If you’re not familiar with the show Hilda, allow me to introduce you. Hilda is a children’s animated show on Netflix; it’s based on the graphic novel series also named after the titular heroine and written and illustrated by British comic book artist Luke Pearson.
Hilda’s story starts off with her living in the wilderness alongside her mother, her pet deerfox Twig, and the strange fantasy creatures she considers her neighbors. Shenanigans ensue and Hilda and her mother are forced to move back to her mother’s hometown, the walled city of Trolberg. While at first uneasy in the new city, Hilda quickly finds new friends in David and Frida—who also begin accompanying her on wild adventures to learn more about the mysteries of Trolberg and the world they live in.
When out exploring, Hilda loves to snack on her mother’s cucumber sandwiches along with a thermos of peppermint tea . Because the setting of the show is a blend of Nordic fantasy with some nods to Great Britain (probably because of Pearson’s background) and other folklore, I wanted to combine two distinct sandwich traditions to make something unique to Hilda’s world. These cucumber sandwiches are a mix of traditional English tea sandwiches and Danish open-faced sandwiches called smørrebrød, plus some of my own touches.
A Quick Origin of English Afternoon Tea (and Sandwiches)
Although tea was introduced to England by Charles II’s wife, Catherine de Braganza, in the 1600s, it largely remained in the domain of the upper classes until lowered import taxes made it much more accessible in the 1700s. By the time the Victorian era (1837-1901) rolled around, tea-drinking was an important part of English culture.
At the same time, the rapid urbanization and industrialization of England introduced important changes in lifestyle. Whereas rural communities still relied on the rising and setting of the sun to time their activities, the spread of gas lighting allowed the upper classes to stay up later and, most importantly, eat later. Lunch was still at midday but dinner was now eaten at 9:00 pm.
That’s a long time to go without a meal! The seventh Duchess of Bedford, Anna Maria Russell, agreed and around 1840 decided that she didn’t want to deal with it anymore. She started requesting tea, bread, butter, and cake in the late afternoon. Other nobles and upper class English quickly took interest and a popular ritual was born.
While afternoon tea experiences varied by region and class, many Victorian era teas still featured thin finger sandwiches with different fillings (including the popular cucumber), sweet and savory pastries and tarts, and obviously cakes and scones.
Considering the enduring popularity of afternoon tea and cucumber sandwiches in Great Britain, it’s no wonder they get a mention in Hilda!
The Tradition of Smørrebrød
The Danish practice of smørrebrød, also called smørbrød in Norway and smörgås in Sweden, involves spreading a slice of sourdough rye bread called rugbrød with butter and then piling on various toppings. What started as a way for late 19th century factory workers to turn leftovers into a portable open-faced sandwich lunch has now turned into a popular meal with ritualistic rules.
To make this famous combination of butter (smør) and bread (brød), you need to start with the rugbrød. While it’s a rye bread, it’s not the kind we tend to think of in the United States—soft, airy, and sometimes filled with sweet caraway seeds. This bread is dense, firm (don’t toast it!), and contains cracked grains. Spread a thick smear of butter on top and you have a prototypical smørrebrød.
But why stop at butter? Toppings can include fish, meat, cheese, boiled eggs, mayonnaise, and a variety of vegetables like onions or pickles and fresh herbs such as dill or horseradish.
There are specific rules to how to pile fillings and in what order to eat the sandwiches: don’t mix your proteins; make sure to place thin toppings on the bottom before adding bulky ones; use a fork and knife to eat your smørrebrød; start with fish-based sandwiches, then move to meat-based ones, and finish with the cheesy sandwiches.
Taking all this into consideration, there are some elements I plan on integrating into the sandwiches while leaving the rest behind. I was inspired by the use of dill, cucumber, and rye-based bread and decided to include those flavors. My love of eggs couldn’t be ignored and I decided to also do an open-faced adult boiled egg and cucumber sandwich that might be something Hilda’s mother ate for a light lunch.
