ULRIKA BENGTSSON'S warm-hearted, cottage-like restaurant, Ulrika's
(115 East 60th Street; 212-355-7069), may be the best place in New
York to sample not only the taste but also the look of Sweden. The
herring appetizer includes five irresistibly succulent variations
on a theme, just a bite of each, plus a couple of small wedges of
Vasterbotten cheese and a boiled potato the size of an acorn. All
varieties, including mustard, tomato and matjes, are house-made.
October 30, 2002
Herring, the Fish That Roared
By R. W. APPLE Jr.
ELLOS, Sweden — CAPT. BO CHRISTIANSON, the skipper of the
Ron, a sturdy 115-foot trawler out of Fiskeback, a small port on Sweden's
west coast, warned me to be careful. The deck was covered with slippery
silver scales. Then he lifted a hatch so I could see the night's catch
in the hold below: tens of thousands of beautiful fish, 8 to 10 inches
long, with bluish backs, iridescent sides and gold eyes, kept fresh
in a bath of refrigerated sea water.
Herring. Clupea harengus.
Men like Captain Christianson have put to sea for centuries
in search of herring; Scandinavian burial mounds dating from Neolithic
times contain herring bones. Humble though it may be, and about as
glamorous as a galosh, it is a fish that has shaped the political
and social history of Europe like no other, with the possible exception
of cod. The Hanseatic League, the medieval economic guild, came into
being because the Germans had the salt that the Scandinavians coveted
as a preservative for their herrings, and British and Dutch sea power
was built on the back of the herring trade.
Herrings remain a staple in the diets of northern Europeans
— not only the Scandinavians but also the Dutch, British, Germans
The French grill them and serve them with mustard sauce.
The British cool-smoke them, turning them into breakfast kippers.
The Germans fillet them, cure them and wrap them around onions or
pickles to make rollmops.
We Americans are not great herring-eaters, although we
speak of misleading data as "red herrings" (because smoked herrings
were once used by poachers to throw dogs off a fox's scent). And we
sing of "darling Clementine," who shod her feet, size 9, with "herring
boxes without topses."
Smoked, salted or pickled in countless ways, flavored with
mustard or curry, tomatoes or dill, Scandinavian herrings have manifold
virtues. They keep well, in some cases without refrigeration. They
are packed with proteins and healthy oils. They are cheap, versatile
At least to me they are, although I admit that every time
I tell certain of my friends I'm bound for Sweden, they make sour
faces and mutter, "Yuk, herring." I guess they think herrings are
slimy or smelly or something. Well, they aren't, not in the hands
of a capable cook. Pickled herrings are plump, firm and rich, suffused
with the sweetness of the sugar and the contrasting tartness of the
vinegar in their brine. Believe me, they beat a shrimp cocktail every
time for jolting a jaded palate.
Swedes don't eat as much herring as they once did; there
are too many options that didn't exist a century ago. For many people,
for example, cereal and yogurt have supplanted herring at breakfast.
But herrings are still deeply rooted in national tradition.
"The first new potato of the year is still an excuse for
eating herring," said Ulrika Bengtsson, who once cooked for the Swedish
consul general in New York and now runs a restaurant on the Upper
East Side specializing in husmanskost, or Swedish home cooking. "So
is Easter, and so is midsummer, and the midwinter holiday that we
call Lucia, and Christmas, of course."
Herrings are, in fact, accorded special status in the Swedish
language. A sole or a plaice or a turbot is a plain old "fisk," or
fish. But a herring, as Bertil Adolfsson, chairman of the Swedish
West Coast Fisherman's Organization, told me emphatically, "is something
special: it's a sill, not a fish." A sill, that is, if it comes from
the Skagerrak or the Kattegat or the North Sea; if it comes from the
less salty Baltic Sea, off the east coast of Sweden, it will be smaller
and less oily, and it will be called a stromming.
SINCE time immemorial, herrings have moved in vast shoals,
migrating every year from one area to another in seemingly fixed patterns,
then mysteriously failing to show up, leaving fishing fleets with
nothing to catch. It happened at Marstrand in Sweden a century ago,
after many decades when you could scoop the fish from the harbor with
buckets; at Scheveningen in the Netherlands in the 1950's, and at
Siglufjordur and all over Iceland in 1968. Overfishing was certainly
a significant factor.
But for the moment, regulations imposed by the European
Community and by Baltic governments appear to have improved the situation.
Boats from the Swedish west coast are limited this year to 34,917
metric tons from local waters (the Skagerrak and the Kattegat) and
47,102 metric tons from the Baltic. They were also barred from fishing
between June 22 and Aug. 5.
The week I visited him, Captain Christianson, a fifth-generation
fisherman, sailed on Sunday and dropped his net about 9 o'clock that
night as the fish rose toward the surface. He lifted it five hours
later, then dropped it again for a shorter trawl. By 9 o'clock Monday
morning, he was tied up at the Paul Mattson processing plant here
in Ellos, 40 miles north of Goteborg on a stretch of granitic, heavily
indented coastline much like Maine's.
