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A century-old tradition of Danish open sandwiches awaits visitors to Ida Davidsen's restaurant in central Copenhagen.

It was exactly 100 years ago that great-grandfather Oskar had the bright idea of offering open sandwiches to customers tasting products at his wine shop.Three generations later, Ida runs a sandwich empire which has developed the Danish "smorrebrod" -- literally "butter bread" -- to such an art that there are 178 varieties on the menu, many of them the same as in 1888.

Fresh-smoked herring with chopped radishes, smoked eel with scrambled egg, ham with Bombay curry salad are all tastefully arranged on thin rye bread, buttered to perfection.

This is a typical Danish lunch, washed down with a glass of fine Pilsner beer and, if there is herring, perhaps a little schnapps to "make the fish swim."

When after 34 years in the business Ida talks about the Perfect Danish Open Sandwich, her face glows and her big chef's hat quivers.

"The purpose of smorrebrod is to find things that taste well together. They must be thin, light slices, delicate things that match together and there must not be too much decoration," she said.

"It must present itself well -- no lettuce leaves, never in Davidsen's. Never ever in the 100 years it has existed."

Husband Adam, who helps to run the business, said, "Ida is the living sandwich menu."

That's why British European Airways called her in when jet planes were introduced in the 1950s and they needed advice on light meals for the shorter flights.

Four visiting Americans who were once foolish enough to doubt the word of the couple bit off more than they could chew.

Refusing to believe that all 178 items on the traditional four foot menu were available, they ordered them all.

"They filled three taxis," Adam Davidsen recalled. "They wanted a snack at their hotel. It was certainly expensive, but they had the experience of their lives."

The most popular item at the Ida Davidsen is the Hans Christian Andersen sandwich, based on the favorite food of the 19th-century Danish fairy tale author. It is a mixture of bacon, liver paste, tomato, horseradish and marrow jelly.

"When German tourists come, they choose very solid pieces," Adam Davidsen said. "The Japanese love fish, but they do not like cheese. The Americans prefer roast beef -- it is very difficult to get an American to eat a piece of smoked eel."

He was scathing about a book by one unfortunate German cookery writer who had dared to trespass into the sacred realm of smorrebrod.

"The Germans have tried but they fall down on the combinations. Their feeling for combining things is quite wrong," Adam sighed.

"What do you think of that?," he said in disbelief, prodding one of the book's pictures. "Sardines on toast, spaghetti, stuffed olive, lettuce. It is quite wrong. There are some terrible examples."

For the centennial year, Ida is thinking of having the traditional Davidsen menu reprinted -- a single sheet showing every item.

There have been some changes over the years and new ideas have occasionally crept in, such as homemade smoked goosebreast.

But as Adam Davidsen said, "If Ida's great-grandfather rose from the grave and saw the smorrebrod we do today, he could recognize every piece made in his time."


AP-NY-09-21-88 0316EDT