Ian and I celebrated our sixth anniversary on August 18th with some good friends. In honor of our six years together, I agreed, under duress, to take part in a ceremony that is not only not going to be repeated exactly as we performed it; it’s not going to be repeated even in spirit. The six of us ate, for lunch, surströmming, the Swedish traditional dish of fermented herring. This was the last time I celebrate my anniversary by eating any culture’s shock cuisine. No Thai Ten Thousand Year Old Egg, no Icelandic Hákarl, not even any durian. And definitely not fermented fish from anywhere.
Wait, you say, fermented fish?
To make surströmming, in May you take some herrings and remove their heads and their guts (although you leave the roe and the milt), then you put them in a huge vat with salt and water. You keep them at a particular temperature and you stir them a few times over the next few weeks. Then you seal them in smaller barrels for the following few weeks and shake them around periodically, then you tin them and let them sit for a few more weeks. Ten days before the third Friday in August, and not before, you give the tins to people as gifts.
Because the fish continues to “ferment” (i.e. “rot”) in the tins, the tins can develop a rounded, botulistic appearance. The contents are therefore also pressurized, and can explode upon opening, thus drenching the poor, misguided would-be eater with a sulfurous, sewage-smelling liquid that will ruin their clothing, and several layers of skin, forever.
I felt that it should’ve been a sign to us all (and not just me) that A, who is Swedish and whose mother loves surströmming, had never tasted it and had wondered, in fact, how her mother could eat it all these years. But even A thought it might be a good time to give it a try. After all, it was the season, and we were in the part of
So here’s how you eat it:
You take a piece of large, pill-shaped soft flatbread and butter it. On it you put chopped onion, cubed cooked potato (a particular kind, but the Swedes are really into their potatoes and I have no idea what they all are, so just any old white potato will do—believe me, it’s not the potato that matters), and as much surströmming as you think you can handle (for us, it was one filet each, which turned out to be wildly optimistic). With the sandwich, you drink snaps, which is Swedish schnapps (traditionally flavored with caraway—we had a sampler of small bottles flavored with everything from caraway and dill to
The fun part of the day was that we rented kayaks and paddled around in the protected bays near Härnösand, and so we were able to create our garbage sandwiches out in the open air far from where we were sleeping. And we had brought plenty of cheese, brats, mustard, potato salad, biscuits, chocolate, and gorp, so when, as I had predicted all along, the sandwiches weren’t found to be surprisingly tasty, or even edible at all, we had plenty of other things to eat to help us forget our folly.
We did have varying degrees of success with the surströmming sandwiches themselves.
Ian ate his entire sandwich, and even took a moment to cast a barb my way, suggesting that I wouldn’t actually chew bites of this sandwich 54 times. He was right; I spit my first bite out after maybe 4 chews, recognizing that I was moments away from gut-clenching puking. Deane ate his entire sandwich, although it can’t be said that he enjoyed the experience. He was going to bring a can home for a friend (they’re flying SAS; British Airways and Air
But what did surströmming taste like? Not fish, actually. It tasted slightly sweet, and a lot like the way raw sewage smells, and even more like the smell of the absolute worst slimy, greasy stinky thing your dog has ever rolled in.
It did not taste like food.
But the kayaking was beautiful, and the company excellent, and the Italian dinner tasty (although the kitchen closed at 9:00pm on a Saturday night, which was so un-Italian as to be comical, almost, except I didn’t get dessert). And now we’re on a ferry heading across the