Tips for Making Cucumber Sandwiches
Ideally there will be something here for both kids and adults to enjoy. Obviously if your child isn’t a fan of certain foods, simply adjust the recipe to taste.
Here’s some tips that will hopefully answer a few preemptive questions:
- Can’t eat dairy? No cream cheese on hand? No problem! While I like the tang and texture of cream cheese, you can replace this with butter or mayonnaise and it will still be delicious. I haven’t tried this with vegan butter, but it might still work.
- If you don’t have fresh dill or it’s not in season, you can use dry dill—just use half the amount (1 tablespoon). You can also experiment with other soft fresh herbs, such as chives, parsley, cilantro, tarragon, or basil.
- Rye or pumpernickel bread unavailable? Consider another hearty bread like whole wheat or sourdough instead. If dealing with picky eaters, white bread will work in a pinch and is closer to traditional English tea sandwiches.
- For a more authentic open-faced sandwich, try using rugbrød instead of soft deli-style rye bread. If it’s not at your grocery store, you can make the similar Icelandic rúgbrauð at home.
- For those using bottled lemon juice or dried lemon peel, the juice of ½ a lemon is about 1 tablespoon of lemon juice and the zest of 1 whole lemon is about 1 tablespoon.
Do you have a favorite snack or sandwich you always come back to? I’ll start: since I’m a cheese person obviously my favorites are white cheddar popcorn and grilled cheese sandwiches. Feel free to let everyone know in the comments!
Makes enough for 2 regular cucumber sandwiches and 2 open-faced egg and cucumber sandwiches.
1-2 cucumbers, about 14-16 ounces
1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
8 ounces plain cream cheese, room temperature
2 tablespoons fresh dill, minced
Cracked or ground black pepper, to taste
Pumpernickel or rye bread
1-2 hard-boiled eggs, thinly sliced (optional)
- Peel the cucumbers in alternating stripes for aesthetic purposes. Thinly slice the cucumbers, about ⅛-¼ inch thick.
- In a bowl or colander, top the cucumber slices with 1 teaspoon kosher salt. Mix together and let rest for 10-20 minutes.
- While waiting for cucumbers, mix together the room temperature cream cheese, minced fresh dill, zest of 1 lemon, juice of ½ lemon, pepper, and salt to taste in a small bowl. Taste to test for seasoning, then adjust as desired.
- Gently squeeze the liquid from the sliced cucumbers. Spread a thin layer of your cream cheese mixture on a piece of rye bread or toast, then top with sliced cucumbers. Top with another slice of rye bread covered in cream cheese mixture. Cut into rectangles, squares, or triangles, removing the crusts if you prefer.
- Alternatively, toast the slices of rye bread before spreading a layer of the cream cheese mixture on them. Top your toasts with alternating cucumber and hard-boiled egg slices. Finish with salt and pepper.
Parenthood is a big responsibility, and people with uteruses deserve the choice of whether or not they want to be parents. Unfortunately in the United States, many states have a history of taking bodily autonomy away from pregnant people and people with uteruses by denying them access to basic reproductive healthcare. If you’re interested in helping them access abortions and other necessary healthcare, consider donating to an abortion fund or contacting your Congresspeople to urge them to pass the Women’s Health Protection Act (H.R.3755). Don’t forget to fight for abortion access and voting rights in your own state!
Marks, T. (2020, November 27). The tea-rific history of Victorian afternoon tea. British Museum Blog – Explore stories from the Museum. Retrieved October 25, 2021, from https://blog.britishmuseum.org/the-tea-rific-history-of-victorian-afternoon-tea/.
Morano-Williams, E. (2018, August 10). Meet Smørrebrød, the best sandwich you’re not eating. Serious Eats. Retrieved October 25, 2021, from https://www.seriouseats.com/smorrebrod-introduction-danish-sandwich.
I’ll put on the kettle!