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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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FOOD & DRINK

Five sweet treats you should be able to identify if you live in Sweden

Do you know your biskvi from your bakelse? Your chokladboll from your kanelbulle? Here's a guide guaranteed to get your mouth watering.

Five sweet treats you should be able to identify if you live in Sweden

Kanelbulle

The most famous of all Swedish cakes outside Sweden, the classic kanelbulle (cinnamon bun) is the symbol of Sweden abroad, no doubt helped by the fact that Swedish furniture giants IKEA stock frozen buns in their food stores for customers to bake off at home.

Forget American tear-apart cinnamon rolls baked in a pan and slathered with cream cheese frosting: a classic Swedish cinnamon bun is baked individually using a yeasted dough spread with cinnamon sugar and butter. The dough is then rolled up, sliced into strips which are then stretched out and knotted into buns, baked, glazed with sugar syrup and sprinkled with pearl sugar.

Home-made varieties skip the stretching and knotting step, rolling the cinnamon-sprinkled dough into a spiral instead which, although less traditional, tastes just as good.

Kanelbullar in Sweden often include a small amount of Sweden’s favourite spice: cardamom. If you’re a fan of cardamom, try ordering the kanelbulle‘s even more Swedish cousin, the kardemummabulle or cardamom bun, which skips the cinnamon entirely and goes all-out on cardamom instead.

Sweden celebrates cinnamon bun day (kanelbullens dag) on October 4th.

Photo: Lieselotte van der Meijs/imagebank.sweden.se

Chokladboll

A great option if you want a smaller cake for your fika, the chokladboll or ‘chocolate ball’ is a perfect accompaniment to coffee – some recipes even call for mixing cold coffee into the batter.

They aren’t baked and are relatively easy to make, meaning they are a popular choice for parents (or grandparents) wanting to involve children in the cake-making process.

Chokladbollar are a simple mix of sugar, oats, melted butter and cocoa powder, with the optional addition of vanilla or coffee, or occasionally rum extract. They are rolled into balls which are then rolled in desiccated coconut (or occasionally pearl sugar), and placed in the fridge to become more solid.

Some bakeries or cafés also offer dadelbollar or rawbollar/råbollar (date or raw balls), a vegan alternative made from dried dates and nuts blended together with cocoa powder.

Chocolate ball day (chokladbollens dag) falls on May 11th.

Photo: Magnus Carlsson/imagebank.sweden.se

Prinsesstårta

The lime-green prinsesstårta or ‘princess cake’ may look like a modern invention with it’s brightly-coloured marzipan covering, but it has been around since the beginning of the 1900s, and is named after three Swedish princesses, Margareta, Märta and Astrid, who were supposedly especially fond of the cake.

The cake consists of a sponge bottom spread with jam, crème pâtissière and a dome of whipped cream, covered in green marzipan and some sort of decoration, often a marzipan rose.

Prinsesstårtor can also be served in individual portions, small slices of a log which are then referred to as a prinsessbakelse.

Although the cakes are popular all year round, in the Swedish region of Småland, prinsesstårta is eaten on the first Thursday in March, due to this being the unofficial national day of the Småland region (as the phrase första torsdagen i mars is pronounced fössta tossdan i mass in the Småland dialect).

Since 2004, the Association of Swedish Bakers and Confectioners has designated the last week of September as prinsesstårtans vecka (Princess cake day).

Photo: Sinikka Halme, Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0.

Budapestbakelse

Belonging to the more traditional cakes, a Budapestbakelse or “Budapest slice” is a type of rulltårta or “roll cake” similar to a Swiss roll, consisting of a light and crispy cake made from whipped egg whites, sugar and hazelnut, filled with whipped cream and fruit, often chopped conserved peaches, nectarines or mandarines, and rolled into a log.

The log is then sliced into individual portions and drizzled with chocolate, then often topped with whipped cream and a slice of fruit. 

Despite its name, the Budapest slice has nothing to do with the city of Budapest – it was supposedly invented by baker Ingvar Strid in 1926 and received the name due to Strid’s love for the Hungarian capital.

Of course, the Budapestbakelse also has its own day – May 1st.

Kanelbullar (left), chokladbollar (centre) and biskvier (right). Photo: Tuukka Ervasti/imagebank.sweden.se

Biskvi

Another smaller cake, a biskvi (pronounced like the French biscuit), consists of an almond biscuit base, covered in buttercream (usually chocolate flavoured), and dark chocolate.

Different variants of biskvier exist, such as a Sarah Bernhardt, named after the French actress of the same name, which has chocolate truffle instead of buttercream.

You might also spot biskvier with white chocolate, often with a hallon (raspberry) or citron (lemon) filling, or even saffransbiskvier around Christmastime.

Chokladbiskviens dag is celebrated on November 11th.

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