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9 September, 2004

Swedish Traditional Meals

Part 1: Surstromming Party

Last night was quite a treat - an introduction to a traditional late summer Swedish meal - a Surstromming Party. This meal had been talked of and described as "Rotten Herring" or "Fermented Herring", neither of which seemed parcticularly appealing. Yet this dinner was about so much more than the menu; the preparation had been going on for several days.

The party started later than our regular dinner, at 6:00 in the mess. The walls of the mess were decorated in fish nets, with silver cut-outs of herring caught in the nets, silver paper dolls and silver snowflakes. Set at our places were songbooks with a traditional Swedish "snapsvisa", or snaps song, as well as songs that were specifically composed for this expedition. A group of us adapted commonly known English songs with lyrics to reflect the ACEX cruise which was great fun. There was a welcome speech by Anders Vikstrom, Assistant Fleet Captain, and Co-chief Jan Backman gave us some insight into the tradition and history of eating fermented herring. Historically the herring was caught in the spring, put into wooden barrels with salt and left for several months. During canning the fermentation process continues. The cans are usually opened at the end of the current summer, yet some people prefer to eat the herring that had been canned the year before. Last night we ate this year's herring.

After the greetings came a processional of trays of herring cans and burning candles. There was an elaborate opening of the cans by servers dressed in lab coats, gas masks and hard hats. Usually the cans are opened outdoors or under water because of the awful smell that comes from the fermentation process. It can linger for weeks.

After days of build-up with alternating opinions about the fish - "it is dreadful" - "it is wonderful" - I was definitely intrigued. With coaching from my table-mates I skinned the herring, and wrapped it in bread with potatoes, butter and red onions, and took a bite. Not too bad! A little salty for my taste but that is why it is served with plenty of beverages. There is also a tradition where the person who eats the fewest herring must wear a funny "herring hat". The hat looked rather like a silver dunce cap with fins on top. I think I did pretty well, eating four of the herring and did not have to wear the hat. Most of the dinner guests had not partaken of this rotten herring dish before so there was a lot of good-natured kidding and teasing by the native Swedes.

The entertainment session followed with the performance of the specially-composed songs. Several song-writers, myself included, led the sing-along and everyone joined in with guitar accompaniment. Even those folks spoofed in the songs laughed and sang. All-in-all it was a very enjoyable and special evening enjoying this Swedish tradition.

Part 2: Pea Soup and Pancakes - It Must be Thursday!

Tonight, being Thursday, meant another tradition, one we were already familiar with - Pea Soup and Pancakes. Everyone has learned to look forward to this special meal. One day can seem like any other when you are working a set schedule on a ship, and this dinner lets us know what day of the week it is and marks the passing of another week. Erik and I took a tour of the kitchen earlier in the expedition and went back to the kitchen today to check on the making of the pea soup. A huge vat of split-pea and ham soup was simmering away this afternoon. It took me a couple of weeks to decide how best to garnish the first course, my soup, with the many options: various herbs, spices, onions, and mustard. The other course I had no trouble garnishing; I top the folded thin pancakes with two types of jam and ice cream. I tried a variation with a small slice of bleu cheese and jam one week and although some people praise the sweet and sharp combination, it was not for me. A small cup of sweet and warm liquor called punch is a beverage traditionally served along with the pancakes. I parcticularly savored the punch, pancakes and pea soup tonight as this was the last Thursday dinner of the expedition.

Maria cooking the Thursday night special, pea soup

The opening of the surstromming cans, a delicate process. (photo by Per Frejvall)

The long-awaited Surstromming, fermented or "rotten" herring.

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