Tuesday, November 18, 2008


Sweden... the land of groundbreaking cinematography, affordable wooden furniture, the dynamite, whopping income tax, lovely lakes, wonderful telephone system and many interesting furry animals. (The person in the third row -- did you really have to mention ABBA? the Swedes are trying so hard to forget!) With exception of cinematography, furniture, dynamite and many other things, our little country is a lot like Sweden. And yet, strive as we may to copy Swedish public health prevention policies, we will never have one thing Sweden does -- the high culture of producing and consuming fermented herring or, as it is affectionately (and unaffectionately) called, Surströmming.

Surströmming stands for "sour herring" and stands for a traditional way of preserving herring by packing it into a barrel with just the right amount of salt and letting it spend a couple of months in this delicate state between not quite being salted and yet not quite rotting. Then it is packed into tin cans where the fermentation process continues, the poor beheaded corpses of herring emitting meanwhile all sorts of invigorating gases and with time transforming the cylindical can into more of a spere-shaped one. The resulting product has a smell and a taste that are, reportedly, both worthy of superlatives, albeit different ones. Surströmming is traditionally consumed in a sandwich of thin bread, onions, butter, boiled potatoes and, of course, surströmming. From what I hear, sometimes sour cream or milk is consumed with it, and, of course, beer, vodka or aquavit to taste.

So, what are the conclusions that we can reach about the Swedish nation by extrapolating from a tidbit of trivia about this undoubtedly national-character-defining dish?

Here's what. Swedes are a tough and clever nation. Having a climate slightly more harsh than that of Bahamas, with slightly shorter days during their correspondingly slightly longer winters, and substandard salt supplies back in the days of old, they came up with a novel solution to preserving their national treasure: the herring. In other words: when life gives you lemons, make fermented lemons. What we can learn from that: If you haven't heard, the end of the world as we know it is coming. Everything might be in short supply, and although we have the Windsor salt mines nearby, there won't be enough for everybody. Therefore those of us who can make their own surstromming (second recipe) during the traditional months of May to August will enjoy a significant advantage over the unlearned folk. Plus we might be able to scare off the hordes of predatory vegetarians with the smell alone, or intimidate them into sharing the crops from their naturally-cultivated vegetable gardens (remember, we need the onions for the sandwich).

Personally, I haven't yet tried surstromming, but my heart and gut are burning with the desire to experience this character-building delicacy. If anybody knows where to buy it in Ottawa, please let me know! Conversely, I will share the information I come by as well.

And finally, so that you wouldn't accuse me of writing another meaningless post, here are
The 3 facts about surströmming you will have learnt by the end of this blog post:
  1. British Airlines and Air France forbid taking tins of surstromming aboard, as checked luggage, carry-on, and in any print or electronic representation, so help us God. The reason is that the bulging little containers of joy are pressurized and have been known to explode in mid-flight, rendering the air-freshener systems of the air vessel tragically ineffective.

  2. If you wake up with a hangover in a Stockholm apartment (after a memorable night in the hot hands of an Oslo dentist) and, seeing a can of surstromming in front of you, are tempted to open it, resist the temptation, for the following reasons. Firstly, opening (pressurized!) tins of surstromming inside apartments is forbidden by a Stockholm bylaw and, besides permanently staining your expensive IKEA carpet, can affect the relationship with your neighbors, those weird American expat snobs who are utterly incapable of appreciating the unique culture of the host country. Secondly....

  3. ... true connoisseurs of surstromming recommend opening tins of surstromming underwater, which greatly reduces the smell released into the air and, consequently, makes surstromming a snack of choice for scuba diving enthusiasts.

1 comment:

  1. First, if Sweden is so cool, how come the lost their war with Russia and had to end up with a Rump of what they had.

    Second, the Dutch have better herring than the swedes (though that's the only nice thing I can think of about the Dutch).

    Third... Damn there is no third thing.