Swedish herring party sparks gas leak fears

A team from the Swedish rescue services were more than a little surprised when a presumed gas leak in an apartment building in southern Stockholm turned out to be no more than a fermented herring party.

Swedish herring party sparks gas leak fears
Fermented herring, or "surströmming", is famed for its smell. Photo: Hasse Holmberg/Scanpix

“We received the alarm at 19.53 on Wednesday with residents reporting a weird smell in their apartment building, suspecting it might be some sort of a gas leak,” Johanna Björnfot, a spokeswoman at the Fire and Rescue Services in Stockholm, told The Local.

“We responded to the call and alerted Stockholm Gas [about the possible leak], but when we got to the scene and started to investigate the smell, one of the residents informed us that they were eating fermented herring, which turned out to be the cause,” she said.

Fermented herring, or “surströmming” as the Swedes call it, is a centuries-old tradition and stems from the time when Swedish workers were paid for their labour in herring. The fermentation process allows the fish to keep for longer.

The flip side of the coin, however, is that the fish becomes extremely smelly and many Swedish landlords have banned their tenants from enjoying the traditional Swedish staple in their buildings.

This is not the first time that the Swedish rescue services have responded to a false gas leak alarm on the back of someone enjoying the fermented fish.

In 2012, two fire trucks and two police cars were called out to an apartment building, also in southern Stockholm, after anxious neighbours had reported a suspicious stench in the house.

“They probably didn’t recognise the smell of fermented herring,” police spokesman Sven-Erik Olsson said at the time.

This summer, staff from the US BuzzFeed website decided to try out the smelly Swedish delicacy, causing a havoc among the tasting panel and managing to incense a Swedish surströmming expert by filming the event and posting it on YouTube. In the clip, some of those trying the fish likened the odour of the fish as the smell of “sewage” and “dead body”.   

Surströmming expert Ruben Madsen was offended by the clip, telling The Local at the time that it was an “insult to the Swedish people and Swedish culture”.

In response to the video, which went viral, Madsen teamed up with Swedish tourism company Höga Kusten Destinationsutveckling AB and produced a video showing Swedes tucking into fermented herring in a bid to educate foreigners about the traditional dish.

“Never, ever should surströmming be served like that,” Madsen said of the BuzzFeed tasting.

 “It must always be stored in a cool environment. If it is stored in a warm place, then the lactic acid destroys the proteins and there is no fish left inside the can. In the film, there's just a mess inside,” he said.


Yuck factor: Disgusting Food Museum to open in Malmö

Which is worse, the stomach-churning stench of Sweden's fermented herring, the rotting-flesh reek of a Thai Durian fruit, or the pong of Iceland's rotten shark? When the Disgusting Food Museum opens in Malmö at the end of next month, you can judge for yourself.

Yuck factor: Disgusting Food Museum to open in Malmö
Some of the vile foodstuffs on display in Malmö. Photo: Anja Barta Thelin
The brainchild of Dr Samuel West, the American behind Helsingborg’s Museum of Failure, the new exhibition will bring 80 of the world’s most disgusting foods to Slagthuset MMX just behind Malmö Central station.  
“The main aim is that it is fun, interesting, and interactive,” West told The Local. “You can taste, smell, and in certain cases, even touch the food.” 
The museum features a raw bull’s penis on a cutting board, maggot cheese from Sardinia, and roasted guinea pig from Peru, with visitors receiving a tour of each continent’s most unappealing offerings. 
Yummy! Bull penis from China. Photo:  Anja Barta Thelin
“The rotten shark from Iceland is absolutely horrid,” West said. “We have the world’s stinkiest cheese, proven by a British university. It’s hardcore science.” 
But he said he hoped that the exhibition, like his failure project, would also get across a more serious point. “We need to question our ideas of disgust if we’re going to consider some of the more environmentally friendly sources of protein, like insects.”  
West’s team, most of whom worked with him on the Museum of Failure, spent months working out how to contain the smell of some of the world’s stinkiest foods. 
“There’s no ready-to-buy solutions for delivering nasty smells to people and trying to contain them,” West explained. “The best way is a simple medical-grade research jar.”  
Containing the smell of Sweden’s fermented herring dish surströmming proved particularly difficult. 
“We tested it, and tested it and were almost kicked out of our current office space because of the smell,” he said. “I think we’ve got it solved, but I’m not sure. It’s one of those things that keeps me awake at night.” 
A smell jar. Photo: Anja Barta Thelin
West moved to Sweden when he was 21, learned to speak Swedish within a year, and has now lived in the country for 20 years, earning a doctorate in psychology and working as an organizational psychologist. 
The Museum of Failure grew out of his research into innovation and risk-taking, and brought together failed product launches from around the world, including a Trump board game. 
It has been a runaway success, with franchises now opened in Toronto and Los Angeles, and another soon to open in Shanghai. 
“They’re both fun, but the food museum is much more relatable and much more interactive. You can only sniff failure to a certain extent. But if you have rotten shark in your face you wish you were never born.”  
Fancy some soup? The main ingredient for Guam’s fruit bat soup. Photo: Anja Barta Thelin
The idea for the Disgusting Food Museum came out of the barrage of suggestions for new museums West has received over the last year. 
“I started getting all these lists of the weirdest museums in the world,” he said. “And I thought that the only museum that I wanted to visit was the Museum of Disgusting Food.” 
Initially, he intended to make the exhibit as simple and cost-effective as possible, but soon realised that for it to have maximum impact, about half of the items would have to be fresh, meaning they needed to be replenished every or every other day. 
“The exhibit’s a pain in the ass, to be honest. When I was designing this, I was thinking ‘it has to be easy and economical, because I’m paying for it’. But which is more fun to look at, a plastic replica of some food or the real food in front of you? It’s just more fun to have a real durian fruit from Thailand.” 
“It’s really fun and there’s a high risk of failure and if nobody shows up, I’m out a lot of money. A hell of a lot of money.” 
The museum opens on October 31st and will run until the end of January.