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Carl Birkholm’s father, also named Carl, a Danish immigrant, established the first bakery n Solvang in 1952. Birkholm is passing the business and his father’s recipes on to his son, Carl. Called the Danish Capital of America, Solvang offers visitors to the Santa Ynez Valley a taste of Old World Denmark in the architecture and food. Photo by E’Louise Ondash
Columns Hit the Road

Hit the Road: A taste of the Old World in the Danish Capital of America

Eight hundred pounds of flour. Four hundred pounds of butter. Three hundred pounds of sugar.

That’s what Carl Birkholm uses each week to create the thousands of eye-popping, mouthwatering sweet treats that line the glass bakery cases at Birkholm’s Bakery and Café in Solvang. Napoleons, macaroons, eclairs, bear claws, cream puffs, breads and, of course, Danish pastries and cookies all make for delightful indecision and anxiety.

Luckily, all customers are eventually cured with the first bite.

Birkholm and his crew begin each day at 4 a.m. in the back room with combining ingredients in giant mixing bowls and using production techniques that integrate both modern machines and fine hand work. 

Birkholm’s Bakery in Solvang. Courtesy photo

“Everything is made from scratch,” Birkholm says as he gives us a tour of the operation. “During the holidays, we sell 600 buckets of (Danish butter) cookies a week.”

Birkholm’s father, also Carl, established this bakery — Solvang’s first — shortly after immigrating from Denmark in 1951. Birkholm still has his father’s hand-written recipe book that he carried from his homeland, and he will likewise pass it along to his son, Carl, who is already running a good portion of the business.

“The recipes are the same with the exception of some modifications over time,” Birkholm says. “For instance, we don’t use trans fats anymore.”

Also a nod to changing times: gluten-free confections like almond horns and macaroons.

Birkholm also credits his father for promoting the custom of decorating the town’s buildings with white lights throughout the year, as is done in the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, and the requirement that new construction must be in the Old World Danish style.

The artifacts and their craftsmanship exhibited at the Elverhoj Museum tells visitors the story of the founding and growth of Solvang and the Santa Ynez Valley. Some early dairies still exist, but the wine and equine industries and the Old World feel are what draw today’s visitors. Photo by Jerry Ondash

Esther Jacobsen Bates’ father arrived in Solvang from Denmark about the same time as Birkholm’s father. He arrived with “a sense of adventure, a desire for more opportunity and a job on his uncle’s dairy farm in Solvang.”

Today, as the executive director of the Elverhoj Museum (pronounced EL-ver-hoy), Bates is the town’s chief keeper of its cultural heritage, which is explained through the museum’s many exhibits. Beautiful and colorful hand-crafted artifacts brought and created by Solvang’s Danish immigrants tell of a hard life, mostly built around the area’s early dairy farms.

“One thing that I never expected was that my Danish heritage would become an asset to my job,” Bates says. “I get to work with the Danish ambassador in Washington, D.C., and promote Danish culture around the U.S. It’s been beneficial to the museum. (For instance), the information panels were originally a part of a display at Ellis Island.”

The museum building itself is a perfect example of traditional Danish architecture. “Called bindingsværk or ‘half-timber’ construction, it was popular in Denmark as early as the 16th century,” Bates says. “It uses brick or plaster to fill in the openings between the timbers.”

It’s also a challenge to preserve and maintain because of the weather, she adds.

Esther Jacobsen Bates, executive director of the Elverhoj Museum, demonstrates the use of an old stove from the early days of Solvang, when the chief industry was dairy farming. Many Danish immigrants migrated from the Midwestern United States because they sought better weather. Photo by Jerry Ondash

Solvang and the Santa Ynez Valley didn’t go directly from dairy farming to vineyards.

“I worked in the wine industry where there were four wineries in the early ’70s,” Bates recalls. “The industry took off in the early 2000. In the last 20 years, there are many areas that have been planted with wine grapes that otherwise weren’t.”

For whatever reason visitors come to Solvang, Bates encourages a stop at the museum. 

“Our guests especially like learning how Solvang began and how it evolved to become the Danish Capital of America,” she says. “We find that after people visit the museum, they go downtown and view it through a different lens.”

Bonus: “Legacy of Decency: Rembrandt, Jews and Danes,” an exhibition of 21 etchings by Dutch Master Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669). The etchings are paired with displays about the Danish rescue of their Jewish population during World War II.

For more, see Visit Santa Ynez Valley.

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