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FISH

Rotten fish? It’s a delicacy

It has been banned by airlines as an offensive weapon, its smells like a gas leak and it is Swedish schoolchildren's favourite way to cause classroom chaos. Yet thousands of Swedes regard it as a culinary delicacy. Emy Gelb reaches for a clothespin and takes a look at the famous Swedish "rotten herring" - surströmming.

Rotten fish? It's a delicacy

Surstömming is a Swedish oddity. Its aroma – or more accurately, odour – is so pungent that it is banned from many Swedish apartment blocks, yet it is considered such an important cultural phenomenon that a society has been established dedicated to protecting its future.

Surstömming is a very special dish from northern Sweden and roughly translates into “sour herring.” It’s often described in English as rotten herring, although it is actually fermented. The fish was first used by Swedish troops in the 17th and 18th century, when they needed non-perishable food that would last for long marches.

The Baltic fish is caught in the May and June, fermented for one to two months, then tinned. Inside the tin, the fermentation process continues. After 6 months to a year, the fish releases a variety of gases that make the can bulge in weird and bizarre ways.

For many, surströmming is known as one of the most offensive delicacies in the world, rivaling other objectionable treats like southeast Asia’s durian fruit or Norway’s lutefisk. The foul odour comes from a cocktail of different bacteria that produce carbon dioxide and numerous other compounds. These conspire to create a smell similar to rotten eggs mixed with rancid butter and vinegar. A website dedicated to odd foodstuffs describes the delicacy as “the foulest-smelling food you can ever imagine.”

Late August is the traditional period for Swedes to eat surströmming. Ruben Madsen, the President of the Surströmming Academy, explains that the classic way to serve the fish is on thin, crisp bread, with 6 slices of potatoes, each topped with a small piece of surstömming, red onions, sour cream, dill, and tomatoes. Older generations say that milk, snaps, and Wisby Weiss beer is the best way to wash the taste down while the younger ones claim that a dry rose or a dark rum is what truly complements the fish.

While it is generally recommended to eat the fish outside, Madsen claims you can eat it inside too. However, he suggests, “if you live in a big apartment building, put up a sign saying that you are having a surströmming party, just so the neighbors know that it’s not a gas leak or anything.” He adds that cooler temperatures also help to curb the smell, so in order to limit intensity of the odor it is best to open the fish in cold water or in the freezer.

In 2006, several major airlines including Air France, KLM, and British Airways, banned Surstömming from their planes, claiming that the swollen cans are potentially explosive. Swedish producers rebutted by calling the airlines “culturally illiterate,” arguing that it is solely a myth that tins are dangerous. Madsen said the claims were outrageous.

“It is a family meal, how could that possibly be a terrorist weapon? Can you believe something so crazy? I find it humorous they think that a meal could explode”

Unfortunately, he still doesn’t think that Arlanda will start selling the fish again anytime soon.

While not a terrorist weapon, surströmming is still a force to be reckoned with. According to urban legend, school children have been opening tins of the pungent fish to get out of class for decades. Madsen confirms the myth, saying that stink bombs disrupt around 25 schools a year.

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DISCOVER SWEDEN

The three tasty treats that make spring in Sweden a forager’s dream

Although parts of Sweden are still under snow at this time of year, spring is in full swing here in Skåne in the south of Sweden. Here are The Local's top tips for what you can forage in the great outdoors this season.

The three tasty treats that make spring in Sweden a forager's dream

You might already have your go-to svampställe where you forage mushrooms in autumn, but mushrooms aren’t the only thing you can forage in Sweden. The season for fruits and berries hasn’t quite started yet, but there is a wide range of produce on offer if you know where to look.

Obviously, all of these plants grow in the wild, meaning it’s a good idea to wash them thoroughly before you use them. You should also be respectful of nature and of other would-be foragers when you’re out foraging, and make sure not to take more than your fair share to ensure there’s enough for everyone.

As with all foraged foods, only pick and eat what you know. The plants in this guide do not look similar to any poisonous plants, but it’s always better to be safe than sorry – or ask someone who knows for help.

Additionally, avoid foraging plants close to the roadside or in other areas which could be more polluted. If you haven’t tried any of these plants before, start in small doses to make sure you don’t react negatively to them.

Wild garlic plants in a park in Alnarpsparken, Skåne. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

Wild garlic

These pungent green leaves are just starting to pop up in shady wooded areas, and may even hang around as late as June in some areas. Wild garlic or ramsons, known as ramslök in Swedish, smell strongly of garlic and have wide, flat, pointed leaves which grow low to the ground.

The whole plant is edible: leaves, flowers and the bulbs underground – although try not to harvest too many bulbs or the plants won’t grow back next year.

The leaves have a very strong garlic taste which gets weaker once cooked. Common recipes for wild garlic include pesto and herb butter or herbed oil, but it can generally be used instead of traditional garlic in most recipes. If you’re cooking wild garlic, add it to the dish at the last possible moment so it still retains some flavour.

You can also preserve the flower buds and seed capsules as wild garlic capers, known as ramslökskapris in Swedish, which will then keep for up to a year.

Stinging nettles. Wear gloves when harvesting these to protect yourself from their needles. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

Stinging nettles

Brännässlor or stinging nettles need to be cooked before eating to remove their sting, although blanching them for a couple of seconds in boiling water should do the trick. For the same reason, make sure you wear good gardening gloves when you pick them so you don’t get stung.

Nettles often grow in the same conditions as wild garlic – shady woodlands, and are often regarded as weeds.

The younger leaves are best – they can get stringy and tough as they get older.

A very traditional use for brännässlor in Sweden is nässelsoppa, a bright green soup made from blanched nettles, often topped with a boiled or poached egg.

Some Swedes may also remember eating stuvade nässlor with salmon around Easter, where the nettles are cooked with cream, butter and milk. If you can’t get hold of nettles, they can be replaced with spinach for a similar result.

You can also dry nettles and use them to make tea, or use blanched nettles to make nettle pesto.

Kirskål or ground elder, another popular foraged green for this time of year.
Photo: Jessica Gow/TT

Ground elder

Ground elder is known as kirskål in Swedish, and can be used much in the same way as spinach. It also grows in shady areas, and is an invasive species, meaning that you shouldn’t be too worried about foraging too much of it (you might even find some in your garden!).

It is quite common in parks and old gardens, but can also be found in wooded areas. The stems and older leaves can be bitter, so try to focus on foraging the tender, younger leaves.

Ground elder has been cultivated in Sweden since at least 500BC, and has been historically used as a medicinal herb and as a vegetable. This is one of the reasons it can be found in old gardens near Swedish castles or country homes, as it was grown for use in cooking.

Kirskål is available from March to September, although it is best eaten earlier in the season.

As mentioned, ground elder can replace spinach in many recipes – you could also use it for pesto, in a quiche or salad, or to make ground elder soup.

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