The surströmming party

Long ago, when I was 17, I spent a year as an exchange student in Sweden. This account of one of the more memorable meals I had there was written in the early days of the Worldwide Web, which is why I can no longer link to the sources of the quotations. I’m posting it now for reasons that will become clear before year’s end.

“Hellooo?” Rune’s voice precedes him up the stairs.

Ja,” I reply, rising from my bed where I’ve been reading.

“Ah,” he says as he appears at the door. Mats and Eva, my Swedish “brother” and “sister,” hover behind him.

“Would you be so kind as to change into something fancier?” he asks in his impeccable Oxford-accented English. “We’ve been invited out to dinner tonight.”

Mats and Eva look at the floor, trying not to laugh.

“All of us?” I ask, immediately suspicious.

“No. Just you and me.”

“What kind of dinner?”

The siblings break into a fit of giggles.

“Well,” he says, “it’s rather hard to describe in English.”

Something is definitely afoot. The last time I’d heard him use that phrase was when I found him in the kitchen, frying slices of a big maroon sausage for lunch. “What’s that?” I asked.

“Well, it’s rather hard to describe in English,” he said, handing me a plate and a jar of lingonberry preserves.

Later, after I’d eaten it, I learned it wasn’t at all hard to describe: flour bound with pig’s blood, a.k.a. blodpudding.

“I think I’d better stay home and study,” I say.

Nej, nej, nej,” he replies. “Meet me downstairs in half an hour.” He heads into his bedroom.

“Eva,” I say. “Where is he taking me?”

“To a surströmming party,” she stage-whispers. I blanch. She shrieks, turns and runs laughing down the stairs.

A little etymology. Strömming is the Swedish word for Baltic herring. The name derives from ström, the Swedish word for stream, which the schools of small silvery fish are said to resemble.

Sur is the Swedish word for sour.

Surströmming is the Swedish word for fermented herring.

Rune is waiting for me when I arrive downstairs. As we step outside, a taxi pulls up, the first I’ve taken in Sweden.

“You aren’t driving?” I ask.

He gives me a “duh” look and climbs in. Soon we find ourselves in a part of town I’m unfamiliar with, a new development full of comfortable houses the Swedes call villas. We stop in front of one that looks just minted.

“Here we go,” says Rune. “Lena and Thomas moved in last week. Tonight is – how do you say? – a housewarming.”

Rune rings the bell. A woman in her 30s opens the door and welcomes us in. Rune does the introductions. We are the first to arrive, Lena explains, taking our coats. We follow her to the plank-floored, off-white living room furnished with a mix of old and new pieces, including a sideboard on which sits a pitcher.

“May I pour you a Tom Collins?” Lena asks.

“Yes, but only a small one for our American friend,” Rune replies.

The doorbell rings and Lena soon escorts three more guests into the living room. Once they are settled, she excuses herself saying that she and Thomas must finish their preparations.

The conversation, or what I can follow of it, is friendly yet formal in that way peculiar to Scandinavia. At one point my attention wanders and I look through the sliding glass door into the back yard. I am surprised to see our hosts standing on the deck in their shirtsleeves – it is November after all – and even more surprised that Thomas is spraying water from a garden hose onto Lena’s hands.

“Rune,” I say, giving him a nudge. “What’s going on?”

“Well, it’s difficult to explain.”

“Give me a break! What are they doing?”

“The theory is that if you open the cans of surströmming like that, the water catches some of the gas and carries it into the ground. They’ll also leave the open cans outside for a half hour or so… Er, why don’t I freshen your Tom Collins?”

Surströmming is a specialty of northern Sweden. Its origins are shrouded in the distant past. Only herring from the northern Baltic, which are said to have a special flavour due to the water’s low salinity, are used. The herring are fished in the spring just before they spawn. Once caught, they are rinsed but not gutted. A typical recipe reads:

When the herring has been rinsed, it is put in a kolfat for a day or more, so that the water is drained; it doesn’t matter if the fish becomes soft. For each firkin of fish, take 7 marks ground salt at the beginning of summer, but 6 marks in the autumn, and mix it and the fish in a large container, stirring with the hands. Then pack in barrels and cover with salt. When the barrel has stood uncovered for 8 to 14 days, put the top on and turn the barrel over. The herring will go sour, but take care to make some holes with a tap so that you can air it during fermentation.

(This recipe was written down by the ethnologist Hülphers in the town of Härnösand in 1780.)

Fermentation allows the fish to be preserved with a minimum of salt, once a very expensive commodity.

These days, surströmming is packed in shallow cans about six inches in diameter. As the fish ferments, it produces gas, which causes the can to swell. By fall the top and bottom of the can are noticeably convex (the surströmming is considered to have reached its peak at this point). By the following spring, the cans are shaped like balls and explosion is a danger.

