A day out with fermented herring

I am an omnivore. An omnivore who is always prepared to taste pretty much any kind of food. An attitude that practically always returns positive experiences. And then I encountered the Swedish fermented herring.

I’ve first heard about this rather peculiar local culinary specialty soon after I moved to the Nordic area. And I thought why not. I’d be the first one to point out all the wonderful results of fermenting foodstuffs. Although I wasn’t really sure if fermenting fish could yield anything good. Fish have a very strong smell to start with and start stinking in no time. Since the olfactory organs play an important role in every eating experience, stinky doesn’t make you think tasty. Which means that fermented fish and a delicious meal might be as far apart as can be. Still I thought it is unfair to bring any conclusions without actually trying it out myself. I was on a mission.

Experiences of those who have tried fermented herring range from culinary exaltation to downright disgust. But whomever I talked to couldn’t avoid mentioning the diabolically strong smell.

In its motherland Sweden surströmming (as they call it there) is taken seriously. Not only is it considered a delicacy of highest grade, but has solemn and devout followers who in 1999 established nothing less than a fermented herring academy. As irreverent as it may seem, I cannot avoid wondering if Alaskans or Norwegians have salmon academies, or Japanese tuna and whale academies.

Surströmming gurus might see this as oversimplification, but the whole thing is very simple. Fisherman catch Baltic herring each spring right before it spawns. They add salt and water and let the fish ferment in barrels for a couple of months. They then pack the fish into cans where anaerobic bacteria continue the process until consumed. It’s there that herring gets its tang.

Fermentation produces gases (in case of surströmming also a multitude of other smelly compounds) and the tins containing ripening fish bulge as a result. Bulged cans usually contain spoiled food, but when it comes to fermented herring, the logic is upside down: you don’t want to pick it off the shelf unless the can has bulged enough. Which makes for a tricky can opening procedure. (Think punctured beer can.) If not careful, a spray of reeking juices will make you wary the next time (if there happens to be a next time).

It was exactly the combination of the foul smell and the unavoidable gushing of its brine that made British Airways and Air France deny herring from boarding their planes. Swedes were outraged, but as far as I know the ban is still in place. Just imagine the hubbub at the academy. They must have hired an extra secretary to help them calm down the nation.

Herring’s foul smells reached me before I even smelled it. A Swedish colleague told me a couple of facetious anecdotes that became dead serious snigger once I dug into surströmming myself.

Some years ago a few Italian friends visited him in Sweden. Before they boarded the train to head back home, he hands them a can of surströmming, not telling them what it is. Somewhere in France the group runs out of snacks and without further hesitation they decide to munch on the food their Swedish friend gave them. They open up the mysterious can. They got kicked off the train on the next stop.

The stars of the other anecdote is a Swedish couple who should have known better, since they knew what they were dealing with. Anyway, they open up the can of fermented herring in their flat in Berlin and get evicted from the apartment.

Cans should wear a warning label “Do not open unless outdoors.” But they don’t. Which is why I am quite happy I knew all of these details even before I found fermented herring in the store. I could plan the whole ordeal: wear shabby clothes, get the bulgiest of cans, find a quiet spot in the woods, puncture the can underwater, if possible, eat it out there and don’t show up at home until the stench subsides. In spite of all the preparations I still have the feeling I was caught with my pants down.

I grabbed a large bulged can of Röda Ulven from the store and headed for a lonely spot in the woods on the coast. I checked that no one was around besides the people I was about to eat it with. Knowing the facts, bans and anecdotes, we didn’t want to get in trouble.

As I punched the can, a spray of putrid drops spread around us and literally made everyone take two steps aback. Whoa! Even though we had hoped for a tasty meal, a single whiff made some draw the line right there. I slowly started doubting this meal will be appetizing. No offense intended, but I begun wondering who could consider a combined miasma of rotten fish, dried urine, unwashed genitalia and barf mouthwatering. But since I got this far, I simply could not quit now.

The first bite tasted, well, like putrid fish. Although I have no idea why I was even surprised about this anymore. Even though I ate bread and onion along with it (only the potatoes were missing), the taste of rotten fish dominated through and through. Nothing could cover the noxious smell and putrid taste. Nothing. Quite the contrary. Whatever I’ve put in my mouth for the next hour or so, tasted plain bad. And since fish happily continued its fermentation, my body dispatched aplenty of unpleasant gases, front and back, before the damn fish was finally discharged from my system later that night.

Later that day I recalled reading about an American food guru Jeffrey Steingarten who travels the world and has supposedly tasted everything. What I remembered particularly well was how Mr. Steingarten thought that lutefisk, a Norwegian fish specialty, was the most disgusting food (translated excerpt provided by Wikipedia, although I have no idea why they have placed it under “humor”). I’d say that in comparison to surströmming, lutefisk is chocolate. To prove my point, I’d take Mr. Steingarten to as large meal of ripe Swedish surströmming as he chooses to ingest. If he accepts the challenge, I’d be delighted to eat twice as much of lutefisk.

Speaking of fermented herring and restaurants, I find it difficult to imagine seeing it on a menu in a restaurant. I’ve never spotted it myself, but can already imagine a waiter approaching the neighboring tables telling his other guests that the gentleman over there just ordered a can of surströmming and that he is giving them about quarter of an hour to finish their meals, pay and leave.

Even though I had perhaps naively expected that fermented herring would help expand my palate, that certainly did not happen. As hard as it might be to believe, it took only a few days before I have decided to give the herring a second chance.

Bon appétit.


This entry was posted on Wednesday, June 18th, 2008 at 9:41 pm and is filed under Culture, Finland, Food, Sweden. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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