Sunday, 30 March 2008

The smell of fermented fish

Some of you will recall my visit to Sweden last August.

Being an interested traveller, I was eager to try things traditionally Swedish, and I did my best to do so, even if some of them proved to be...not quite to my taste.

One of the things I bought was surströmming, which, as any online contributor-authored encyclopedia will tell you, is a Swedish delicacy based on the concept of preservation without salt. In short, it's fermented fish (specifically Baltic herring), in a can. The fermentation continues after the canning process, with the result that the tins begin to bulge at top and bottom over time.

Surströmming is famous for its smell, which is legendary, and supposedly so terrible that it's been banned from all sorts of places. What I do know is that when I told my Swedish friends that I'd bought it, they banned me from opening it when they were around. If I'm honest, that was part of the attraction for me. I mean, fermented fish. In a can. That smells bad. What's not to like?

All of which happy preamble brings us up to date, because today I decided to open up the surströmming and see what all the fuss was about. Just to be sure, I put on an old pair of jeans, and a tired t-shirt. And I went to the far end of the garden with my can opener and my can of fermented fish.

Now I am not a stupid man. I appreciated that the bulging of the can indicated a certain amount of pressure on the inside, which would quite probably result in an explosive discharge of some sort when I breached the can. So when I placed the can down, and applied the opener, I was prepared for the sudden explosion of fish. I was alert, ready, poised to leap clear.

What I was not prepared for was the single drop of milky liquid that seeped leisurely and languidly from the puncture hole. Anti-climax!

It was then that I made my big mistake; I relaxed. I leaned in a little closer to re-apply the opener.

Which is precisely when the no-longer-expected explosion occured, spraying my face and head with foul-smelling fish liquor.

Let's just take a moment to explore that phrase a little. By "foul-smelling fish liquor", I mean off-the-scale foul-smelling. I mean powerfully awfully horrible. I mean stench rather than aroma. Leave-the-room bad. Look, just trust me on this. It's like nothing else I've ever smelled - and I've smelled some things in my time, let's be honest. But that's not for here.

Drenched, sticky, stinking, I poured off the liquor carefully, and was left with a half a can of slick-looking - alive-looking, actually - fish. My appetite suddenly deserted me - but only momentarily, I was quite certain. I set the can to one side, and went to scrub myself back to my usual aroma.

And that, friends, is all I can remember about that.

No comments: