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A Midsummer Night’s Surströmming

The salty Baltic herring ferment inside a sealed can thanks to salt-loving, anaerobic bacteria that produce distinctive organic acids found in sweat and rotting butter

Two friends on a remote Maine island set out to clear a piece of land, felling white pines by axes and handsaws, and build a home entirely by hand. In the fall of 2007, there was nothing but a hole in the ground, a mess of timbers and only one man, Dennis Carter, left to finish the job. Today, the Garrison front, saltbox-style house, based on the 17th-century homes of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, is a hostel. I stayed here while reporting a story on Ted Ames, a Stonington fisherman turned scientist, best known for his receipt of the MacArthur genius grant award. The hand-built hostel feels like a wooden ship of a place, lost in another time—only when the weather turns and it starts blowing, nothing sways; you are firmly moored to Deer Isle.

It was here that I had my first taste of surströmming. The cans were swollen, surreptitiously imported from one of the host’s family in Sweden. (The canneries in Maine are gone so any herring caught here tends to end up as lobster bait). We all held hands and said what we were thankful for (I remember saying something about fish) and then we ate together from the can of whole, fermented Baltic herring. Madjes might be the traditional midsommar meal, but, to me, surströmming is the taste of mid-summer. The entrails, inside their little silver bodies, are optional for eating, we’re instructed, although the host says she would save those for her father as a specialty. We eat the fermented fish with mashed potatoes and onions and sour cream on rye crackers.

The salty herring ferment inside the sealed can thanks to a salt-loving, anaerobic bacteria that produces two distinctive volatile organic acids—propionic acid, commonly found in Swiss cheese and sweat, and butyric acid, probably most familiar as the characteristic odor of rotting butter. According to one study, the anaerobes contribute to the intense flavor and appear in about 10 times the concentration of those found in the fermented fish sauces of Southeast Asia. Pungent stuff, indeed.

But I don’t remember thinking about the smell that night and it wasn’t like I had to choke the fish down. What I remember most was the next day; the kitchen smelled so incredibly rotten and I thought, how did I possible eat that night without holding my nose? Yet, we had feasted on fermented fish from a can and they were, I must say, delicious.

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