It smells fishy

CHRISTER BAECKSTROEM picks up a soft, rolled thinbread whose contents emit a nauseating, putrid odour. “Ahhh, delicious!,” he exclaims as he takes a bite of fermented herring, a Swedish delicacy known for its stench.

By (AFP)

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Published: Sun 24 Aug 2008, 9:46 PM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 2:51 PM

Picture shows cook Andre Melander preparing Surstromming (fermented Baltic herring) ready to be served to clients in the kitchen of the Tennstopet restaurant in StockholmEvery year on the third Thursday in August, Swedes gather with friends and family to celebrate the start of the season for fermented Baltic herring, or surstroemming as it is called in Swedish.

The dish is known for its pungent odour - some compare it to the smell of a wet dog, others pinch their nose at the mere thought of it - and is a northern Swedish specialty that people either love or hate.

The tradition dates back several centuries when fish could only be caught during a few short months because of the ice-covered northern waters, and fermenting it was a smart and economical preservation method to enable Swedes to eat fish year round.

Nowadays, the waters rarely freeze and modern technology means herring can be fished all year, but the tradition lives on and is so popular that a special Academy and even a museum have been dedicated to the dish.

The fermentation procedure is the following: the herring is caught in late spring, then placed in a salt mixture in wooden barrels for several days. It is then moved into the sun, which shines almost around the clock in the north in summer, for a few months to ferment.

After that it is shipped to stores in small tins. It’s only sold in shops as of the third Thursday in August, in order to allow for the proper fermentation period. Apartment dwellers are advised to open the tins outdoors to avoid a lasting stench in their building.

In Stockholm, the timehonoured restaurant Tennstopet carries on the tradition of a “season opener,” or surstroemmings premiere, for herring lovers and homesick northern Swedes. It’s 4:30 pm. Down the street from the restaurant, the rancid smell is already noticeable.

Inside, Tennstopet’s chefs are bustling around the kitchen in preparation for the onslaught of guests - 600 people are expected.

Dozens of tins of surstroemming are in the sink, swimming in cold water. At least 250 tins will be devoured in one evening.

For the waiters, there’s no need to discuss the evening’s menu. “Fermented herring for everyone,” says head chef Mattias Qvarfordt, a northerner whose mouth waters at the mention of the dish. As the waiters carry the tins of herring to the tables, diners’ eyes light up.

The herring filets are served with boiled new potatoes, freshly chopped onions and sour cream, all wrapped up in a wafer thin soft bread and washed down with generous amounts of aquavit or beer, though purists insists milk is the way to go.

“It brings out the taste of the herring,” says Anders Baeckstroem, in his 40s, devouring the delicacy with his two brothers. The taste, like the smell, is, well, surprising. Salty. “You get used to it.

In the beginning it’s like coffee or wine, you don’t really like it. But then you try it a second time to be like the adults and gradually you end up really liking it,” Anders says, adding that he booked his table at the restaurant a year ago “just to make sure.”

At a nearby table, another patron says he vomited the first time he ate surstroemming. “But I don’t know if it was because of the alcohol or the taste of the fish,” he jokes.

Irene Loevgren, a 50- something woman who has come with two girlfriends, says whether you like herring or not, the surstroemming premiere “is above all an excuse to have a party.”

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