Tuesday, August 21, 2007


The bad news is that they are disturbingly visceral, the pale pink taupe of a moist nether world exposed and unapologetic. With an appearance contrary to their dainty demure description, maiden herrings which have yet-to-spawn or matjes fillets still manage to seize their share of attention at the smorgasbord, and not just because of the liberal sloshing of aquavit. In an oceanic drift of multi flavored herring bits, these bold beauties stop traffic and breath, even in the full power of summer.

Now, where behind every leaf is a zucchini elongating by the minute, where green beans diddle and dangle in lazy baroque curlicues and tiny cherry tomatoes mischievously pop out from behind an odd neighbor’s ear; I am filled to my core, human cornucopia with the fruits of this enthusiastic season. For weeks I’ve piled my dinner plate high a veritable still life of raw, barely steamed, plain and unadorned vegetables, homage to local farmers and good old Cézanne too. If I were a tree, this chlorophyll rich sustenance would feed my leaves; palms stretched open to the sun. I’ve been buzzing along buoyant and nimble, content with the offerings of this green earth. But I am more beast than shrub and in the final count I paw for food that provides ballast to muscle and bone, counterbalance to air and froth.

It occurred to me that fruits and vegetables infused with the sun are not only stuffed plump with vitamins and minerals, but with the lingering traits of recent past months. Summer produce simply cannot help but be associated with picnics and glad affairs, long day hours, levity and pleasure. They hail from the land of the living, diurnal terrestrial creatures. While I willingly hoot and holler, juggle summer squash and eat salad three times a day, in the end I, a quiet citizen of the dark, naturally seek a shade of shadow when exposed too long to the glare of bright.

In self preservation I dipped below the earth this mid month of August to ferret out some wine soaked fish from the forgotten recesses of my icebox. Herring or Clupea harengus are small silvery fish which travel about in large schools throughout the Atlantic. Raw, smoked, pickled, and fermented, the oily Omega-3 Fatty Acid rich flesh has been teasing palates and fueling the economies of Northern European countries for thousands of years. Nutritious and super charged they ignite soulful passion amongst those that like it rich, over-the-top, and just a little crude. In Scandinavian countries where in particular these fish are favored, there are over a dozen of pickled preparations. Affectionately singled out as “sill” rather than “fisk”, herring are the foundation for any smorgasbord, Christmas time or midsummer festivity where they are accompanied by crisp bread (knäckebröd), butter and cheese (vasterbotten), boiled potatoes, hard boiled egg, sour cream, and fresh chives or onions. Interesting note, there is nary a vegetable in sight.

On the plate visually, this bold repast reminds me of a painter’s palette. Instead of a typical show stopping entrée with an equally partnered side dish, there are little piles of neutral colored, similarly textured food. Its absolute homely appearance is well made up for in taste. Herring eating is an individualized call and response experience. First, one must answer the call which is highly personal and emerges from some amorphous space between gut and tongue. Curry, Dill, Sour cream and onion or perhaps Matjes? Matjes- excellent choice! Dense and rich it is silky like lox but more substantial. The first salty hit is immediately joined by a sweet almost sandalwood flavor. That taste is slightly confusing, a tad strange but enjoyable. It is succulent incense infused fish. Maybe it would be best to temper the next bite with a cloud of chive speckled sour cream alongside a slice of egg. While this calms down the bite, it only amps up the richness for which the only reasonable solution is to imbibe a shot of sinus clearing, scalp tingling caraway flavored spirit. This obliterates everything before so that one can start anew with more mixing and sampling, layering and deepening.

Matjes fillets are my antidote to too much lettuce, birthday cakes festooned with fluffy frosting, and overly polite social behavior. They are serious, heavy hitting and feed the belly of the beast. While veggies bring me closer to the earth, maiden herring take me to the abyss, to that vast unknowable place where desire springs from. After these summer months of so much up and out, a little brined intensity is needed to send me back home.

Nordic House: Source for jarred and tinned matjes fillet, as well as all things Nordic. They also make an excellent homemade version. Though I do not know if they send these across country. Surprisingly I found mine by the pickled herring in the supermarket. New Hampshire, who knew?

