I’ve gagged twice before even putting the bread to my mouth. This is the smell of death. It’s coming from this piece of fish on my fork. And I’m expected to eat it. My friends and neighbours are watching me expectantly. I can’t not go through with this now. I smile weakly, bite into the rotten fish and chew…
Seven hours later, I’m in bed. Another little burp percolates gently up from my stomach and breaks on the shore of my tongue. I can still taste the surströmming. Even worse, I can still smell it.
This fermented Baltic herring is treated as a delicacy by northern Swedes. My neighbour Randy loves it, as does my friend Jens. “For sure, it is an acquired taste,” says Jens, “but it is really delicious on tunnbröd with some almond potatoes, onions and cheese.”
Jens, mate, no it really isn’t. It smells of death and raw sewage and tastes only marginally better. I’m not averse to smelly food – I’ve tried and loved some of the smelliest cheeses in the world. I am not a food wuss. But surströmming? It. Is. Disgusting.
The only surprise is that the northern Swedes don’t soak surströmming in cream and sprinkle it with sugar – they do with everything else. I had dinner at a friend’s recently. As we chatted they prepared the food. There was diced chicken and bacon. There were peanuts. Dried fruit. There was – of course – cream. Then there were bananas. BANANAS!?
It was a Flying Jacob. I thought it might be a traditional Swedish dish. Nope, it was invented by an air freight worker in the 1970s. Read that last sentence again. Has there been a more dispiriting sentence in culinary history?
I’m lucky. For my work I am paid to eat in restaurants. I have eaten in most of northern Sweden’s best eating establishments. And there are some really excellent ones, including Fjällnas in Tänndalen, Faviken in Åreskutan and Bistro Norrland in Luleå. These are all very fine restaurants, as good as any I’ve experienced.
Yet, generally, I must admit that the food up here is awful. Towns and roads are littered with cheap pizza joints, most majoring on that diabolical invention, the doner kebab pizza. The burger joints are, with one glittering example (the excellent Max chain), depressingly bad. It seems that adult northern Swedes have a bewildering fondness for food that, in most other countries, would be considered kids’ food.
Domestically, the reliance on cream is all-pervading. Even if you get some decent meatballs the chances are they they’ll come smothered in creamy gloop. Worse it could well be sweetened creamy gloop. This reliance on dairy is easy to explain. Cream, milk and cheese are all easily-accessible; they’re local foods in the same way that tomatoes, peppers and onions are staples in the Mediterranean. And, during the cold winters of the past, the populace needed to fatten up.
All this doesn’t make it any easier as newcomers hungry for tomato-based, rather than cream-based, cooking. We also like our food spicy and I’ve yet to meet a northern Swede who regards chilli as anything other than evil. When we’ve cooked even mildly zesty food for our friends we’ve ensured that there are buckets of cooling crème fraiche available on the table. The tubs are always empty at the end of the meal and the northern Swedes have, once again, had their fill of dairy product.