Grabbing a nine-inch-wide rubber hose awaiting him on the
dock, he plunged it into the hold, switched on the pumps and soon
30 tons of herring, plus the chilled seawater keeping the fish cold,
were headed into the plant. There, gleaming stainless-steel machinery
sorts the fish according to size, culling imperfect ones and sending
them to a fish-meal factory. Those that survive go onto six filleting
lines. A few fillets are shipped fresh, either directly to Goteborg,
to be sold in the city's famous fish market, known as the Fish Church
because of its odd Gothic design, or elsewhere. But most go into plastic
barrels filled with pickling brine.
That, I had thought, would be it, but no. After they have
been filled, the barrels are shuttled to storerooms tunneled into
a cliff behind the plant. At any given time, 15,000 of them are stored
there, at 32 to 35 degrees Fahrenheit. They stay for up to a year,
maturing like casks of wine or brandy. The length of time and the
makeup of the brine in each lot is specified by the customer.
About 60 percent of Mattson's output goes abroad, mainly
to Germany, and the rest goes to processors in Sweden, like Abba,
whose products are widely sold in the United States, or to markets
or restaurants. They add sauces or flavorings.
The permutations are endless. At Melanders Fisk, a leading
fishmonger in Stockholm, I counted eight varieties, all house-made
— marinated herring (with sour cream), spiced herring, herring in
mustard sauce, herring with garlic, herring in curry sauce, herring
in tomato sauce, glassblowers' herring and matjes herring. Matjes
means maiden, and matjes herring is made from female fish that have
not spawned. Glassblowers' herring is made by pouring pickling liquid
into a glass jar filled with layers of salt herring, sliced onions,
carrots, horseradish root and ginger, and seasoned with allspice,
bay leaves and mustard seed.
In the canned and bottled fish section of a typical supermarket
in southern Sweden, I counted no less than 24 varieties of herring,
many available in several different brands.
I've met plenty of herring I didn't like. I find the odor
of surstromming, fermented Baltic herring, unspeakably foul. Sotare,
or chimney sweeps, which are herrings grilled until soot-black, don't
do a whole lot for me, either.
BUT bockling, or hot-smoked herrings, are a joy, the flesh
moist and delicate. And there will always be a place on my table for
Janssons Frestelse, or Jansson's Temptation, named for a cleric, opposed
on principle to pleasure, who couldn't resist it. It's a simple dish,
essentially scalloped potatoes cooked with sliced onions and anchovies.
But there's a catch. The anchovies the Swedes use aren't anchovies
at all but tiny herrings pickled with sugar and sandalwood. Standard
anchovies are too salty.
The various smoked and pickled herrings claim pride of
place on the smorgasbord, the traditional Swedish buffet, occupying
one end of the table and eaten first. Modern life has been hard on
the smorgasbord, which at its most lavish can hold 60 or more items.
The resplendent buffet at the Operkalleren in Stockholm, initiated
in the 1960's by the great restaurateur Tore Wretman, is no more,
but Ulriksdals Wardshus, north of town, still sets a sumptuous table.
Much more commonly encountered these days is the herring
plate as a first course — tidbits of three to six herring preparations,
almost always accompanied by crisp bread or a brown bread flavored
with molasses or malt. A boiled potato usually comes along for the
ride, and often a slice or two of Vasterbotten cheese as well.
Vasterbotten is a potent item, too little known outside
Sweden, with the texture of Cheddar and the bite of Parmesan. Made
in 40-pound wheels in the remote province northeast of Stockholm for
which it is named, it is aged for 11 months. The best comes from the
village of Burtrask.
But cheese with fish? It works; perhaps the sharpness of
the cheese provides a counterpoint to the richness of the herring.
Two presentations seemed exceptional to my wife, Betsey,
and me as we nibbled herring all across Sweden last summer. One was
the fat, luscious matjes filet at Norrlands Bar and Grill, one of
Stockholm's hip new restaurants. It came to the table warm, showered
with chives and chopped red onion. A kettle of brown butter for dipping
came with it. Casual Norrlands may be, but not with food and drink;
the mandatory aquavit was served in wittily anthropomorphic mini-carafes
The other winner was offered by Leif Mannerstrom at Sjomagasinet,
a seafood Valhalla in Goteborg, housed in an old Swedish East India
Company warehouse. At Christmas, he told me, he lays out a hearthside
feast including 16 kinds of herring and serves 10,000 people in 22
We settled for less, but it was still remarkable. The herrings
came in handsome black iron pots cradled in ice, and the spread included
not only pickled herring in horseradish and sour cream but also mild
fried stromming. Both were new to us, and delicious. The mustard sauce
was better than most, brightened by masses of chopped dill. There
were two kinds of Vasterbotten, with cumin and without. And the bottle
of aquavit — O. P. Anderson, Goteborg's favorite — had its own icy
place of honor.
Aquavit, if you haven't had the pleasure, is a caraway-flavored
spirit, colorless but lethal. For foreigners, it is often the prelude
to a three-hour nap. For Swedes, it is always an invitation to song,
much of it ribald. Not surprisingly, the favorite is "Helan Gar" —
roughly "Bottoms Up!"