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Friday, September 7, 2012

The Multimillion  Dollar Surstromming Herring Industry: Stinking Herring Only the Swedes Could Love 


Sweden Has Champagne Aspirations for Its Smelly Fermented Herring

August Tasters Sniff at the Very Thought; Applying to Europe for Protection

ALFTA, Sweden—Lisa Englund probably wasn't thinking straight when she agreed to give Scandinavia's most notorious culinary classic a try.
At summer's end, more than a thousand locals gather in Alfa, Sweden, to eat fermented fish known as Surströmming. WSJ's John Stoll tries out the notoriously smelly fish.
"I've made a promise to my grandmother that I would eat at least one fish," the 21-year-old law-school student said while holding a cracker loaded up with onions, potatoes and pinkish-brown meat. She had just taken the first bite. "I wish I could say I like it, but I really don't."
Sitting in a hockey rink in Alfta, a small farming town nearly three hours north of Stockholm, Ms. Englund was home from college for an annual end-of-summer rite. It is here that 1,300 locals pull out all the stops—drinking, dancing, singing while standing on chairs, and skinny dipping.
But most important, the crowd digs into a meal of nearly rotten Baltic herring known as surströmming. "It smells," Karin Boström Wiklund, the Alfta event's main organizer, admitted while uncovering trays of fermented herring.
The way surströmming is made explains why it smells so bad. Fish caught in the spring off the Gulf of Bothnia coast are packed into a barrel with salty brine that prevents them from rotting entirely. The fish ferment in the barrel for a month or so, aging in a stew of lactic acid bacteria and enzymes.
Surströmming is then sealed in big round cans, with pressure building up so aggressively inside that they bulge at both ends—and sometimes burst.

Sweden's Smelly Culinary Classic

Ola SvärdhagenOla Sv?rdhagen
Opening a can of surströmming is an art, or a science. Some people first punch a small hole in the tin with a can opener, to relieve the pressure. Some advocate submerging the can in water while opening it, just to avoid the strong odor. Some take the can outdoors and open it at arm's length, letting the smell dissipate in the open air, then clean the fish.
The European Union, in recent years, has maintained that surströmming is toxic and has threatened a ban. Swedes, meanwhile, are mounting a campaign to have surströmming treated with the same reverence that is given to caviar, Champagne and Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Surströmming has been around for centuries. Unable to afford enough salt to preserve fish over a harsh Nordic winter, Swedes turned to fermentation to keep herring edible, or even a delicious acquired taste.
"I try hard to think of apple sauce when I eat it," Anders Frisk, a 39-year-old who came from the neighboring town Edsbyn to sit with friends around a campfire before the Alfta event. "Really, I'm here for the party."
Despite the stench, Alfta's revelers are among a growing throng of Swedes expected to swallow at least a morsel of the salty fermented herring during the late-summer weeks that constitute surströmming season. Conny Roth, a retired economist who now helps steer the Swedish academy of fermented herring, estimates that about 700,000 cans of the fish will be consumed in 2012.
Mr. Roth said surströmming consumption has been increasing for several years—this despite the attempt by the EU to ban it because of concerns that high levels of dioxin and PCBs found in fermented herring may be hazardous, particularly to pregnant women and children.
Officials in Sweden managed to win a temporary exemption that lasted between 2002 and 2011.
When that expired, the EU granted a permanent exemption with one catch: Sweden needed to inform citizens of the supposed dangers of surströmming. So the government set up a Web page to let people know if the smell or taste didn't bother them, the chemicals might.
Ms. Wiklund, the Alfta party organizer, shrugs off the EU's concerns.
"One would have to eat thousands of fermented herrings for it to be dangerous, so I'm not worried."

Having won a permanent reprieve—a move that preserves a multimillion-dollar industry and saves hundreds of jobs—Swedes are now trying to push it one further. Mr. Roth, along with the academy of fermented herring, is working to get a coveted EU "origin protection" for surströmming.
If successful, only surströmming produced in Sweden could be identified as the genuine article. The academy will submit its application to the EU in the fall, Mr. Roth said.
Despite being a national hero, surströmming remains largely a social outcast.
Airlines have banned surströmming cans onboard, threatening passengers with a $50,000 fine if one should open in the cabin or cargo bay.
Mr. Roth says he now actually likes surströmming and can eat several fish in one sitting. But it wasn't always thus. "Initially, I found both the taste and smell of it despicable, but I figured I had eat it to impress my then-to-be wife," Mr. Roth said. "Gradually over the years, I have learned to love it."
The swanky Sturehof, located in Stockholm's ultraposh Östermalm district, is a popular haunt for bankers, executives, politicians and tourists. When the terrace is converted for its annual surströmming tasting, the place becomes even more popular.
"We're always fully booked the day we serve fermented herring," Ola Stålnacke, the restaurant's head chef, said. Jacob Holmström, head chef at nearby Gastrologik, describes the fish as "fearsome" and "one of the most extreme foods in the world." He doesn't hesitate to use it as a key ingredient in sauces served with raw scallops and crispy radishes.

A version of this article appeared September 4, 2012, on page A1 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Sweden Has Champagne Aspirations for Its Smelly Fermented Herring.

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