What you need to know before trying Sweden’s fermented herring

Before you turn your nose up at Sweden's pungent-smelling fermented surströmming, read this.

What you need to know before trying Sweden's fermented herring
Sweden's Prime Minister Stefan Löfven enjoying the surströmming premiere in 2016. Photo: Susanne Lindholm/TT

What is surströmming?

Surströmming is Swedish for “sour herring” and is fermented herring. They are plucked out of the Baltic Sea before they are stored for months to stew in their own bacteria through a carefully calibrated autolysis method which creates rather smelly acids, using just enough salt to prevent it from rotting. Don’t look scared, this is an old food preservation method and has been around for thousands of years around the world. 

Canning the surströmming. Photo: Ralf Bergman/TT

When do you eat it?

The traditional “surströmming premiere” is held on the third Thursday in August. That’s when Swedes crack open their cans of surströmming – if the can has a slight bulge, don’t worry, it’s because the fermentation process continues even after the herring is canned.

See? Doesn’t that just look delicious? Photo: Vilhelm Stokstad/TT

How do you eat it?

Not like BuzzFeed’s American staff, who published a video of themselves trying it for the first time, using words like “dead body” and “baby diaper” to describe the smell. They incensed one Swedish surströmming expert so much that he published his own instruction video to how to really enjoy this unusual delicacy.

Eat it with onion, sour cream, bread, potatoes and a glass of snaps.

But before you eat it, remember to store it correctly. Ruben Madsen of the Surströmming Academy on the island of Ulvön says “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”.

Baby diaper?!

It does have a strong smell, there’s no denying that.

If you don’t like it, there are various tactics to make it a little bit easier to stand. One is to open the can under water. Another is to eat it outdoors. Alternatively, as soon as you open the can, stick your nose as close as possible and take a deep breath to immunise yourself – nothing will smell bad after that.

Don’t worry, it tastes better than it smells, after your nostrils get over that initial shock.

And all Swedes eat this?

Admittedly, it is not to everyone’s liking. Traditionally, it is also more common in northern Sweden, and especially on the north-eastern coastline around the High Coast and further north in the Norrland region.

Cans of surströmming. Photo: Ulf Palm/TT

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


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.