A tribute to fermented herring

August is the month that hosts two culinary highlights in Sweden, the crayfish and the “surströmming” (fermented herring). Most people love crayfish while fermented herring is a delicacy that really divides the country in two. You either love it or hate it!

Earlier, both the crayfish and surströmming premieres were regulated by law, but that law is now repealed. Most people, however, seem to prefer to stick to the old tradition and dates, the second Wednesday of August for crayfish and third Thursday of August for surströmming.

Surströmming, meaning “soured herring”, is a dish originating from northern Sweden and consists of fermented Baltic herring. The herring are caught in spring, just when they are about to spawn. They are fermented in barrels for a couple of months, then tinned, where the fermentation continues for about another year. Gases are building up inside the tins and make them sometimes look like they could burst any minute.

The opening of the tin is vital. When opened, an overwhelming odour is released and due to the high pressure inside the tin, you have to be utterly careful not to get splashed all over by the liquid.

Surströmming is, for natural reasons, often served outdoors with a kind of bread known as tunnbröd, “thin bread” that can be either soft och crispy. A common way is to simply make a sandwich by spreading two pieces of the hard thin bread with butter and put cooked, sliced or mashed almond potatoes and filets of the fish in between, and that’s it.This is also known as surströmmingsklämma. Mmmm, so delicious…!

By the time, many other local condiments have been added to the dish, such as chopped raw red/yellow onions, tomato, sour cream/crème fraiche and soft whey butter, the latter a way to mitigate the sharp, salty, though piquant, taste of the fish.

What to drink to this exquisite dish is highly disputed among the so called connoisseurs. Most people today drink beer and schnapps but for the righteous it has to be cold milk or svagdricka (weak drink), a Swedish low alcoholic drink.

If you ever get an invitation to a “surströmmings”-party, don’t turn it down, just bring a clothes pin!

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