sets on Dragsholm Slot.