The Scandinavian Herring Adventure


In the early Middle Ages, the sound between Sweden and Denmark was so full of herrings that the water seemed to boil. When the fish migrated in and out of the Baltic in early spring, and back again in the autumn, they were so abundant that they could be caught by hand, and were landed in thousands of tons.

The Scandinavian Herring Adventure
The Øresund Coas

Fishing and salting stalls were put up along the shore, and the fish were salted in huge barrels and traded along the Baltic coast for salt, amber, weaponry and iron.

The Scandinavian Herring Adventure
Øresund map

This ‘Herring Adventure’ and the commerce following it, marked the beginning of Copenhagen as the capital of Denmark, with a resident king. Previously the king had a moveable feast, going from castle to castle around the country. Even before that, fish was the staple food all along the thousands of kilometers of coast, fresh fish for shore-dwellers, dried and salted, or just plain dried, for inlanders.

The Scandinavian Herring Adventure

The need to make seasonal fish last during cold and unfishable winter months is the origin of the great northern tradition of preserving fish.

The Scandinavian Herring Adventure
Scandinavian herring

Fish from cold waters have a certain delicacy; they grow slowly and their flesh becomes dense, juicy and filled with minerals from the abundant plankton, small fish and algae they feed on. Fatty fish such as herrings and mackerel have a perfect balance of essential fatty acids for human bellies, and like all other natural fed animals, slow-growing fish are much more flavorsome and easier to make into tasty meals, even if prepared very simply.

The Scandinavian Herring Adventure
Scandinavian pickled herring

Buying and storing
Fresh fish must be fresh. It is self-evident, but nevertheless true, that the beautiful experience of eating completely fresh fish is in no way comparable to eating not-fresh fish, even if it’s still technically edible. If you want to teach your children truly to enjoy fish, stay away from fish packed in a controlled atmosphere, fish imported from far away and frozen fish, and find a fishmonger that you can trust.

Herring apocalyps
Herring apocalyps

The difference is huge, if elusive, but it can be detected with every sense you have, and especially when you are very young – fresh fish is a joy, not just food.

Sweetness, juiciness and firmness diminish dramatically and very quickly as fish ages. Eat your fish the day it is bought, and keep it in the fridge until ready to prepare. When kept at 0C it will keep 10 times longer as when kept at 5 degrees C, so get some ice with it, if you can, and go straight home from the fishmonger.

The Scandinavian Herring Adventure
Swedish sour herring

Culinary uses
The traditions are, in fact, very simple. Fresh fish are simply tossed in rye flour and fried in butter, grilled, boiled in salted water or baked in the oven. The accompaniments are effective, if not varied: horseradish, capers, mustard, lemon or vinegar, parsley, dill, butter and potatoes. Felicious if the fish is fresh; the sharp notes set off the mild taste, the butter acts as a sauce, and the herbs add color and a subtle freshness.

The Scandinavian Herring Adventure, Written by Tor Kjolberg

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