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SURSTRÖMMING

‘Kind of strong, kind of umami’: How to eat fermented herring the Swedish way

Surströmming, the Swedish fish so foul-smelling it should be opened outdoors. But what does it taste like when properly prepared by a local chef?

'Kind of strong, kind of umami': How to eat fermented herring the Swedish way
Chef Joseph Netlzer tries Swedish 'surströmming' for the first time. Photo: Tom Little/AFP

As chef Malin Söderström opened the can, the trapped air escaped with a hiss and filled the balcony of her
waterside restaurant with the pungent odour of Sweden's infamous delicacy, surströmming.

Likened to the smell of rotten eggs, surströmming – fermented herring – has gained a following online where daring gastronomes film themselves trying the seafood, which should be opened outdoors because of the stench, and preferably underwater in a bucket.

From her seaside restaurant in the small fishing village of Skarsa more than 200 kilometres north of Stockholm based in a former herring processing factory, Söderström tries to defend the delicacy's reputation.

“The sourness with the saltiness together with the bread, potato and butter and onion, it's just fantastic,” the 51-year-old said outside the restaurant, dressed in her black chef's uniform.

Söderström's grandparents lived in one of the village's squat red-wood fishermen's houses near the water and she ate surströmming, directly translated “sour herring”, from childhood.


Chef Malin Söderström prepares a surströmming meal. Photo: Tom Little/AFP

Herring caught in the Baltic are salted after being caught and left to ferment for months in barrels before they are canned. Surströmming hails from northern Sweden, where it is most commonly eaten, but tins of the seafood are available from most large supermarkets across Sweden.

In recent years a museum has been dedicated to the divisive dish, and some restaurants dedicate a whole day to eating it to avoid offending other customers' noses.

But with customers down due to Covid-19, Söderström and her sister Anna called off their own surströmming day this year.

Instead they organised a small demonstration of how the dish should be enjoyed, inviting a handful of friends and colleagues to sample the culinary delight.

Opening the cans away from their tables, Söderström served it to the visitors on Swedish flat bread along with chopped red onions, boiled potatoes, dill, tomatoes, chives, sour cream and hard cheese.


Cans of surströmming. Photo: Tom Little/AFP

Taking a break from the kitchen, 25-year-old chef Joseph Netzler tried the fish for the first time, sniffing it cautiously before tasting it with hard bread, dill and potatoes.

“It smelled a lot better than I thought it would, and the taste was good. It was kind of strong, kind of umami,” he said, sitting on the restaurant's balcony overlooking the village's small harbour.

“I think I've had my fill for a while,” he said, but added he might try it again in “one or two years”.


Surströmming still inside the can. Photo: Tom Little/AFP

Söderström was bemused by YouTube videos of non-Swedes opening cans of surströmming indoors and trying to eat it whole with no accompaniments, often struggling to stomach the smell.

In one such video, a group of friends in the US opened the can at a table indoors, retching and choking before eventually trying the fish.

“The smell, you can't get over it, but the taste is just slimy,” one of the challengers said with a grimace after nibbling a piece of the herring with no accompaniments.

“Of course they think it's disgusting,” Söderström said with a smile. “I would think that as well if I had it the same way.”

“The whole meal is really important. Who you're eating with, where you're eating and how you're eating it. I want to keep that alive,” she said.

Article by AFP's Tom Little

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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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