Smoked fish in the Nordic countries is an exceptionally well-loved part of the Scandinavian heritage, from the luxurious, thinly cut, cold-smoked wild salmon to more unassuming treats such as newly hot-smoked herrings for a summer lunch. Smoked fish from Scandinavia is a delicacy you should try when being in the Nordic region.
I must admit I love the gastronomic virtue inherent in the simple alliance of smoked fish and all things Nordic – potatoes, rye bread, my favorite herbs, and fresh spring vegetables and greens.
Smoked fish from Scandinavia
Smoking fish is no longer a necessity. In the past, however. fresh fish were first salted and then hung up to smoke until bone dry in the chimneys – an easy but essential means of preservation. Nowadays, we smoke fish for the sheer joy of it and, of course, for the deliciousness. While vast quantities of fish are smoked on an industrial scale, Scandinavians love to smoke their own fish at home. This is mostly done in primitive fashion – using a battered old pot, a small smoking box and a bonfire. All it takes is heat, sawdust and a closed container.
Fish can be either cold or hot smoked.
Related: Scandinavian Eel
This method is easy to do at home without much fuss. It’s simply a means of cooking, in which you smoke the fish while baking it, imbibing it with a discreet smokiness at the same time. In the process, the flesh become meltingly tender, foamy and aromatic, with a sweet and salty juiciness.
This style of smoking, however, does not dramatically prolong the fish’s keeping qualities. The traditional fish for hot smoking vary from place to place, but herrings, mackerel, eels, trout and large sea trout are all smoked in great quantities; as is the lumpsucker, or lumpfish, an unfortunately ugly fish which provides wonderful pink fish roe in winter but with otherwise no obvious virtues. Its jelly-like, flabby, fatty flesh is inedible, when fresh, but hot smoked it takes on a beauty you would not imagine.
Related: Scandinavian Salmon
Cold smoking is the more demanding of the two methods, in terms of both the equipment and the process, and is not nearly as easy to replicate at home; for one thing you need to build a special smoking cabinet or even a dedicated smokehouse. As with hot smoking, the fish must be lightly salted first. Then it is transferred to the smokehouse, where the temperature never goes above 27 Celsius.
The smoke generated by the burning wood (deciduous wood of various kinds is used) is cooled on its journey through long pipes before coming into contact with the fish. For obvious practical reasons, cold smoking is often done on an industrial scale, but has its keen followers who produce some amazing smoked fish in their homemade smokehouses. The Sami people have traditional smoking huts for the meat and fish.
The process of cold smoking leaves the flesh opaque as in a raw fish, but firm enough that it can be easily cut into thin slices. Salmon and halibut are usually cold smoked. Nordic smoked salmon is less salty and smoked for shorter time than its European equivalent.
Related: Thank you for Smoking, Mr. Hansen
Buying and storing
There is no comparison between freshly smoked and bought smoked fish with an expiry date. Buy or make your own, just before you are going to need it.
All smoked fish must look wonderfully oily and fatty. If cold smoked, the fish must be firm-fleshed and smell intoxicatingly of sea, tar and wood smoke. Hot-smoked fish is soft-fleshed and must be absolutely freshly smoked. Steer clear of dry and skinny-looking fish, and avoid eating smoked fish that’s obviously been lying around too long as it can develop severe quantities of histamine over time.
A properly cold-smoked fish will keep for a week or two in the fridge. Hot-smoked fish is not really preserved, and will keep for just a day or two.
Smoked salmon must be eaten as simply as possible. Its delicate taste must not be overwhelmed, and comes into its own when eaten on sigtebrød, a bread made from both rye and wheat, or toasted rye bread. Give it a dusting of ground black pepper, lots of dill and chervil cream, but absolutely no lemon. Smoked salmon and horseradish cream is another match made in heaven; the cream can be simply spread directly on to a plate, and covered with thin slices of salmon; otherwise, combine as a topping for an open sandwich.
The best alternative accompaniment is creamy scrambled egg, perhaps with chervil cream and fresh dill, too. For a more elegant dish, simply slice the fish and serve with delicate vegetables such as asparagus, pointed spring cabbage, fresh peas or creamed spinach. Smoked halibut and other smoked species from the salmon family can all be eaten in the same way.
Hot-smoked fish is eaten as simply as possible, mostly on buttered rye bread or crispbread, with chives or dill. It tastes heavenly with new potatoes, dill and butter; in a green salad sharp with vinegar and mustard and with abundant herbs, or on rye bread with scrambled eggs and chives.
The sweetness of baked beetroot is perfect with smoked fish, if balanced with lemon and horseradish and a dusting of coarsely ground black pepper. For the more adventurous, a Nordic pesto made with lovage and chervil is delicious.
Smoked eel is best bought on the bone with the skin on. It’s easy to peel off the rubbery skin from the eel, then slice off the two fat fillets on either side of the central bone. Eat it on buttered rye bread with a topping of scrambled eggs, chives and black pepper.
Feature image (on top): Smoked salmon on rye bread
Smoked Fish from Scandinavia, written by Tor Kjolberg