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…