A schoolmate told me that his brother once drove home from university during a late spring heat wave with a can of surströmming in the trunk of his car and the unthinkable happened.

The car had to be scrapped.

Lena and Thomas come in from the deck, a strange odour trailing them. Two open cans sit on a table outside.

“Did you warn the neighbours?” one of the guests asks.

“It’s a new development,” Thomas says. “We don’t have neighbours yet. That’s why we decided to do the party now.”

The doorbell rings. “That’ll be Gunnar,” Lena says. “My, my, he’s late.”

A few minutes later, Gunnar enters the room, looking flustered. After the mandatory round of greetings, he sits down.

“I’m late because I lost Lena and Thomas’s new address,” he explains. “I called Information, but they didn’t have the number.”

“The phone’s going in on Tuesday,” Thomas calls out from the kitchen.

“Well, anyway,” Gunnar continues, “I knew the general neighbourhood and I knew what we were eating for dinner. So I had the taxi driver let me off down the street and I followed my nose to the right house!”

“Brilliant, Sherlock,” says Lena. “Now, why don’t you follow your nose into the dining room?”

Serving advice from a Swedish surströmming site:

All of the people who is going to participate in the dinner must sit close to the can when opened and they should as soon as possible inhale the smell. If you are more than 20 feet away from the can, you will not be able to inhale a concentration big enough. This is the trick—you must as quick as possible so that you strike out your smelling sence. Now you are ready to start eating!

We guests are seated three along each side of the table, alternating men and women. At each place is a large plate. Smaller plates are at the two o’clock and ten o’clock positions. A snapps glass of aquavit and a tumbler of pilsner are at noon. Baskets of a matzoh-like bread, tubs of butter, plates of sliced onion and bowls of steaming fingerling potatoes are placed strategically around the table. Thomas leaves then reappears carrying a tray on which sit two cans. An overwhelming stench, nauseatingly putrid, fills the room. The cans are placed in the middle of the table. After a few doubtful minutes, I can breathe again.

Lena asks me for my plate. It returns bearing a small fish that looks dull, limp, a little sad.

There is, I am told, a proper procedure for eating the delicacy. First, you butter a piece of bread and place it on the small plate to the left. Then, using your knife and fork, you gut the fish and place its entrails on the small plate to the right. Then you cut a piece of fish and spear it with your fork, followed by a piece of potato and a slice or two of onion. Now, take a bite of buttered bread. Then eat your fish, down the aquavit, drink some beer and Bob’s your uncle. You’re ready to repeat the process.

I take a bite of bread and, with all eyes on me, raise the loaded fork to my mouth. I chew. The taste is nothing like the smell nor is it very fishy. In fact, I rather like it. And the potatoes are superb.

Det är bra,” I announce to smiles.

“Don’t talk,” Rune whispers. “Drink!”

The aquavit burns my throat but cleans the palate. (It was the one time during my year-long stay that I enjoyed the taste.) The beer has a cooling, thirst-slaking effect.

I repeat the process once more, finishing my herring. I ask Lena for a second fish and am greeted with bravos all around.

“The only thing,” Rune says, “is that you have to switch to the traditional drink for minors.”

“?”

“Milk.”

The wave of nausea returns.

“Can we compromise on water?”

Of course, the adults don’t stop drinking and soon become very merry. Most guests eat four herrings. I wonder what will be done with the leftovers. More beer, much more beer, is drunk.

Lena begins clearing the table and takes the plates into the kitchen. We hear her “oh, no!” over the diners’ din. A few minutes later, she returns, carrying a somewhat burnt fruit cobbler. Thomas follows with a coffee pot and a pitcher of cream for the dessert. The cobbler is served and Lena refuses the complements that are her due, so Gunnar stands on his chair and signs an improvised Ode to Burned Desserts and Their Cooks, with everyone joining in on the chorus. Lena acknowledges the thanks with a smile.

The doorbell rings. Thomas returns and explains that it’s the first of the taxis they’ve arranged to transport us home. First to arrive, Rune and I are also first to depart. As hastily as is possible at a Swedish dinner, we thank our hosts, wish everyone farewell and trundle off into the chilly night.

Mavi is no more

Since I’ve not seen mention of it anywhere, since it’s not hipsteriffic or “hot” enough to be on Eater‘s radar and since it deserves not to pass in silence, I thought I’d mention it here: once one of the city’s best Portuguese grills, Rôtisserie Mavi in Côte-des-Neiges is no more. The space had been dark for about three weeks and emptied out for about two. Yesterday evening, the windows were papered over and a big À LOUER sign had been put up. The demise was gradual and began a couple of years ago after the restaurant moved to a new location.

