A Brit tries Swedish fermented fish for the first time. And it’s… fine? 

He didn’t cry, he didn’t scream, he didn’t even vomit. But in a nondescript hotel room somewhere on the Swedish High Coast, Gregg Harfleet ate two whole bits of surströmming. 

A Brit tries Swedish fermented fish for the first time. And it’s… fine? 
Gregg Harfleet drove eight hours north to try surströmming the traditional way. Photo: Gregg Harfleet

He says that it tastes a bit like camembert. 

“It wasn’t very fishy at all, which is quite surprising for the smelliest fish in the world,” he told The Local. 

Fermented herring is Sweden’s answer to a question no one asks: what’s the smelliest fish in the world? 

Everyone has heard a surströmming story; like the family who would put it in a field and shoot it in order to open it without having to endure the smell, or how it’s banned on several airlines because it could be a security risk.  

Now, YouTube is filled with videos of people enduring the stinky foodstuff. 

Harfleet, however, goes the extra mile – or rather, the extra 650 kilometres – to a place called Sollefteå on Höga Kusten, the High Coast, near the birthplace of the infamous fermented fish. 

He said that he was trying to offer people a different take by eating it as locals do, rather than straight out of a can from his local supermarket. 

“I felt obliged to give the tradition its fair shot, rather than go the clickbait route,” he said.

Harfleet moved to Sweden as so many of us do, for love. Originally from Kent in the UK, he now lives in Linköping and works in business development. The YouTube videos are just a passion project for him, started during the pandemic, but he’s really proud of the supportive little network he’s built up of native Swedes and international people alike. 

“The reaction from Swedes has been really heartwarming to see,” he said. Some commenters have even invited him to join them for a real surströmming party when the (not so) fresh summer batches are opened next year in late August. 

In the video he takes a bite of a fancy tapas-sized morsel, one laced with pickled onion and another with a dollop of blackberry jam. Hotell Hallstaberget is one of the only hotels in the world where they serve surströmming á la carte. 

“It tasted really good!” he told The Local a day after the video was posted. “Maybe that’s not the reaction that some people would have expected.”

The video generated several thousand views overnight and nearly 200 comments from Swedes pleased with his efforts to do justice to the tradition of surströmming.

“Next time, maybe I’ll get a tin and cook it in my innergården [the courtyard of an apartment block],” he says. 

Perhaps a follow-up video is in order.

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Why is January 6th a public holiday in Sweden?

Trettondedag jul, literally "the thirteenth day of Christmas" always falls on January 6th, which this year is a Friday. It's a public holiday in Sweden meaning many people have a day off. But why is it celebrated it at all?

Why is January 6th a public holiday in Sweden?

Trettondedagen, or trettondagen, or Epiphany as it is sometimes referred to in English, is the thirteenth day after Christmas Eve, the day when Swedes celebrate Christmas. Unlike most Swedish holidays such as Midsummer’s Eve (midsommarafton), Easter (påskafton) and Christmas Eve (julafton), the trettondag holiday is celebrated on the actual day, rather than the night before on trettondagsafton.

As a Christian holiday, it marks the day the three wise men met baby Jesus and gave him the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, and therefore the day God’s son arrived on earth. In Denmark and Norway, the day is still referred to as helligtrekongersdag, or “day of the three holy kings”.

Unlike the Twelfth Night or the last of the Twelve Days of Christmas, which is considered to be the last official day of Christmas in many Christian countries, the official final day of Christmas in Sweden falls on the twentieth day after Christmas, January 13th or tjugondag Knut. So, you can keep your decorations up for a while yet.

In Småland, trettondagen is sometimes referred to as farängladagen or änglafardagen(literally: “angel travel day”), as it was previously believed that the dead returned home the night between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, returning to their graves on January 6th.

How is it celebrated in Sweden?

In modern Sweden, most people don’t do anything in particular to celebrate trettondagen, other than perhaps taking down their Christmas decorations (although as mentioned above, many people do this on January 13th instead). It’s a day off for many, and state-run alcohol chain Systembolaget is closed.

In the Swedish Church, trettondagen is a day for raising funds for various charitable campaigns elsewhere in the world, such as this year’s campaign to end child marriage, female genital mutilation and gender-based violence.

The Swedish Church will often hold services on trettondagen or trettondagsafton. If you’re interested, you can find out what services churches in your parish will be holding here. Just type in your address, then look for trettonhelg to see what’s on.

How did Swedes celebrate in the past?

Traditionally in Sweden, the day was marked by boys and young men walking from town to town telling the story of the three wise men. These young men were known as stjärngossar (literally: star boys), a precursor to the stjärngossar you still see at Saint Lucia celebrations in modern Sweden.

This stjärngossetåg (star boy procession) would include the three wise men, Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar, who represented Europe, Africa and Asia, wearing pointy hats and white shirts, alongside King Herod, who Mary and Joseph were fleeing from (and the reason Jesus was born in a stable), Herod’s servants and a julbock (Christmas goat).

These storytellers would occasionally be given presents or money, and taking part in a stjärngossetåg was often a way for poor boys and men to earn some money, or even be given something alcoholic to drink.

The julbock‘s role was to collect these gifts or money, and it could even have a funnel hanging from its jaw which would lead to a container to collect any snaps gifted to the procession.

This stjärngossetåg still exists in some parts of Sweden, such as on the islands in the Stockholm archipelago.