Jansson’s Temptation: This has been on my “must-make” list for some time now for practically the name alone. But take a look- potatoes, cream, butter and anchovies? It is important to note, that Swedish anchovies are not similar to what Americans think of as anchovies. They can also be purchased at Nordic House.

Sillgratin: Essentially this is a spin-off on Jansson’s Temptation but uses matjes. Every recipe I’ve looked at has a slightly different potato to cream ratio. I have yet to try this because for now I’m hooked on eating them straight out of the jar. Must do in the next few weeks.

Sill Lover: What more can be said?


Lydia said...

I wish I had the taste for herring -- I've tried, but never managed to fall in love with it. I do love your post, though!

Anh said...

I can't really say I have a taste for herring, but I don't mind it. But I do share your craving for some good flavoured fish from time to time. Great post!

Honeycake said...

I LOVE HERRING! I have to ration myself! But it will be awhile before my liver will allow me another super-rich bite of Jansson's Temptation -- a staple at Nordic Heritage Museum dinners. Yesterday's lunch: Herring fillets (I shared a only a bite of fish with my dog) atop a toasted sourdough roll alongside some green olive tapenade (some peppers in there, too), a few greens and some figs from the farmer's market.
Tack, tusen tack for sill!


Callipygia said...

lydia- I know, I'm afraid it is one of those things that you'll either love or hate! Good thing there are plenty of meatballs (kottbullar) at the smorgasbord.

anh- OK, maybe you'll have to get in line for the meatballs too!

honeycake- Wow, now that is some kind of sandwich! Figs?! I'm speechless, but then again you do that to me.

jbird said...

Only you can make fish that is soaked in booze while hanging out at the back of your freezer sound yummy. ;-)
Use your power for good and not for evil.

HipWriterMama said...

You really know how to make the most interesting things sound wonderful! Pickled herring does nothing for me. But give me a nice anchovy, and I'm in heaven.

Beautiful post.

sher said...

Oh, my mouth was puddling as I read this. I made Janssens's Temptation years ago, and I often think about it. It's so lovely. But, I learned that some Americans can't deal with the idea of anchovies in cream. Too bad--it was fabulous.

blatta said...

Wonderful stuff. We used to pickle Jack Smelt we caught off the Berkeley Pier as kids. More slender than true Herring but just as bony. Many a Sunday morning brunch was spent gobbling Noah's bagels with great crushes of fragrant fish and a cut of red onion.

I'd like to try some of the more refined European preparations. Your artful post has convinced me.

Callipygia said...

jbird- For good for good, only for good.

hipwritermama- Anchovies on pizza worth getting dehydrated over!

sher- I read that the cream really tempers the anchovies, just sounds delish to me. If it can tempt the likes of a pious old minister, must be good.

blatta- Ohh, pickled smelt? My mom used to cook it in hot sauce but as an adult way too boney. Knowing your penchant for fat- I think you'll go wild for the matjes. Try em and be forever changed.

lumi said...

Strange to say it aloud but herring was a first for me during my first visit to Disney World. There was (and still is) the Scandanavia Pavilion in Epcot and dad insisted on dining there after eyeing the herring offerings. A precarious teeager I was, paraded the buffet table and selected a partial sample of the sour cream doused kind, camouflaged, out of sight. That was the beginning, still my personal prefernce, though I buy them now in the jarred variety.

Callipygia said...

lumi- That's great. I have come to really appreciate the offerings of Disney World after seeing a food special about their worldly cuisine. The sourcream herring is really good- the jarred is all I have ever had.

Lis said...

Yum! I love herring.. another food that W has turned me on to - and something I doubt I'd ever try had it not been for him. I've never had the sour cream type, just the wine soaked.

Excellent post.. always excellent.


Melissa said...

I've been following your blog for quite a while and enjoying your wealth of good recipes. When Foodista announced that they are going to publish the best food blogs in a full color book that will be published by Andrews McMeel Publishing Fall 2010, I naturally thought of you. This recipe would be a good submission! You can enter here: http://www.foodista.com/blogbook/submit


Editor and Community Developer
Foodista.com -- The Cooking Encyclopedia Everyone Can Edit