Supply of ‘smelly’ fermented herring fails to meet Swedish demand
The Swedes call it surströmming (sour herring) and it is fermented herring that has been trapped in a box for about three to four months. If you dare open one, be prepared for the juices to spray away due to the high pressure created by the gases from the fermentation process.
It is strongly advised to enjoy surströmming outdoors. The pungent smell is described as anything from “rotten eggs” to “rotten bodies” by young Swedes who have tasted the fish. The unique taste attracts Swedes, mostly residents in the north of the country, to continue eating this delicacy, which enthusiasts say is rich in umami.
Adding some flatbread, potatoes, diced onions, a beer, and a few good friends will ensure you have a good night’s sleep. That’s if you can get your hands on fermented herring, as stores in Sweden aren’t keeping up with demand these days.
Thursday this week was surströmmingspremiär (sour herring premiere). This is an annual event that begins on the third Thursday in August, when Swedes traditionally start consuming the fish until early September. But the low supply has left several Swedes who want to celebrate disappointed with the supermarket.
Only those who stood outside the supermarkets in the morning had the chance to grab the precious cans.
“It was completely crazy. People have been queuing for half past seven this morning,” shopkeeper Sandra Kreivi in Piteå, located in northern Sweden, told the SVT television channel on Thursday.
It took no more than eight minutes for the store’s 350 cans of surströmming to sell out.
Residents of Sundsvall in central Sweden were also unlucky. Mikael Andersson, store manager, said around 100 cans were sold in half an hour at his store. Customers were only allowed to buy two cans each.
The poor catches of herring and Baltic herring are to blame for the low surströmming supply. Swedish fishermen have seen a steady decline in catches for many years, but the catch rate has dropped dramatically over the past 2-3 years, Swedish Radio reported in July.
This is something Robert Berntsson can recognize. He is the president of Surströmming Academy, a Swedish organization that aims to preserve and develop the culture surrounding this food.
“The reason we have a problem with the fish today is because the catch is ‘great’. Big Danish trawlers scoop all the fish into their nets,” Berntsson told Courthouse News.
“It’s a real problem for us, with sales. If fishermen can only get 50% of what they need, they are clearly heading for bankruptcy. And that will shut down more surströmming producers,” he said.
A confirmed reason for what is happening with the herring population in Swedish seas is yet to come. The Swedish National Agency for Marine and Water Management noticed the problem. Researchers will investigate whether large-scale trawling further out to sea could be the cause.
Surströmming has been part of Swedish history for hundreds of years. Fermented fish broke out in northern Sweden during a salt shortage in 16e century. With harsh annual winters, fermenting fish was a preservation technique that proved crucial for survival without available salt.
Since then, Swedes have continued to eat the dish despite its smell. Some because they like it, others to maintain Swedish traditions. But the low stock of surströmmingspremiär makes it difficult to maintain this tradition.
“It’s an old tradition that’s starting to die out, and that’s a shame,” Sundsvall customer Tommy Karlsson told SVT.
“It was created on this date, so we should keep it, I think,” said Vivianne Sjölén, another customer who was lucky enough to get two cans.
For Berntsson, it is possible to keep traditions alive and prevent more fermented herring producers from closing their businesses – if people are willing to fight for it. Because the bankruptcy of the industry is already underway, and it will only get worse next year, he said.
“Surströmming is one of the oldest traditions we have. We have to be conservative about our traditions and we have to have them because that’s the soul of the Swedish people. So we have to be very careful about that,” he said.
“I think it’s very important that the government sets rules to keep hyperfishing away from trawlers,” Berntsson said.
If you’ve ever browsed through the many “surströmming challenge” videos on YouTube, you’ve most likely seen people eating the fermented herring straight from the can. That is, if they ever get that far after opening the goods.
The process of eating surströmming is like going through a ritual. There is a right way to do it. Open the container in a bowl of water to avoid splashing and limit the smell. Eat it with crusty flatbread and potatoes, advises Berntsson.
“People who try this food for the first time will find that it doesn’t taste like it smells,” he said.
He fears that videos on YouTube will prevent people from trying surströmming. After the first, second and third taste, the Swedish delicacy will be “very, very pleasant to eat”, he assures.
“I really appreciate it and I really love it.”
Sweden’s biggest surströmming festival takes place in Alfta, Hälsingland in the north on Saturday, with few tickets remaining at the time of writing.
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