Business was usually brisk at the original spot on Gatineau a block and a half north of Queen Mary. Maeve Haldane provided an excellent snapshot of it in a 2006 Hour review that, amazingly, is still online. Unfortunately, that building and several of its neighbours (including the one that housed Boucherie de Paris) were slated for demolition to make way for condos. Maria, Mavi’s driving force, started looking for a new venue – not an easy task, as all candidates had to have a charcoal-burning permit. As it turned out, the most appealing option was a short block north on Gatineau, a locale that had previously been an Iraqi restaurant (the owner actually referred to it as a Basra restaurant) called Aseel BBQ.

On paper it looked great: a relatively roomy open kitchen with a large charcoal grill, about twice the square footage as the old space, large windows and a paving stone terrace in front that was wide enough to hold a half dozen tables. Rent was higher than Maira was used to paying but she figured she could cover it with increased business. She signed a multi-year lease and applied for a liquor permit.

Imagine her horror when the RACJ announced they wouldn’t be granting a permit because the new locale wasn’t zoned as a restaurant but as a dépanneur. And not only did that mean she couldn’t serve booze, it meant she couldn’t have more than 12 diners in the restaurant at a time.

She appealed to the borough and went to several borough council meetings. At the one I attended, she took advantage of question period to ask the borough mayor, the now disgraced Michael Applebaum, if he would intervene. His response was in equal measures smarmy, dismissive and condescending. “I have been to your old restaurant,” he told her. “The best grilled chicken in Montreal. The best. But why are you complaining? That restaurant could barely hold a dozen people. Don’t tell me otherwise – I’ve been there.” (In fact, it could and often did hold nearly 40.) “If you want a restaurant permit, you’ll have to apply to have the building rezoned. It’s as simple as that.”

Except it wasn’t. A week or two later, the building’s owners and I accompanied Maria to a meeting with the mayor’s underlings at the borough offices on Décarie. The functionaries were cool and unhelpful. Despite there being a restaurant immediately next door to Mavi (Cracovie) and another one door up the street in the opposite direction (Il Galateo), the space was zoned as a dépanneur period. Maria’s only option would be to launch the rezoning process. After receiving her request, the borough would study the question, which among other things would entail hiring, at Maria’s expense, an outside firm to conduct a survey of neighbourhood residents. Then, assuming borough officials decided to allow the rezoning, announcements would be posted in the neighbourhood and made in various publications, again at Maria’s expense. If any residents formally objected, a referendum would be held, yet again at Maria’s expense. If the result was in her favour, the space would be rezoned. If not, it would remain a dépanneur and Maria would be out many thousands of dollars for naught.

As Mavi was a mom and pop operation run on a shoestring, this was as good as a no.

“But,” I objected, pulling out online reviews of Aseel BBQ and some Google Streetview shots that showed the resto’s sign, “the place has been a restaurant for several years. Aseel was halal so no alcohol was served but it was still a restaurant. It had a menu on big panels above the counter. It sold nothing but freshly prepared food for consumption on site or takeout. The owner even built a banquette along one of the walls.”

“Well, if we can establish prior use as a restaurant, you may have found a loophole,” one of the functionaries said. “Can I keep these documents,” he asked me. “We’ll get back to you,” he told Maria. They never did.

Alcohol sales are a profit centre for restaurants. They’re also a big draw. Without them, Mavi began its slow decline. Fewer and fewer patrons decided to dine there until, at the end, it was little more than a very spacious takeout counter staffed only by an increasingly tuckered-out Maria.

Last fall, I suggested to Maria that she turn the unused half of the restaurant into a Peluso-style beer store, something the neighbourhood sorely lacks. It would bring people into the space, people who might also be tempted to buy dinner to go with their six pack. And since she’d probably offer beer deliveries, she could again offer food deliveries, which she’d stopped doing before the move. Beer sales + increased food sales = profit, or so it seemed to me.

She found the idea interesting but by then it was too late. And so the city has lost one of its better Portuguese grills and the neighbourhood’s food options have shrunk even further. CDN used to be a top spot for home delivery, with options like Chinese, Greek, Haitian, Portuguese and even Uighur. Now it’s mostly pizza and shawarma.

RIP Mavi. And best of luck, Maria, wherever you are.

(Note: The above description of the exchanges with borough officials is based on my somewhat fuzzy memory and the associated quotes are summaries of what was said, not actual quotes of the discussions, which in the event were entirely in French.)

My dinner with C

Sorry but I have this deadline looming.”

“If only you’d called half an hour earlier. I just accepted another invitation.”

“I think I feel a cold coming on.”

