Evidence of the occasionally wild weather along Denmark’s coast is everywhere on the island of Fanø. The wide sandy beaches are flat and wind-worn; the spindly grass is low and hardy. The North Sea coastline might not seem appealing to visitors but that’s where we’re happy to correct you: this small island (16km by 5km in size) off Denmark’s west coast has been charming visitors and in-the-know blow-ins for decades.
The wood-burning fireplace and homey vintage-green furniture at Fanø’s Kellers Badehotel & Spisehus shows that the place doubles nicely as a cosy wintertime bolthole – but as MONOCLE checks in the weather is clement and the sky clear. “Fanø has always had long beaches and beautiful nature,” says chef Lars Bonde Sejerup who moved here from Copenhagen and co-owns the business that operates the hotel.
Lapped by the Wadden Sea (the area is a Unesco World Heritage site), Fanø was long a mooring point for mariners but has always attracted a trickle of landlubbers too. It was in the late 1800s when seaside stopovers such as the Great Spa Hotel, Strandhotellet and Hotel King of Denmark first opened their beachfronts to sunseekers (the people, not the yachts).
Kellers Badehotel was transformed into a hotel in the 1960s, occupying a building originally built in 1876. Today it’s a restaurant and inn with nine sunny loft-style rooms, each lined with pastel-striped wallpaper. The windows frame the pale sky, which changes in feel with the fast-moving cloud formations. Downstairs in the cream-panelled dining room – lit by soft pendant lights – delights such as smoked fish and courses dressed with wild herbs and fresh berries await discovery.
Running a restaurant on Fanø isn’t without its challenges though, as accessing a diversity of ingredients can be tricky. With no good soil and an abundance of sand, the only produce that can be successfully farmed here is the potatoes. “But they’re very good potatoes,” says Sejerup, who explains that in the old days the wind would blow the sand and destroy the crops.
Yet somehow, despite the weather and an lack of homegrown ingredients, Fanø has become revered for its food. “Here the soil and air are influenced by the sea. There is a lot of salt in the air and grass, which has a positive impact on lamb and wild herbs,” says Sejerup.
When Sejerup first opened the seaside restaurant, the chef immediately turned to the water for inspiration and embraced island traditions such as smoking and salting fish. “Bakskuld is salted, dried and smoked fish that has a long history on the west coast of Denmark, especially on Fanø,” he says. It began as a necessity to preserve the fish over the long winters but is now considered a delicacy. The menu at Kellers Badehotel always features something smoked or salted; perhaps haddock served with a twist, such as malt crumble and dill cream, or herring with dill relish and mayonnaise. “We want everybody to taste Fanø and the Wadden Sea.”
Fanø might be a speck of an island but you would be wrong to suspect that Kellers Badehotel is the only decent place to eat. On the south of the island, in the village of Sønderho, sits one of Denmark’s oldest and best-preserved inns. Sønderho Kro has a 300-year history and started as a haven for fishermen; now it’s an inn and restaurant run by chef Jakob Sullestad. He says that in the 14 years he’s been on the island things have changed little. “It still looks like the old days,” he says.
The major difference? Better food and more producers. “It’s all about using what’s available and letting the raw materials determine what happens,” says Sullestad. There’s also a network of regional producers and craftsmen on Fanø who keep the island’s cupboards stocked and knives sharp. “They gather inspiration from the sea and bring new produce to the kitchen: lamb, oysters, wild herbs and berries,” says Sullestad. Among these suppliers are the Slagter Christiansen butcher’s shop, the Fanø Skibsrom rum producer, Fanø Bryghus brewery, Rudbecks Ost & Deli and the Oyster King (no prizes for guessing his line of work). “But best of all is the nature itself,” says Sullestad. Fanø’s seemingly inhospitable environment might mean it’s impossible to grow certain fruits or vegetables but its greatest attraction – its beaches – are abundant with herbs. “The wild berries, rose hip, colourful flowers – that’s what makes cooking here so fun,” says Sullestad with a glimmer of pride.
Not everyone who arrives comes from abroad: tourists come from the Danish mainland too. Sønderho Kro’s restaurant draws people in its own right. Travellers often make the journey from Copenhagen to the mainland town of Esbjerg (where they board the ferry to Fanø) just to delight in the restaurant’s plums fermented with oil and rosemary, or cod with garlic and crispy sage. After the culinary heights of this old-world dining room there’s a welcoming bed in the 13-room inn, with its low ceilings, ancient wooden beams and paisley wallpaper. Not much has changed in Fanø but that’s probably for the best.