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For summer, Swedes tuck into a stinky treat

Surstromming, or fermented herring, packs a pungent punch
/ Source: Reuters

In a rare break in the clouds during a rainy Swedish summer, just when it looks safe to venture out for a breath of fresh air, the smell of rotten herring wafts over.

Sunshine is rare enough in the short Nordic summer and trying to enjoy it outdoors also requires a strong stomach in August when Swedes traditionally tuck into surstromming.

The dish of fermented herring rivals Southeast Asia’s durian fruit, Iceland’s buried shark or Norway’s lutefisk as one of the world’s most objectionable delicacies.

A peaceable people who otherwise care for the environment, fish-loving Swedes sit outside to open and eat a dish that is only deemed ripe for consumption when the tin containing it is buckled and bulging from the fishy fumes. The smell is so pungent that even neighbours and passers-by get a snootful.

“You can’t sit inside and eat it because it smells so much,” says a waitress at Sturehof restaurant, where the aroma from the herring served at tables on the pavement mingles with the perfumed ambience of Stockholm’s poshest shops.

Rated by Web site as “the foulest smelling food you can ever imagine,” surstromming is washed down with large quantities of beer and aquavit. Purists prescribe milk rather than beer, but the aquavit is mandatory.

It is served straight from the tin -- one brand features a howling red wolf, which presumably made the mistake of getting downwind of some herring -- on thin, crisp barley bread with boiled new potatoes, chopped onion and sour cream or cheese.

Historians say surstromming was first created in wartime, when Swedish troops building a northern European empire in the 17th and 18th centuries needed ready food for long marches.

Caught in the Baltic in May and June, the herring is soaked in brine then stacked in barrels that are put out in the sun to get the fermentation process going. While salted fish is common in many cold climes, brine was traditionally used as a cheaper alternative that was more sparing with the expensive salt.

Come Aug. 18, when restaurants all over Sweden hold special events to taste the latest vintage, the can is best opened under water to limit the spray of gas and goo.

“You get used to the smell a while after the can has been opened,” said Bosse, a Stockholm pensioner who confesses to a herring habit. “But many people never get used to the smell and taste and avoid this dish for ever.”

Naturally, there is a Swedish society to protect this cultural treasure, the Surstromming Academy (, whose chairman Ruben Madsen produces about 5,000 cans a year under the “Erik the Red” brand on the east coast island of Ulvon, where surstromming was first put in cans in the 19th century.

Fishy choicesThe Swedes, whose fish fetish also involves crayfish parties that last late into the bright summer nights in August and pots of pickled herring consumed at Midsummer, are not the only northerners with strange tastes in fish.

No Norwegian Christmas is complete without “lutefisk” -- cod soaked in lye to a jelly-like consistency and served with bacon fat, potatoes and mushy peas. Rugged Icelanders prefer Greenland shark matured by being buried in sand for up to six months. Like the Swedes, they wash it down with strong liquor.

But the Swedes, not content with exporting their rather more harmless meatballs and lingonberry sauce via IKEA stores, are also intent on promoting their fermented fish as well. Madsen --who works as a clown in his daytime job -- is travelling to Japan in September to teach the way of the herring.

“Normally Asian people love it, but Americans and Spaniards don’t as they have another culture in their mouth,” Madsen said.

He attributes the fish’s rank reputation to poor technique, saying the new vintage fish commonly consumed was overpowering in smell and taste “like Wagner music” whereas the previous year’s fish eaten by connoisseurs was like Chopin, “where you can hear every tone, every finger on the key of the piano”.

Equally important is the ritual of the meal, he said, which enables diners to appreciate the salt water bouquet and “this extroardinary different taste.”

“It’s like French cheese that can smell like you’ve had your shoes on too long, but if you are with good friends in a good restaurant with a fantastic view, then this negative sensation never occurs,” said Madsen.

He dismisses as a myth the stories of over-ripe cans of surstromming exploding in Swedes’ luggage at foreign customs checks, but stories abound of kids opening cans at school as a prank and forcing classes to be evacuated.