Surströmming party redux

Unbeknownst to me, my friend T was so titillated by the original surströmming party story that he ordered a can of the fermented herring direct from Sweden early last summer. The can was purchased through eBay from made-in-scandiavian.com and cost C$120 including shipping by air. Delivery time was a little more than a week. As a search will show, there are many other online purveyors and various brands are on offer. Our can was the elegantly packaged Mannerströms. By the time I first saw it, probably in mid-July, the initially flat can was noticeably convex due to the gas produced by the fermentation process.

So there we were with a can of the stuff. And since it was still fermenting, it was something of a ticking time bomb. Explosion wasn’t a danger then or even through the fall and winter, though it might become one as the weather warmed and the can’s shape moved beyond convex to spherical.

Our target date for opening it was late August or early September. There was only one problem: we didn’t have a venue.

In Sweden back in the ’70s, the only other time I’d encountered the delicacy, everyone insisted the cans should be opened outdoors, preferably under running water, and left to air for half an hour before eating. Many also felt the dish was best eaten al fresco, the better not to stink up the house.

But T’s flat doesn’t have an outdoors, not so much as a front stoop. He suggested we open and air the can in the pocket park across the street. I felt that was unfeasible. Not only would it render the park unusable by any but the most olfactorily challenged visitors, I suspected the police – or worse yet, emergency responders – might be called. Some party.

My deck might have been an option but it has no drain and my neighbours would likely be outraged. What’s more, they would know who to direct their anger at.

No, a more cunning plan was required.

Plan A: Some friends had rented a chalet in the Laurentians for a week. Maybe we could finagle an overnight invitation? After all, eating surströmming at the sommarstuga, far from neighbours, is the way it’s usually done in Sweden. Unfortunately, those plans fell through when the friends had to make a sudden return to town.

Plan B: Two friends’ centre city homes have very private rooftop decks. The advantage here would be that, while the odours emanating from the open cans might well offend neighbours, none would be able to tell where the stench was coming from. Unfortunately, both friends had read the original surströmming party post and were unwilling to risk spilling some of the juice on their wood flooring and rendering their rooftop unusable for the remainder of the season. Foiled again.

Plan C: Do a picnic in Mount Royal Park. The challenges seemed formidable, however. Would we be able to find a spot remote from other parkgoers? Would we attract the attention of park authorities or the police (“You think you can down shot glasses of aquavit with beer chasers in a public park?”), not to mention dogs and other fauna, which reportedly go crazy over the smell? And then there were the logistics of the meal, with key condiments being hot boiled potatoes and freshly made flatbread. While we didn’t rule out this option, it did recede into the background as our dithering stretched into September and October, with their colder, wetter weather and improved forest sightlines.

Plan D: Book a chalet and make a weekend of it. This would be a rather expensive option, especially as none of us own a car.

By now it was November and T was growing anxious he’d be stuck with the ever-expanding can through the winter and into June, which might be bustin’ out all over in ways the songwriters never imagined.

Fortunately, we had a flash of inspiration. Our friends, M and D, culturally and culinarily curious and always up for an adventure, have a centre city house with a sizeable backyard. What’s more, it abuts a back alley with a storm drain just beyond the backyard gate. We hadn’t thought of them before because they have many neighbours and the backyard, enclosed by a chain-link fence, is visible to all. But in mid-November, the neighbours wouldn’t be lolling around outdoors and their windows would be shut. Plus we’d be somewhat protected by the cover of night. Feelers were put out and not rebuffed. Plans were made.

As it turned out, M, D and another friend were already slated to join T, girlfriend MJ and me for the Met Live in HD simulcast of Thomas Adès’s new opera The Exterminating Angel, based on the Buñuel film of the same name, in which the guests and hosts of a dinner party find themselves mysteriously unable to leave. Hoping we wouldn’t meet a similar fate, we scheduled our feast for after the screening.

Opera over, we headed for M&D’s as the sun was beginning to set.

The first order of business was to start making tunnbröd, the northern Swedish flatbread (literally “thin bread”) that is the traditional accompaniment. While it is reportedly stocked at IKEA, none of us wanted to schlepp out to the store to see. At the surströmming party I attended in Sweden many years ago, the tunnbröd was hard and crisp, akin to matzoh. Countless YouTube videos and surströmming websites of a far more recent vintage indicate that the soft version, something like a tortilla, is now the norm. After a bout of surfing, I settled on a recipe that, unlike some, was cooked on a stovetop griddle pan.

It was now dark out and the temperature was hovering just above freezing. The earlier drizzle had stopped but it was still a gloomy evening. This was good because no one except us was likely to be outdoors. We prepared to open the can.

T had gotten us into this mess, so he was elected to do the duty. Because the contents of the can are under pressure, a jet of fermented herring brine is released when the can is pieced. If it hits anything absorbent – gloves, a jacket, a rug, the inside of a car – the only option is to scrap the contaminated object. So, by way of precaution, we cut arm and head holes in a large garbage bag, which T donned. A large bucket was filled with water and carried out to the back of the property. The can, a can opener and T’s hands were placed in a plastic bag, which was then submerged. By the light of cellphones and flashlights, T pierced the can (which emitted the expected pfffft), lifted it out of the water, removed the bag and finished freeing the lid.

