For National Day last week, my friend Steve decided we should do something really Swedish.
Steve has made many appearances on this blog before: debating leaving modern life behind to become a Viking in Foteviken, hosting a massive American-style brunch at his house just to have an excuse to drink a pitcher of Bloody Mary, utilizing the Force in making gingerbread Christmas tree ornaments.
And now, thanks to Steve, we have crossed off yet another adventure in expat life in Sweden: pickling our own herring.
…and that’s how I ended up skinning a kilo of herring.
Like most people in Sweden, Steve considers the Midsummer celebrations one of the highlights of the year.
Unlike most people in Sweden, Steve started planning for The Best Midsummer Ever sometime last fall, about the same time as the leaves started changing color.
Now that it’s finally June, the excitement is reaching new heights.
Perhaps that’s why Steve decided that this year, store-bought herring would not be making the cut. Perhaps that’s why he decided that, in order to increase the authenticity factor, we (notice how I suddenly became involved) would be pickling our own herring for Midsummer.
[2011 blog post: HOLY HERRING! Sweden's secret lifeblood]
The search was on.
Once the decision was made—by gum, herring will be pickled!—we formed a committee to determine the strategic execution of Operation Midnight Pickle.
First stop: Fiskehoddorna in Malmö, where fishermen and women gather to sell whatever’s been freshly caught.
The two of us trekked out to the pier on a cold and windy morning only to be met with disappointment. The fish market is closed on Mondays.
On to Plan B. We made a quick visit to the library, where we perused the cookbook section for some herring recipes. Leif Mannerström, master of all things fish- and sea-related, was our choice of pickled herring guru.
We decided to meet up again two days later. I would buy the herring at the Saluhallen in Lund, and Steve would requisition the rest. My kitchen, 2 pm.
Off to market…
I should probably start off this part of the story by telling you that unflavored pickled herring in cans does exist and is widely available at grocery stores. You can use this kind of herring to bypass the fish prep so that all you have to do is add the spices you want to the mixture.
Employing timesaving shortcuts was not really in the game plan, though.
So off I went to the Saluhallen in Lund to procure a kilo of fresh herring and 4 large salted herring filets from Iceland.
This was supposed to be a simple in-and-out kind of errand, but no. Note to anyone who romanticizes ”the good old days” when separate markets existed for every kind of grocery item (cheese, fish, meat, fruit and vegetables, etc.): that arrangement is totally not feasible for people who work from 8 am to 5 pm.
Now that I am officially a small business owner and therefore my own boss, I can rearrange my schedule to accommodate the local businesses, which is good, because it took a ridiculously long time to walk all over town to pick up the fish in one spot and the whole allspice berries in another and go home again.
Day two of being an independent consultant and I almost had to fire myself.
Slicing, dicing, and skinning
I knew that making this pickled herring would be an adventure in terms of smells, but I did not realize until I got home Tuesday afternoon that I would have to (a) do the pickling by myself 24 hours before Steve came over to help with the sauces and (b) skin the darn things.
And of course, I realized this around 3:30 pm, so the first thing that runs through my head is “Simon’s going to be home from work in about half an hour, and if I don’t move quickly, he’s going to catch me in the middle of turning our kitchen into a stinky herring wasteland.”
Which is, of course, exactly what happened.
Simon walked through the door, called out “Hello!”, and then there was this pause in which I could tell that the air was being sniffed and evaluated for the source of the smell.
Two seconds later and he had turned the corner into the kitchen where he found me surrounded by fish filets on one side and the slimy, shiny skins in a heap on the other. He laughed, shook his head, hugged me gingerly from an angle where he was unlikely to get slimed, and went off to the other room, leaving me with the pile of un-skinned fishies just looking at me, waiting to be taken care of.
Gross, gross, gross.
At long last, I was done, and into the pickling solution went the fish to wait out the night before National Day.
A little unorthodox, but very patriotic
That’s how I like to think of our National Day celebrations — a little unorthodox, but very patriotic in its own way.
While most people were watching parades and picnicking (or, equally likely, sleeping in), Steve and I were hard at work doing something that was very Swedish about 50-100 years ago.
These days, people mostly buy their pickled herring (or sill, as it’s called in Swedish) in a jar from the grocery store or ready made at the same fish market that I bought the fresh herring from.
Yes, Steve and I are obviously insane, but that was probably a pre-existing condition. At least, I’m pretty sure it was in my case.
And besides, despite it being a lot of work, making sill was pretty fun. We had no idea what we were doing, really, and yet it looks like it still turned out alright.
Plus: expat bragging rights. Have you ever pickled your own herring?
Try it yourself!
We’ll be opening the jars again for Midsummer, so I can’t vouch for the taste yet, but senapssill (or pickled herring in mustard sauce) is one of the most widely-beloved and mildest tasting pickled herrings out there. If you’re even a little bit curious, I totally recommend this.
Plus, it’s a Leif Mannerström recipe, and he really is the authority when it comes to cooking fish in Sweden. (He’s a judge on Top Chef Sweden, and I love him.)
Note: you don’t have to pickle the herring yourself. You can just as easily buy it in a jar, preserved most often in water or wine, then drain and add it to the sauce.
This recipe assumes that you will pickle fresh herring yourself, which we did, but you can skip day one (and all the fish-skinning) if you buy your herring pre-pickled.
Senapssill / Pickled Herring in Mustard Sauce
Makes the amount you see above in the jar on the left.
400 g herring filet
3 dl water
1 dl ättiksprit (12%)
2 T sugar
1 T salt
2 T white wine vinegar
½ dl oil
½ dl crème fraiche
4 T sugar
2 T spicy mustard
1 T Dijon mustard
2 T mayonnaise
1 pinch of salt
½ t ground white pepper
½ medium-sized yellow onion
2 bunches of finely chopped dill* (only the branches, not the stem)
1 bunch of finely sliced chives
*We added considerably less dill because it seemed like a lot and Steve is not a big fan. No idea how he survives Swedish cuisine.
Serve with bread
The full version:
Day 1: Prepare the herring by skinning it. Mix the ingredients for the pickling solution together in a jar, then add the herring. Let it rest, chilled, overnight. Stir with a spoon once so the solution comes into contact with all the herring.
Day 2: Mix together all the ingredients for the mustard sauce except the onion, dill, and chives in a bowl. Add salt and pepper to taste. Then add onion, dill, and chives.
Remove the herring from the pickling solution and let it drip-dry in a strainer. Then carefully add them into the mustard sauce and let sit for 24 hours. Carefully stir at least one time so that the sauce is equally dispersed. Serve with bread!
The simplified version:
Buy unflavored pickled herring (often available outside of Sweden in wine), and then start from day two.