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?