“Time for a blueberry break!” announced my Swedish Squeeze whilst hiking through beautiful Skuleskogan National Park. Surrounded by dark green forests riddled with ancient granite outcroppings playing artfully with multiple bodies of water, this part of northern Sweden reminds me very much of northern Ontario in Canada. Except there are a few delicacies in Sweden that I’ve never had anywhere else (and sadly, may never find anywhere else either)…not the least of which is Surströmming.
This post was originally published in 2011. It has since been updated for accuracy of links and content.
But not all of these Swedish delicacies are what people would refer to as “enjoyable”.
Let’s start with the unanimously agreeable delicacies and work from there, shall we?
Berries in Sweden
Berries of all sorts are rampant in northern Sweden. Lingonberries (little red circular berries) make great preserves to go with meat or yoghurt, and Cloudberries (resembling yellow raspberries) are rightly referred to as “gold of the forest”.
Berry picking verges on a national sport here. Empty cars regularly line the highways, its occupants on a berry-picking mission. At dinner the other night, it was announced that some friends of my hosts had just picked 40 litres of lingonberries (all for personal consumption no less). It doesn’t matter who owns the property either; you can pick berries/fruit off any property as long as you’re not within sight-lines of the home.
Blueberries grow wild in many places around the world, but not as prolifically as I found in northern Sweden. They’re everywhere – and they’re delicious! I could have been stranded in the forest and happily survived for quite some time on blueberries alone.
So with increasingly blue hands and tongues, we helped ourselves to an appetizer of blueberries on the trail before finding the perfect spot for a picnic lunch, where we enjoyed some more Swedish delicacies:
“Ick! You told her about what?!” was the response of a friend we had dinner with in Stockholm when my Swedish Squeeze relayed his fondness for kaviar to me. “That stuff is full of junk! Ah well; give it a try I guess,” she said as she put some on the table with some Tunnbröd. I thought it curious that despite her reaction, she had it in her fridge nonetheless.
As it sounds, kaviar is a derivative of caviar – fish roe. But this popular incantation is doctored up with a bunch of preservatives and sugar and made available as a sort of paste in a tube. Despite the sugar content, kaviar is extremely salty, and at first I didn’t like it. But when the palate is properly prepared for it, and it’s served correctly (my favourite being with a hard-boiled egg), I learned to quite enjoy it.
“Now if you want to try something nice, try Messmör,” said the same Stockholm friend. And out of the fridge came this margarine-like substance, also meant to be spread on Tunnbröd (but not with kaviar). This mildly sweet spread reminiscent of caramel with hints of vanilla was immediately enjoyable. Despite its sweetness, it can be served at any time of day (along with Tunnbröd, which appeared at almost every meal I ate in Sweden). It is liberally spread on breads and enjoyed much the way you’d enjoy butter or margarine.
Messmör is basically whey (the liquid leftover when you make cheese), boiled and boiled and boiled down to a paste, then sweetened with a hint of vanilla. Although it tastes a little too good to be healthy, apparently it’s relatively guilt-free.
When we moved from Stockholm to Örnsköldsvik – the town with three ski jumps in the middle – in northern Sweden, the household didn’t have any Messmör. Knowing that barring a return trip to Sweden this was likely my only chance to enjoy it, I humbly bought some at a grocery store and presented it at dinner one night. Everybody laughed, and I became playfully known for my love of Messmör, but I’ll note that I wasn’t the only person to enjoying it at most meals for the rest of the week!
Tunnbröd literally means “thin bread”, and these thin hard flatbreads can be (and in my experience were) served with every meal. Eat it plain with margarine, or add some cheese, sliced meat, tomatoes, or Messmör. Eat it open-faced, or snap it in half to enjoy it sandwich-style. Anything goes.
Although I’m not much of a bread fan (and can count the number of times I had wheat-based products during an entire summer in Canada on one hand), I found Tunnbröd quite addictive.
All of the above Swedish delicacies are well-accepted parts of Swedish culture and ingredients found in most Swedish kitchens. Surströmming, by contrast, is a love-it-or-hate-it sort of food, and I would wager that a good percentage of people who love it do so because it’s so easy to hate.
Literally meaning “sour strömming (herring)”, it’s fermented herring (fish). (Fermented ultimately being a euphemism for rotten, I think).
(And yes, I even tried some. More on that shortly).
In the video below, I tell the story of how Surströmming quite accidentally came to pass in the 1800s, at the hands of a bunch of Swedish sailors.
You’ll find cans of the stuff in the grocery store (alongside other types of herring, mostly pickled – which is delicious), and some cans are literally bulging at the seams. This is because the fermentation process continues beyond the canning, and in fact many airlines ban Surströmming because of the possibly explosive side effects at altitude.
And when you’re talking about rotten fish, explosions can be quite disastrous.
In fact, the Japanese released a study that cites the act of opening a can of Surströmming to unleash the worst smell of food in the world. This is a title I had formerly understood to be held by durian fruit, but after having the full Surströmming experience, I’d have to agree that it blows durian out of the water.
Despite this less-than-favourable introduction, Surströmming is nonetheless considered a Swedish delicacy, and if some people enjoy it, then I simply had to see what the appeal was. This experiment in trying something new turned into a family affair with my hosts pulling out all the stops to make this an experience for me.
Did I make it past opening the can? Could I manage to get past the smell to try it?
Watch this video to find out!