There’s something deliciously surreal about being taught the proper way to make a toast in Denmark by a mischievous 90 year old transsexual.
Two recent experiences at the homes of neighbours highlighted quite varying cultural differences when it comes to dining and drinking.
On one side is a French Moroccan who completely flummoxed me the first time she served a salad after the main course. I’ve eaten in France many times but in a restaurant no-one tends to tell you the order, they just give you what you want.
Having a crisp green salad after a mountain of meat seems unnatural. I now know it’s considered a palate cleanser in France but it’s a bit of an anti-climax after the main course.
Somehow I can’t see myself saying ‘I’ll give that juicy fillet a miss if you don’t mind… I’m saving a space for the green salad.” It’s just not going to happen.
Our other neighbours are Danish and a traditional meal with them revealed further cultural differences.
The first being that when they said to get to their house at around 8.30pm, they meant get to their house at 8.30pm. Trying not to be terribly British by arriving on the nose, we dithered for 15 minutes and then turned up to find the Danes and guests all seated and well into their meal.
With our French neighbour, 8.30pm means closer to 9pm and even then she’s still not ready to receive. It makes cross-cultural shindigs quite confusing.
The meal was a traditional celebration and included a huge pot of soup that was more like a stew and plates of meat served accompanied by tubs of mustard. Nothing wildly different there, except that everyone was eating the soup and the meat at the same time.
Sipping from a brimming soup spoon in one hand and then tearing a chunk of meat daubed with mustard from the other felt as though it must have broken some sort of rules of dining etiquette… but nobody laughed or looked at me as though I was doing anything odd. I guess there’s a certain Viking-esque exuberance to eating two courses at the same time.
I’d only just about come to terms with the combined soup/meat deal when the 90 year old transsexual decided to teach me the proper way to make a Danish toast.
Drinking a toast with Akvavit, Danish Style
Apparently, you raise your drink in a toasty, flourishy sort of way (the movement of my arm seemed very important) whilst looking the person you’re sharing a toast with in the eye. Then you take a drink and raise the glass again in that toasty, flourishy way before setting it down on the table. Throughout the ritual you maintain eye contact.
I’m not sure exactly what I was doing wrong, but he made me do it over and over again, each time taking a generous glug of akvavit… and then I had to repeat it with everyone else around the table.
It’s an extremely sociable way to get to know strangers. It’s also a damn good way to get acquainted with akvavit; a quite potent Scandinavian spirit whose name means ‘water of life’. The drink’s concept is not dissimilar to Scotland’s uisge beatha (whisky), although the taste isn’t quite as smooth, in fact it’s as rocky as the sea that separates the countries. But after a few it slips down the throat less aggressively.
I think we also said skoal (phonetic spelling) just before we took a drink, but my lesson in toasting like a Dane was so extensive that the sequence of events is a wee bit hazy.
One thing is for certain, when I compare and contrast the different cultures, I’m a bigger fan of toasting like a Dane than I am of eating salad like the French. Skoal.