“Thanks but it’s been one of those through-the-wringer weeks and all I want to do is veg out at home.”

“I’d love to but I have this lamb steak in the fridge and if I don’t make it tonight, I’ll have to throw it out.”

“You know, I’m really in the mood to cook. Why don’t you come over here instead?”

I’d been avoiding it for months. Tonight C put her foot down: I was going to have dinner at her place, no ifs, ands or buts.

Ah, C. One of the first people I met on arriving in Montreal in ’73. An honours English classmate at McGill – her first paper, “Vaginal Versus Clitoral Orgasm in Women in Love,” was written before she had personal knowledge of the subject and earned her a private interview with the lecherous prof. Later, an ESL teacher who travelled the world – Greece, Japan, Egypt, China, France, Spain, Italy, Mexico, India. A chain smoker who’s tried quitting a total of two weeks in the last 30 years. These days something of a boulevardière, hanging out in the cafés and bistros on rue Bernard. A lover of beer and guzzler of cheap wine. Dismissive of wine appreciation (“Well, it tastes like wine to me,” she stated after sitting through my encomium to Juge’s 1990 Cornas “Cuvée C”). Appreciative of fine food, though. Appreciative of bad food, too.

Always begins eating as soon as the food is set before her. Always grunts softly as she wolfs it down. Doesn’t talk while there’s anything on her plate. Has to have a smoke the instant she finishes eating, even if getting one means cutting you off in mid-sentence.

Probably the worst cook I know. Her cookbook collection consists of a single unconsulted volume, Diet for a Small Planet, which was already gathering dust on top of her fridge when I first met her.

“Well, can I help with dinner?” I ask.

“No.”

“Let me bring a bottle at least.”

“You’re always opening wine for me. Just bring yourself. It’s my treat.”

I arrive at the appointed hour. As usual, C greets me like a long-lost friend. She dashes into the kitchen and returns with two Molson Dry Ices.

“Here,” she says, handing me a bottle. “I know you like that microbrewery stuff but this was on special.”

She lights a cigarette and we chat for a while.

“Let’s move into the kitchen,” she says. “I’m making a pasta dish of my own invention.”

“Anything I can do?”

“Don’t you lift a finger. Everything’s under control. I just have to boil some water for the spaghetti.”

She grabs a two-quart saucepan and fills it half full.

“You might want to use a bigger pan and more water,” I suggest.

“I don’t have one,” she says. “And if I put more water in, it’ll boil over.”

I go back to nursing my beer.

“Now for the sauce,” she says.

A practical person, C never refrigerates her margarine (“It’s so much easier to spread”). This evening, she takes a mighty spoonful from the orange oleaginous blob and plops it into a skillet. When it’s sizzling, she reaches in the fridge and pulls out a white plastic container.

“I got some of those lovely little Matane shrimps,” she says, adding them to the skillet. (Matane, a village on the Gulf of St. Lawrence, is known for its tiny crustaceans, sometimes called salad shrimp and always sold shelled and pre-cooked.) While the shrimp are frying, C checks the pasta water. “Well, you know what they say about watched pots. Really, I must get this stove fixed. Only two burners work and not very well at that.”

The shrimp continue to fry. After five minutes, C takes a container of whipping cream out of the fridge, pours it in the skillet and brings it to a simmer.

At last the water boils. C adds the spaghetti and salt and pours in some Crisco oil. The shrimp bubble away.

C sits down for a cig. And another. She goes to the stove, stirs the spaghetti, stirs the sauce, comes back for another smoke. The pasta has been cooking for 15 minutes, the pre-cooked shrimp for 25.

She stubs out her cigarette. “Well, back to work!” She opens the fridge, rummages around and emerges with three green canisters of Kraft Parmesan. “Don’t know how long these have been in here. Probably a couple of years. We’ll finish them off tonight though!”

She shakes the cheese into the sauce, stirs it and turns off the heat. She dumps the pasta in a mesh strainer, looks at it and says, “It always seems to stick together. Should I run some tap water over it?” She does so before I can reply.

The spaghetti goes in a bowl and is tossed with the sauce. She hands me a baguette and a knife.

“Here. Cut this, would you?”

The bread collapses under the blade.

“A bit mushy, isn’t it?” C says. “But if you go just before they close, you get two for the price of one. Care for some margarine?”

We sit at the table.

“I had a late lunch,” I say. “Don’t give me too big a serving. ‘Small firsts, happy seconds,’ har har.”

C stops talking and starts chowing. Suddenly she looks up. “Oh, the wine!”

She dashes into the kitchen and returns with a bottle of Chilean Cabernet from the corner store.

We eat and drink, the silence broken only by the occasional soft grunt.