The Baltic herring, known as strömming in Swedish, is smaller than the Atlantic herring, found in the North Sea. Traditionally, the definition of strömming is "herring fished in the brackish waters of the Baltic north of the Kalmar Strait". The herring used for surströmming are caught just prior to spawning.
During a production of surströmming, just enough salt is used to prevent the raw herring from rotting. A fermentation process of at least six months gives the fish a characteristic strong smell and somewhat acidic taste. According to a Japanese study, a newly opened can of surströmming has one of the most putrid food smells in the world, stronger than similarly fermented fish dishes such as the Korean hongeohoe or Japanese kusaya.
At the end of the 1940s, producers lobbied for a royal ordinance (Swedish: förordning) that would prevent incompletely fermented fish from being sold. The decree forbade sales of the current year's production in Sweden prior to the third Thursday in August. While the ordinance is no longer on the books, retailers still maintain the date for the "premiere".
Fermented fish is an old staple in European cuisines. The oldest archeological findings of fish fermentation are 9,200 years old and from the south of today's Sweden. More recent examples include garum, a fermented fish sauce made by the ancient Greeks and Romans, and Worcestershire sauce, which also has a fermented fish ingredient.
Preservation of fish through fermentation in a weak brine may have developed when brining was still expensive due to the cost of salt. In modern times, the fish are initially marinated in a strong brine solution that draws out the blood, and then fermented in a weaker brine in barrels prior to canning.
The canning procedure, introduced in the 19th century, enabled the product to be marketed in shops and stored at home, whereas at one time the final stage would have been storage in large wooden barrels and smaller, one-litre kegs. Canning also enabled the product to be marketed farther south in Sweden.
The fermentation happens through autolysis and starts from a lactic acid enzyme in the spine of the fish. Together with bacteria, pungent smelling acids are formed, such as propionic acid, butyric acid and acetic acid. Hydrogen sulfide is also produced. The salt raises the osmotic pressure of the brine above the zone where bacteria responsible for rotting can thrive and prevents decomposition of proteins into oligopeptides and amino acids. Instead, the osmotic conditions enable Haloanaerobium bacteria to thrive and decompose the fish glycogen into organic acids, making it sour (acidic).
The herring are caught in April and May, when they are in prime condition and just about to spawn, and have not yet fattened. They are put into a strong brine for about 20 hours which draws out the blood, after which the heads are removed and the fish is gutted and put into a weaker brine solution. The barrels are placed in a temperature controlled room kept at 15–20 °C (59–68 °F). Canning takes place at the beginning of July and for five weeks thereafter. Ten days prior to the premiere the final product is distributed to wholesalers. The fermentation of the fish depends on a lactic acid enzyme in the spine that is activated if the conditions are right (temperature and brine concentration). The low temperature in Northern Sweden is one of the parameters that affects the character of the final product.
Prior to modern canning methods, surströmming was sold in wooden barrels for immediate consumption, as even the smaller one-litre kegs could leak.
Fermentation continues in the can, causing it to bulge noticeably. Species of Haloanaerobium bacteria are responsible for the in-can ripening. These bacteria produce carbon dioxide and a number of compounds that account for the unique odour: pungent (propionic acid), rotten-egg (hydrogen sulfide), rancid-butter (butyric acid), and vinegary (acetic acid).
Surströmming is commonly sold in grocery stores all over Sweden.
Because of the strong smell, surströmming is ordinarily eaten outdoors. The pressurized can is usually opened some distance away from the dining table, and is often initially punctured while immersed in a bucket of water, which prevents brine from spraying onto clothes and traps most of the smell.
Surströmming comes both ungutted with just the heads removed and as fillets. The fish is gutted prior to eating, and the backbone and sometimes the skin are removed. Roe from surströmming is commonly eaten along with the fish.
Surströmming is often eaten with tunnbröd, a thin, either soft or crispy bread (not to be confused with crispbread). The use of tunnbröd originated in the High Coast area, where the tradition is to make a sandwich (known as a surströmmingsklämma) using two pieces of buttered hard tunnbröd. In addition to the fish, the two most common toppings are potatoes (either sliced or mashed, often almond potatoes) and finely diced onion. Surströmming is also commonly eaten without bread together with the accompanying ingredients. To balance the strong flavour of the fish, Västerbotten cheese is sometimes added.
In the southern part of Sweden, it is customary to use a variety of condiments such as diced onion, gräddfil (fat fermented milk/sour cream similar to smetana) or crème fraîche, chives, and sometimes even tomato and chopped dill.
