A post about herring and other assorted fish.
Letter from Sweden by Gary (not Alistair) Cook
Letter dated 17 July 2021
When I first arrived in Sweden, I wasn’t sure about herring. Mind you, I’m usually game to try most things. But, my only previous encounter with herring was a TV ad a few years ago.
It was for a chocolate and marshmallow biscuit called a Wagonwheel. It featured a herring on a squeaky bicycle saying “Eat the Wagonwheel! Eat the Wagonwheel.” It was delightfully surreal. But the herring on the rusty bicycle put me off a bit.
Here, in Sweden, aside from meatballs and buns, herring is basically the national dish. Every supermarket has a fridge unit packed with jars of marinated herring.
And it comes in all manner of flavours. There’s onion, mandarin, lime, mustard, in fact, it seems there’s every flavour but chocolate. Which is probably a good thing.
The herring I have been eating comes from a company called ABBA. Funnily enough, the name comes from the initials of the company which is AB Bröderna Ameln which, basically translates to the Ameln Brothers Limited Company. They started using the Abba name in 1906 so it’s not like they stole the idea from a Swedish pop group.
I do wonder though, how many people visit the ABBA Museum on Djurgarden and come away disappointed that it’s not about fish.
Actually, the original company was started in 1836 by Christian Gerhard Ameln. It was his sons who created the acronym. Papa Ameln was building on a traditional dish that had been around since the middle ages in Sweden.
Herring comes in many forms, not just marinated. You can find it smoked, salted, fried, grilled, pickled, sautéed, and baked. Then there’s surströmming. Or, as I like to call it, rotten fish.
This is a particular herring that, having been caught, waits around for a few months in order to get nice and pungent. It is drizzled occasionally with a bit of salt to make sure it doesn’t completely rot, then sealed away waiting for consumption in a few months time.
It was once the favoured food of soldiers when it was sealed in big wooden barrels. And it would last for ages. Possibly forever. I think even bacteria won’t touch it.
It has been described as ‘…one of the most putrid food smells in the world.’ You buy it in tins these days and, I assume, you don’t open them on a bus. Unless you want to empty it. The bus, I mean.
While I’m sure there’s a few curious people who wonder what it smells like, I am certainly not one of them. If someone tells me to smell something because it smells awful, I don’t. So I’m not likely to want to experience something as foul as surströmming is rumoured to be.
For anyone who really wants to try it, it goes on sale from the third Thursday of August every year. If you’re lucky, you might get invited to a special smelly herring party, or surströmmingsskiva, where you can eat the foul stuff on a bit of crisp bread while you down glasses of schnapps and beer. Presumably after enough glasses, the smell goes away. And the taste.
But it’s not just herring that is big in Sweden. There’s always a lot of delicious seafood waiting for me at the seafood counter of our local ICA, supermarket.
I can highly recommend the salmon. I simply roast a slab of it in the oven and serve it with a fresh salad. It is simple, delicious and very healthy.
Something that consists mostly of seafood is fiskesoppa. It’s widely available in the colder months and is delicious. It’s a smooth and creamy, saffron enriched soup with different combinations of fish added.
The place where we’ve had it the most adds a dollop of alioli in the middle. It is seriously good. It’s a shame when the weather gets too warm for soup.
When it comes to herring, though, I’ll stick with my favourite, herring and mustard. Though, as Anders told me at Midsummer, herring and mustard is how you start your kids eating it. I take it then that herring and mustard is not for the serious herring eater.
I don’t care. It’s my favourite and, as long as I’m here in Sweden, I’ll be eating it. And they can keep the smelly one.