inflated herring cans

No Sweden-based food commentator will do without mentioning surströmming. Since the wikipedia article about this herring contains all the facts and gives a very authentic picture of Swedish surströmming culture as it is today, I can skip the intro and proceed right to my personal views.

Surströmming is fermented herring in cans. The cans inflate as the fermentation proceeds. Foreigners sometimes are advised to open the cans with a hammer and a nail on the balcony, wearing bathing trunks. This is a joke. You’ll end up covered in smelly brine and the balcony won’t be fit for use in months after this. Those Swedes who actually eat surströmming (by far not all of them) open the cans under water. The article above mentions that because of the aroma, surströmming is often eaten outdoors. This must be wishful thinking: the North Swedish summer is an orgy of gnats, horseflies and at least three other species of minute flesh-eating insects – quietly sitting outdoors normally doesn’t belong to the realistic options.

I was kindly and lovingly introduced to this herring by the family of a work colleague, who one day threw a genuine North Swedish surströmming party on behalf of his foreign co-workers. What you may believe is that its smell is indeed absolutely devastating. Arriving at the house, airily located between other charming houses on a slope above a picturesque lake, the presence of something out of the ordinary was discernible even before the front door was opened. We entered, stiffened and, with fixed smiles on our faces, advanced slowly to the living room, where we engaged in cautious pre-herring conversation with the other smiling guests, fearful of what was to come. Jokes were made. The son of the family sung the herring’s praise and disclosed his total and complete addiction to the product.

The fish was then distributed, and we were shown how to combine it with the other food. Some light beer was made available alongside with the traditional glass of milk. So I tried the crisp bread, potato, onion and surströmming assembly, disregarding the frenzied signals sent from my nose to the emergency unit of my brain, and I liked it a lot. Surströmming has a strong, salty taste reminiscent of certain very well seasoned French soft cheeses. If eaten with the traditional asides, it is a meal and not a punishment, whatever the rumors say. Now, its general edibility surely doesn’t make it into a gourmet product per se. I know of a German gentleman who is reported to use surströmming as a test for the cuisine-worthiness of his guests: those who refuse to eat it are not welcome any more. I find this exaggerated. On the other hand, products like surströmming are the very matter of which modern myths are made, so perhaps this story isn’t true.

The horn player from New Zealand took one bite and fled out of the room in one horizontal dash, making a choked noise, only to return, camera in hand, to capture our worried faces – a smart little act to divert from the fact that he simply wasn’t up to the task of trying the herring at all. Our daughter Jessica, three years old at the time, ate like a grown up. The smell stayed in our clothes for several days.

Some years later another friend offered us an oven dish with potatoes and surströmming. This time we were in a summer house at a lakeside in the middle of the forest, and we completely relaxed into the fumes emitted from the oven. This is really the only way of dealing with surströmming: give your nose a day off.

I am nevertheless reluctant to introduce this aroma into my own house, for the sake of the furniture and my instruments.


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