Apart from a very short trip back home in order to attend a family funeral, it has been a while since I was in Denmark. My home country. Like many other danes living or traveling abroad over a longer period of time have probably experienced, I too have come to think of certain, very particular things that I miss from home. Things that are quite unique for Denmark. And then there are other things that I certainly do not miss at all. At least that is how I feel!
Some of the things that I do miss are related to food and the danish food culture. Because there are things that are just made better in Denmark than anywhere else in the world. Danish meatballs (Frikadeller), Liver paste (Leverpostej) and the Christmas “must haves” “Æbleskiver” (A sweet dumpling/fritter to be eaten with sugar and jam) just to mention a few. Dark, full grain rye bread is another example that you will hear many other danes abroad mention. We share this passion with our german neighbours, who also miss some good, solid and fully satiating bread when they are away from home. I have mentioned this in previous blogs. Bread is best in Denmark! - if the baker is good and works with a bit of passion!
And a few of just such types of bakers can actually be found in California! In the little town of Solvang, just about half an hour north of Santa Barbara they have turned danish and scandinavian nostalgia into a tourist attraction. The town was founded in 1911 by danish settlers, and the town center is filled with traditional danish style buildings, which actually gave me the feeling of walking down the street in my native Denmark. In the 1930’s and 1940’s that is. Naturally most of the houses are built later than 1911, but the style is unmistakably ”old world danish”. Timbered houses and classic “bar windows” - all made in plaster and plastic. But still so skillfully that it it did not become too artificial and tacky. And here, in the middle of it all, you find danish butchers, bakers, chocolate shops, clothes boutiques, tailors and of course numerous souvenir stores, one of which is selling danish and scandinavian christmas ornaments throughout the year!
There is also a long row of restaurants serving traditional danish food. So for the first time in a very long time we had our danish meatballs, herring on open rye sandwich and hotdogs the way they are originally made in Denmark. The red cabbage, traditionally served with the meatballs was exactly as it should be. Not too sweet. And Alexandra’s herring was perfectly balanced. We enjoyed this nostalgic moment, although it was a bit strange to eat this type of food in plus 25 degrees celsius!
We agreed that we should try the best “Æbleskiver” in town and went to Solvang Restaurant to see if the chef there knew how to do it right. The original owner Arne Hansen brought the recipe from Denmark a long time ago, and the current owners still do it exactly right. They were some of the best Æbleskiver that we have ever had! Made upon order so they are FRESH! By the cashier in the front of the restaurant you can even buy the original pans to make your own Æbleskiver at home. We heard that the Æbleskiver from this restaurant is highly beloved by the locals, so this is not just for the tourists. And they are served at all seasons. Nowadays we normally only eat Æbleskiver around christmas, but previously they were in fact eaten at all times of the year.
And this is, in my eyes, pretty much what defines Solvang. It may be a “danish” town, with danish traditions and a special nostalgic feel to it. But it IS nostalgia. Denmark as it once was. As it is often seen, traditions tend to be more purified and true to “previous times” when ethnic groups get together away from their home countries, than they would be if they had stayed home. Traditions become anchors in everyday life abroad. And this is just as it should be. We are not in the US to eat danish food and experience danish culture, but after having traveled the world for about 8 months it was quite nice to spend a few hours in Solvang.
We drove further up the coast where one of the wealthiest businessmen in the country, William Randolph Hearst, started to build his country home “Casa Grande” back in 1919. It eventually grew into a major estate and is now a place of high cultural and historic importance. It has been renamed “Hearst Castle”. Located on a hilltop it resembles some of the churches and castles that Hearst had seen during his many travels through Europe. It took him 28 years to built what can still be seen on the estate today. But actually Hearst had plans for much more. When he died in 1951 he had not visited the estate for a few years, and construction had ceased. You can still see some of the unfinished things when you walk around. But generally everything is VERY richly decorated and the standard is very high. There are hundreds of rooms filled with luxury. Big dining rooms, ballrooms, a large cinema and some very large guests houses. There are outdoor pools, indoor pools, tennis courts and much much more. The rooms are furnished with original wood panels from old monasteries and churches in Europe. They are filled with irreplaceable furniture, carpets, paintings, tapestries and statues. Today the castle has been given to the state of California and it has been turned into a museum. But the ranch surrounding the castle is still owned and run by the Hearst family. They also run a multinational media corporation that includes well knows brands such as ELLE, Marie Claire and Cosmopolitan. They also own countless TV stations and newspapers throughout the country.
Hearst Castle reminds me of “Schloss Neuschwanstein” in the Bavarian Alps. It was built by the somewhat eccentric King Ludwig II and it was also a bold and visionary project that was never completely finished. Hearst is said to have been quite “down to earth” although he did have expensive taste and big plans. So in that regard he really cannot be compared to King Ludwig II, who was a daydreamer. But they both had great visions and they both had the ability to process them into action and reality. You do not see many of these “originals” nowadays.
It was a great experience to see Hearst Castle. We would have loved to see more, but the guided tours are split up, so you have to buy several different tours to get to see the whole thing. This is a bit sad. On the other hand we did enjoy the magnificent park and garden around the castle. During our entire visit a thick and heavy fog surrounded the complex and the land, giving the scenery a sense of mystique. A bit like Avalon on an enchanted island. On our bus ride from the visitors center at the bottom of the hill and all the way up to the castle, we did not see much. And the same thing happened on the way down. It was only as we stepped out of the bus, walked through the gates and up the marble stairs that the castle and gardens appeared. As soon as we turned around the first corner on the way down, it all disappeared as if it had been a dream.