The sour herring premiere

Photo: Lola Akinmade Åkerström/imagebank.sweden.se

At the end of August, some brave Swedes open bulging tins of very smelly, fermented herring for a special feast. All countries have their own dreaded delicacies; Sweden has the notorious sour herring, or surströmming.

Fermented herring

Not all Swedes eat it, but the dish has become increasingly popular, even among gourmets. While sour herring is a Swedish tradition, it is also fair to say that those who eat it do so because they like the taste. No-one eats it for fun.

The dish is made from the small Baltic herring, which is caught in the spring, salted and ‘soured’ (fermented) according to a time-honoured process. About a month before it is due on the table, it is packed in hermetically sealed tins, but fermentation continues, and in time the tins swell, both on top and underneath. By tradition, most producers are to be found along the coast of northern Sweden.

As considerable pressure has built up in the tin, it should be opened under water. You then wash the herring before serving it. The tin should be opened outdoors but its contents are best eaten indoors as the smell attracts flies.

Sour herring has a strong, pungent smell of rotting fish. Enthusiasts love this smell while newcomers reel back in shock. But a well-prepared fermented herring doesn’t taste the way it smells. On the contrary. The taste is simultaneously rounded and sharp, spicy and savoury. Accoutrements are needed, however, to maintain a balance.

Tins of stinky – sorry, strong-smelling – sour herring ready to be opened and devoured.

Photo: Tina Stafrén/

How to eat the sour herring

The traditional way of eating sour herring is wrapped in a ‘thin-bread’ sandwich (klämma). You butter the bread, place the gutted herring on it together with slices of almond-shaped potato (mandelpotatis) and chopped onion, fold it up and eat it with your hands.

The slight sweetness of the potato and onion offsets the sharp, intense taste of the fish perfectly. In northern areas, people butter their bread with soft whey-cheese made from goat’s milk (getmessmör), as well as with ordinary butter.

The sour herring premiere takes place at the end of August, when the spring catch comes onto the market. True enthusiasts, however, eat the previous year’s vintage. By that time, the herring is fully matured and tender.

Po Tidholm & Agneta Lilja

Po Tidholm is a freelance journalist and a critic based in the province of Hälsingland. In the collection 'Celebrating the Swedish Way', he has written the main sections about how we celebrate in Sweden today. ||| Agneta Lilja is a lecturer in ethnology at Södertörn University College, Stockholm. She also writes reviews and appears on radio and tv. In the collection 'Celebrating the Swedish Way', Lilja has written the sections about the history of Swedish traditions and festivities.