Just a quick note from the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery. As this year’s theme was Cured, Fermented and Smoked Foods, I got to try lots of unusual preparations from around the world, the most striking of which was Swedish surströmming.
Food science maven Harold McGee spoke about it in his Plenary presentation titled “A Chemical Introduction to Cured, Fermented and Smoked Foods.” Surströmming is made from herring that is caught in the spring, the heads are chopped off, but the guts are left in. The fish are then packed in a barrel with salt which is put in the sun for several months. It is then re-packed into unsterilized cans and aged for six months to a year. Fermentation continues in the cans and sometimes they bulge.
To those of us (including me) whose mothers taught us never to buy a bulging can from the supermarket, this all sounded rather terrifying. However, it is important to note there are many types of bacteria, some of which are helpful to us humans allowing us to make cheeses, pickles, sauerkraut, and other cherished foods . In many fermentation processes, the “good” bacteria create an acidic environment where “bad” bacteria (like botulism) cannot survive. A Japanese laboratory analyzed some of the cans used for making surströmming and found and important (non-harmful) bacteria on their surfaces which contributes to the fermentation process. In other words, if the cans had been sterilized, the process may not have worked properly.
In concluding his presentation on the science of fermentation, Mr. McGee quoted Alan Davidson, one of the founders of the Oxford Symposium, who had actually gone to Sweden to observe the opening of the surströmming barrels and the transfer of the partially fermented fish into cans:
As the smell billowed upwards, birds began to drop dead from the sky.
During Saturday’s tea break we all got a chance to try some of this pungent concoction served with pieces of soft Swedish tunnbröd. The can was opened outdoors due to the odiferous nature of this traditional food. Considering that they only opened one small can and you could smell it about half a block away, I’d say this was a good decision.
When I ventured outside to see what was going on, I was struck by a very strong earthy, loamy odor which reminded me of durian. Surprisingly, it did not smell fishy. I got up my courage and tried some. The flavor was not fishy either, it was very ammoniated like a cheese that has been allowed to ripen too long. One of my fellow tasters commented that if there was such a thing as fish cheese, it would taste like surströmming.
I don’t know that I’ll be rushing out to buy some, but it was not nearly has bad as I thought it would be. In another part of his presentation, Harold McGee told us that scientists have recently discovered that the brain can differentiate between smells that enter only through the nose and those that go from the mouth to the nose. The brain treats these differently, so sometimes something that smells revolting can taste pretty good.
Perhaps the moral of the story is that your parents were right to say that you should at least try everything.