Surströmming is commonly served with snaps, light beers like pilsner or lager, svagdricka (a type of small beer), water, or cold milk. What to drink with surströmming is disputed among connoisseurs. Surströmming is usually served as the focus of a traditional festivity called a surströmmingsskiva.
On 4 June 2005, the first surströmming museum in the world was opened in Skeppsmalen, 30 km (19 mi) north of Örnsköldsvik, a town at the northern end of the High Coast. The name of the museum is "Fiskevistet" (translated to The Fish Visit).
Food administration rules
Due to being made from herring from the Baltic sea, surströmming today contains higher levels of dioxins and PCBs than permitted in the EU. Sweden was granted exceptions to these rules from 2002 to 2011, and a renewal of the exceptions was then applied for. Producers have said that if the application is denied they will only be allowed to use herring less than 17 centimeters long, which contain lower levels, which will affect the availability of herring.
In April 2006, several major airlines (such as Air France and British Airways) banned the fish, claiming that the pressurised cans of fish are potentially explosive. The sale of the fish was subsequently discontinued in Stockholm's international airport. Those who produce the fish have called the airlines' decision "culturally illiterate", claiming that it is a "myth that the tinned fish can explode".
In 1981, a German landlord evicted a tenant without notice after the tenant spread surströmming brine in the apartment building's stairwell. When the landlord was taken to court, the court ruled that the termination was justified when the landlord's party demonstrated their case by opening a can inside the courtroom. The court concluded that it "had convinced itself that the disgusting smell of the fish brine far exceeded the degree that fellow-tenants in the building could be expected to tolerate".
Other fermented fish dishes
- Fesikh, Egyptian fermented fish
- Garum, fermented fish sauce popular in classical Rome
- Hákarl, Icelandic fermented shark
- Kusaya, Japanese fermented then dried fish
- Shiokara, Japanese seafood fermented in highly salted viscera
- Hongeo-hoe, Korean dish consisting of fermented skate fish
- Rakfisk, Norwegian fermented freshwater fish
Other strong-smelling foods
- Asafoetida, spice with a smell considered highly noxious
- Durian, very pungent smelling fruit from southeast Asia
- Kiviak, fermented birds in seal skin from Greenland
- They are about one third the size of North Sea herring (Swedish sill) that is adapted to salt water. UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme)
- Excerpt from Hakkou ha chikara Nari, Takeo Koizumi, NHK Ningen Kouza 2002 ISBN 4-14-084183-4
- Ingeborg Borgenstierna och Thomas Larsson Festdagar – Från Vår fru till vår fru quoted by Nordiska Museet, Stockholm (Swedish)
- Signs of early settlement in the Nordic region date back to the cradle of civilization, EurekAlert! 8 Feb 2016
- Kurlansky M. "Chapter 8. A Nordic Dream". Salt: A World History. London: Vintage Books. p. 138. ISBN 978-0-09-928199-3.
- Ruben Madsen, surströmming producer
- McGee, Harold (2004). On Food and Cooking (Revised Edition). Scribner. ISBN 0-684-80001-2. p 236
- "Olika sätt att äta surströmming". www.aftonbladet.se. Aftonbladet. Retrieved 24 May 2015.
- Lyregård, Berit (11 August 2005). "Surströmming ska ätas med finess". www.dn.se. Dagens Nyheter. Retrieved 24 May 2015.
- Schmidt, Claes; Lund, Sara. "Kulturkrock!". www.allas.se. Allas.
- Bevanger, Lars (1 April 2006). "Airlines ban 'foul' Swedish fish". BBC. Retrieved 2007-09-24.
- Location of Skeppsmalen
- "Ta en tur med vädret". www.expressen.se. Expressen. 18 July 2005. Retrieved 24 May 2015.
- Wolfgang Fassbender in Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung, August 2011.
- "Surströmmingen är räddad". Västerbottens-kuriren. 8 April 2011. Retrieved 2011-09-06.
- Rechtsanwalt Frank – Georg Pfeifer. Störung des Mietgebrauchs durch Mieter.
- Ringblom, Fredrik and Westerlund, Örjan (2009) Surströmming: En handbok. Grenadine. ISBN 978-91-85329-81-6. (Swedish)
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Surströmming.|
- Surströmming.se (Swedish)
- Fermented Herring – Guide and Film
- How to make surströmming at home
- Food For Louis at Youtube
- http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5943598/ Trailer Park Boys: Out of the Park Europe, Season 1 Episode 5 Stockholm. Aired October 28, 2016. Series characters attempt to eat a can of surströmming.