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Supply of ‘smelly’ fermenting herring not meeting Swedish demand

Low fish catch disappoints Swedes who could not celebrate the yearly tradition of eating surströmming, a fermented herring delicacy known worldwide for its pungent smell.

COPENHAGEN, Denmark (CN) — Search “surströmming challenge” on YouTube and you will find hundreds of videos with people from around the globe trying to eat a special Swedish delicacy out of a can.

Swedes call it surströmming (sour herring) and it is fermented herring that has been trapped inside a can for around three to four months. If you dare to open one, be prepared for juices spraying far due to the high pressure created by gasses from the fermentation process.

It is highly advised to enjoy surströmming outdoors. The pungent smell is described as anything from “bad eggs” to “decomposed body” by young Swedes who have tasted the fish. The unique taste attracts Swedes, mostly residents of the northern part of the country, to keep eating this delicacy, which enthusiasts say is rich in umami.

Adding flatbread, some potatoes, diced onions, a beer and some good friends will secure you a good night. That is if you can get your hands on the fermented herring, because stores in Sweden are not meeting demand these days.

Thursday this week was surströmmingspremiär (premiere of the sour herring). It is a yearly event starting the third Thursday in August when Swedes traditionally start consuming the fish until early September. But low supply has left several Swedes who wish to celebrate disappointed in the supermarket.

Only those standing outside supermarkets in the morning had a chance to grab the valuable cans.

“It was completely insane. People have been queuing since half past seven this morning”, said shopkeeper Sandra Kreivi in Piteå located in northern Sweden to broadcaster SVT on Thursday.

It took no more than eight minutes before the store’s 350 cans of surströmming were sold.

Residents of Sundsvall in central Sweden were also out of luck. Mikael Andersson, store manager, said that around 100 cans were sold within a half hour in his shop. Customers were only allowed to buy two cans each.

Poor catch of herring and Baltic herring is to blame for the low supply of surströmming. Swedish fishermen have seen a steady decline in catches over many years, but the catch rate has dropped dramatically over the past 2-3 years, Swedish Radio reported in July.

That is something Robert Berntsson can recognize. He is the president of Surströmming Academy, a Swedish organization that aims to preserve and develop the culture surrounding this food.

“The reason we a problem with fish today is because the catch is 'super.' Big fish trawlers from Denmark sweep all the fish into their nets,” Berntsson told Courthouse News.

“That’s a real problem for us, together with the sales. If fishermen can only get 50% of what they need, they are clearly heading towards bankruptcy. And that will shut down more surströmming producers,” he said.

A confirmed reason for what is happening with the herring population in the Swedish seas has yet to come. Sweden’s National Agency for Marine and Water Management has noticed the issue. Researchers will investigate if large-scale trawling further out at sea might be the cause.

Surströmming has been adjacent to Swedish history for hundreds of years. The fermented fish erupted in northern Sweden during a salt shortage in the 16th century. With harsh yearly winters, fermenting fish was a preservation technique that proved crucial for survival without available salt.

Since then, Swedes have kept eating the dish despite its smell. Some because they like it, others to maintain Swedish traditions. But low stock on surströmmingspremiär makes keeping this tradition a difficult task.

“It is an old tradition that is beginning to end, and it's a shame,” Tommy Karlsson, a customer in Sundsvall told SVT.

“It premiered on that date, so we should preserve it, I think,” Vivianne Sjölén, another customer who was lucky enough to get two cans said.

For Berntsson, it is possible to keep the traditions alive and prevent more fermented herring producers from closing their businesses — if people are prepared to fight for it. Because the bankruptcy in the industry is already happening, and it will only get worse next year, he said.

“Surströmming is one of the oldest traditions we have. We need to be conservative about our traditions and we need to have them because it is the soul of the Swedish people. So, we should be very careful about it,” he said.

“I think it is very important that the government will make some rules to push hyper fishing from trawlers away,” Berntsson said.

If you have already browsed through the numerous “surströmming challenge” videos on YouTube, you have most likely seen people eating the fermented herring directly from the can. That is if they ever reach that far after opening the goods.

The process of eating surströmming is like going through a ritual. There is a right way of doing it. Open the can in a bowl of water to prevent spraying and limit the smell. Have it with crisped flatbread and potatoes, Berntsson advises.

“People who try this food for the first time will realize, that it does not taste as it smells,” he said.

He is afraid that videos on YouTube will prevent people from giving surströmming a try. After the first, second and third taste, the Swedish delicacy will be “very, very lovely to eat,” he assures.

“I really enjoy it and I really love it.”

Sweden’s biggest surströmming festival takes place on Saturday in Alfta, Hälsingland in the north, with few tickets left at the time of writing.

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