Hansen’s is an east-end pastry shop that makes real, Danish-style danishes.
Consider the danish. It’s a term we ascribe to pretty much any humble, bready breakfast pastry, whether it’s flat and filled with blueberries or twisted and swirled with cinnamon. The danish, to most of us, is a catchall description for a whole genre of treats…unless, that is, you actually happen to be a Dane. Then, you’d better be talking about wienerbrød (translated as Viennese bread), the original danish from Denmark that spawned a million impostors.
A long rectangle of flaky butter pastry folded over a marzipan, custard, and raisin filling (or raspberry, cherry, and other fruits), the officially Danish danish is a sweet and surprisingly light staple of Denmark’s bakery culture, on display in tantalizing rows at Hansen’s Danish Pastry Shop, on Pape, north of the Danforth. It’s a scene straight out of a Hans Christian Andersen fairytale: a small, family-run shop packed to the brim with bright cases displaying everything from sprinkle-covered cookies and cherry-topped cream puffs to jars of bright jams and apple-raspberry pies. It’s worth coming here just to stand by the window and watch the reaction on a kid’s face as they contemplate the sugar rush.
The Hansen family has run their bakery pretty much the same way since they bought it from another Danish family in 1961, the year they moved to Toronto from just outside Copenhagen. “Denmark wasn’t booming then like it is now,” says Kim Hansen, who tends the shop during the day and is the third generation to work at the bakery. Back then, this corner of East York was split between Danish and Scottish families, and there were several bakeries and restaurants serving Danish food.Today, Hansen’s Danish Pastry Shop is the last standing, and it’s still run by Kim’s parents, Susan and Reiff, who man the ovens and decorate the sweets every night from dusk until dawn, as they have for half a century.
Toronto’s Danish community, which today numbers around 30,000 (including citizens and their families), was more prominent in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, back when the Western world was mad for Scandinavian fashion, design, and food. Back then, Bloor Street’s trendiest restaurant was the Copenhagen Room, a teak temple of Scandinavian culture (backed by the Danish government), where trendy Yorkvillers sampled open-faced smørrebrød sandwiches topped with herring, shrimp salads, and pastries supplied by Hansen’s.
“There’s something to be said for the ritual of eating Danish food,” says Kim, noting how Danes always start with a fish course (largely pickled and smoked herring or other small, oily fish), then cold meats and cheeses, and, finally, the hearty mains. Hansen’s does a brisk business in many of these specialties, such as imported herring and cod-roe spreads from Denmark and other Nordic countries. Mainly, though, the shop specializes in gorgeous sweets, such as marzipan wedding fingers, cloud-light vanilla cream buns with two types of pastry, and dozens of other sugar bombs, all a central part of the Danish diet.
There hasn’t been significant immigration from Denmark to Toronto in more than three decades now, and the community today is becoming increasingly disconnected from its roots with each new generation born in Canada. Hansen’s still gets its fair share of older Danish customers, as well as the occasional exchange student, hungry for caviar spread or black, salty licorice, but what they’ll find here doesn’t exactly reflect the current revolution in Nordic cuisine (led by NOMA, the world-renowned restaurant in Copenhagen).
“The Danish community is in a time warp here in Canada,” says Kim, who only speaks a smattering of Danish. “They know only the old, the Denmark they left, and they don’t want to evolve…. It’s a nostalgic thing.”
Still, with no central neighbourhood or community centre to call their own, Hansen’s Danish Pastry Shop serves as a sort of rallying point for all generations of Danes across the GTA and Ontario. Regulars pop by all day for a slice of Danish or a sandwich, but also to catch up with family, friends, and gossip. As Christmas nears, the shop becomes increasingly packed, with lines frequently snaking down the block as Toronto’s Danish population returns, like migrating birds, for spiced cookies, roast pork with crackling skin, and intricate gingerbread houses that are in such high demand, the shop starts making these seasonal items in October.
“We’ve been part of people’s tradition for decades,” says Kim. “They tell us, ‘It wouldn’t be Christmas if you were not here.’”
Hansen’s Danish Pastry Shop, 1017 Pape Ave., 416-425-8877, danishpastry.ca.