The refined art of fermented fish

Before the joviality of cracking crusty crayfish has petered out, the ensuing fermented fish-scoffing fest of has come into full swing. We’re talking about the less well-known, more seldom celebrated surströmming party—well that is if you want to call the event of eating foul smelling herring a party.

Truth be told there are few “bring the house down” parties, but the custom is regularly practiced in small bunches of dinner guests. Ironically, there seems to be a great sense of style and refinement expected for those who take part in the tradition.

And a tradition it is. In 1999 the Fermented Herring Academy was created. Its mission is to maintain the surströmming culture and promote its development. Ruben Madsen, Chairman of the academy takes his PR responsibility for the fermented fish quite solemnly:

“Surströmming should be eaten with finesse. Should one host a surströmming party all the fixings ought to be represented on the table: minced onion, dill, sliced tomatoes and bread; that gives visual appeal,” Madsen says.

“Potatoes boil while the guests settle and chat at the table sipping some sherry or snack on some crisp bread with Västerbotten cheese or blana – a paste of whey butter and cinnamon. Only after the potatoes are done should the tins of surströmming come out.”

Apparently the sophistication of the tradition ensures some dignity of eating a strong smelling fish in the age of refrigeration and food preservation.

But why are these events associated with September?

The surströmming season runs from late August through to the end of September. It is now that the fermentation process is complete and the herring is ripe to eat. This is the time that these die-hard traditionalists unlock the bulging conserved tin of the fermented herring.

The eating of “sour herring” began centuries ago when salt was a hard-to-come-by commodity and the people ate what they could get. The preservation process uses salt sparingly to slow down the decaying process in a delicately timed dance which relies on the fermentation process to take over in conservation.

But back to the gobbling of suspicious smelling herring. Keep in mind that no herring, fermented or fresh, should ever be served in Sweden without the accompaniment of copious amounts of beer and chilled spiced aquavit.

Helan Går!

Elizabeth Dacey-Fondelius