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For the love of pickled herring

02 August, 2023
Sillkafé in Stockholm.

All photos author's own.

The Swedish love affair with pickled herring runs deep. “It’s so much more than just food. It’s deep-rooted in Swedish culture! We eat it at all our festivities: Midsummer being somewhat its grand finale but also during the summer that follows and Christmas and Easter,” explains Swedish food journalist Anna Nörstrom. “With sill comes the ‘nubbe’, slang for the aqvavit snaps that’s supposed to be sipped and not downed as a shot. The combination is very important, it’s almost impossible to have one without the other. You might think sill is an acquired taste, but really, I know many fans that are kids – fostered in sill tradition from an early stage in life.”

Even though nicknamed ‘silver of the ocean’, herring remains a very cheap fish and because big companies don’t pay much for it, fishermen stopped fishing it. “We have a couple of big companies who are now almost running a monopoly on herring. They are producing shitloads and it’s cheap and bad. It’s all machine work and these kinds of herring end up being slimy, rubbery, not meaty, almost watery. Companies have boats going straight to the factory and they practically vacuum the fish,” says Douglas. “It’s something I learned when I was working at Fäviken – fish is best when it swims, afterwards the quality goes down.”

His love for herring started early on. “It came from my family and all the wonderful big holidays we have in Sweden when we eat this wonderful fish together. It’s also one of the things I really feel so good about it when I eat it, it’s as if my blood and my soul got a boost. Just everything around the herring is so positive in my world,” he ponders as he starts filling the small wooden table with herring treats.

Herring with mustard and coffee. Herring with raspberries, onion and pepper. One with fennel and tarragon, one with pumpkin and orange and one with sandalwood, allspice and bay leaf. Another super tasty one with rutabaga (swede) and juniper berries. Baltic herring (slightly smaller) with different kinds of pepper and allspice, Baltic herring with wild garlic and mayonnaise.

Matjes (soused herring with brown butter, sour cream, red onions, chives and egg) and ‘Swedish boquerones’ (Baltic herring, lemon, olive oil, parsley, garlic, black pepper) and smoked ‘Swedish sardines’ (sprats) with horseradish, sour cream and croutons. Then there’s also ‘Old man’s mess’ (gubbröra), a beloved dish present at every festive table made from spice-cured sprats and eggs. The herring comes to Sillkafe already salted, from last year, then they desalt it and pickle it in a mixture of vinegar, water, sugar and spices. Every Swedish chef has their own favourite mixture.

“I think peasant fish can also be magic,” quips Tjärnhammar Alm as he pours himself another shot of aquavit, this time a high-end one, OP Anderson, seasoned with caraway, anise and fennel and matured in oak casks for six months.

I admit, this writer had her doubts about herring. Sillkafe turned me around. Is that Tjärnhammar Alm’s goal? To win nay-sayers? Make herring great again?

“Haha, yes! That is sort of what I want to do! I want to make herring great and big and for us Swedes to be super proud of! I want tourists to buy jars of my herring and bring them back home and share it with their friends. I want Swedish people to buy more expensive and better herring because they deserve better herring. I want to make smörgåsbord better for my family and friends, that’s what I want!”

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