The stench, the dictionary definition of putrid, had most of us shuddering. T was quickly directed to the storm drain, down which he poured most of the juice. The can was brought back and placed in an extinct barbecue, the idea being to hide it from passers-by and protect it from curious animals while it aired. We opened all the barbecue’s vents and beat a hasty retreat indoors to start the serious drinking.

While we waited, fingerling potatoes were boiled in their jackets with a few sprigs of fresh dill. Red onions were thinly sliced. The stack of tunnbröd was brought to the table. A small brick of butter was plated and set out, as were more dill sprigs. Shot glasses of aquavit and tumblers of beer were placed near each plate. As the SAQ no longer carries aquavit, ours came from Ontario. And as Swedish beer is, as far as I know, unavailable in Quebec, we opted for Tuborg from nearby Denmark (the Carlsberg sold in Canada is, unfortunately, brewed in Canada under licence).

Finally, the can of surströmming was brought indoors and placed in the centre of the table. The stench was overwhelming but, as is widely claimed, if you sit within a few feet of the fetid fish and inhale deeply, your nose soon comes to terms with the smell. Those further away enjoyed no such respite, and the kids playing nearby quickly decamped for an upstairs bedroom with a closed door.

In my earlier experience and in almost all online documentation, the surströmming – either whole or filleted – was intact, identifiable as fish, complete with tail and skin. But the fish in our can was slightly disintegrated, the fillets and bones sitting in a beige sludge. Its slightly disgusting appearance seemed not inappropriate, however. Plus it prompted T to quip that apparently “there are no great surströmmings, only great cans.”

Two of the party could not bring themselves to essay the delicacy. The rest of us placed a tunnbröd on our plate, smeared it with butter, added sliced or mushed potato and a couple of surströmming fillets cut into pieces, scattered on onion and dill sprigs, rolled it all up, braced ourselves and took a bite.

Reactions were one of mild surprise: it didn’t taste as bad as it smelled. In fact, it didn’t taste bad at all. The wrap format made it less of a full-bore experience than the way I’d eaten it in Sweden (a bite of fish on a fork with a piece of potato and some onion, followed by a bite of buttered crispbread), which isn’t to say that the individual components – especially the fish – weren’t detectable. But, a few retronasal whiffs aside, there was nothing putrid about the fish. It tasted like preserved fish, like a mild anchovy or sardine, and had definite umami. The potatoes worked as a foil, the butter added a creamy tang, the onions brightness and the dill a fresh note. That said, the star of the show was the bread. Taking about two hours – including rising time – to make, it had a fabulous, soft but chewy texture and a deep, nutty flavour.

The aquavit – smooth in texture and refined in taste – served its intended cleansing role to perfection. The beer delivered refreshment even as it reset the palate for another round.

Most of us finished our wrap. No one asked for seconds. The question was posed: was anyone keen on doing this again? T was, of course. MJ, who could not bring herself to try the fish and who soon doused herself with perfume before heading off to join other friends at Damas, and F, who ate just a nibble, weren’t. The rest of us were somewhere in between. I said I planned to maintain my current pace of eating the specialty once every 40 years. M and D report that their kids have about forgiven them for subjecting them to an experience they deemed bordering on traumatic (and they only smelled the stuff).

The following Monday saw an email exchange about the experience, part of which I reproduce below:

M: Our house didn’t smell after, though I did have to wash the hoodie I was wearing. And our backyard smelled distinct! And our can-opener has a vinegary tang that I’m reassuring D will dissipate with time…

L: German food critic and author Wolfgang Fassbender wrote that “the biggest challenge when eating surströmming is to vomit only after the first bite, as opposed to before.”

J: That was certainly a singular gastronomic experience.

F: True story: When I got home Saturday night, my hair carried a distinct whiff of putrid swamp AND my pee smelled of asparagus…even though I consumed, literally, a single sip of wine and barely any herring!

M: A 2002 Japanese study dubbed a freshly opened tin of surströmming as the most putrid smell on Earth. Just a little FYI.

D: M tells me that the back alley still smells a bit where we dumped everything down the storm drain.

M: “Putrid stench” allegedly translates in Swedish to rubbad stank.

D: My Swedish colleague, Johan, shook my hand upon hearing of our event. He has also partaken before, but won’t do it any more. He thinks we should have been even more drunk before we ate it.

M: So because I ate the last of the cookies L brought over, I set about to making more for the boys. As I was doing so I kept getting WHIFFS OF SURSTRÖMMING.
What gives, I thought? Was it because I opened the drawer with the tainted tin opener?
No, still just faintly vinegary…
Then I looked at the butter I was using. It was the butter that C brought over that had merely been on the table while we were eating the putrid fish. I leaned in for a sniff. It had absorbed the smells. Good thing I figured this out before baking the cookies…

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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 soon become clear.

“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 having 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 sings 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.