Inside every true gourmand is a brave person with great taste, and with a desire to experiment. Which is why no epicurean should deny him or herself the pleasure of trying - at least once - the surströmming, Sweden’s most beloved dish, and one that’s barely known in other parts of the world. This specialty has been compared to gourmet delights like caviar, champagne and Parmgiano cheese, though much harder to find outside of Scandinavia.
An acquired taste? Perhaps: though it’s the smell that one notices first. Made from fermented (well, actually rotten) herrings, even those who love it admit that it stinks. And even expert palates like chef Jamie Oliver, as shown in this video, can’t help an instinctive reaction of…well, horror, when confronted with an open tin for the first time.
The main ingredient, of course, is one of the most common elements in Scandinavian cuisine: the herring, a fish found in the cold Northern seas, is even eaten often at breakfast. The herrings that make up the surströmming are fished in the Baltic sea during springtime, sliced in half, covered in salt and then left to ferment in barrels before being packaged into tin cans, where the fermentation process continues until the moment of consumption. While the tins can be opened after just a month, many believe that the longer the herrings remain closed, the better they taste.
Even the opening of the tin itself is a ritual in and of itself, and widely believed to be an honor reserved for the elders and the experts at the table. First, you must consider where to do it: out in the open is considered obligatory - it will take you less than two seconds to understand why (hint: the smell). If you can’t, for some reason, dine en plein air, then you might try opening the tin in a sink filled with water.
Before actually opening the tin, you should punch a few holes into it - which will release a pungent odor that serves as a premonition of what’s to come. Once the lid is off, let the herrings drain a few seconds, slice them open, and simply serve the fish on a piece of tunnbröd, Sweden’s classic bread, with a dollop of sour cream, a thin slice of potato and a sprinkle of chopped, white onion. The combination of these strong, but complimentary flavors provide a perfect balance to the taste of the herring, which, once in your mouth, will make you forget that off-putting smell.
Unlike some of the more pungent cheeses, the surströmming hasn’t enjoyed an easy time of it outside of its home nation. The EU has banned it commercially outside of Sweden, labeling it as a toxic product despite the protests of Swedes, who consume it on a regular basis, and the work of the national academy for the protection of surströmming.
And yet, at the end of each summer, when the small Northern village of Alfta hosts the annual surströmming festival, lovers of the dish happily wait in long queues just for a taste. It appears that, for the foreseeable future, this fermented herring will stay closely tied to its homeland. We think it’s an acquired taste that is worth travelling for.