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Snapshots from Sweden: Celebrating Herring Weekend in Marstrand and Klädesholmen

From June 5 to June 11, I visited Western and Southern Sweden on a trip sponsored by Visit Sweden, West Sweden Tourist Board, Skåne Tourist Board, and Volvo as part of their CAR + VACATION contest. Here's a look at something I ate during my trip.

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Scenes from Marstrand. Top: A bite of herring from Bergs Konditori; Bottom: Walking along Hamngatan; lots and lots of boats. [Photographs: Robyn Lee]

Today, millions of people in Sweden (and beyond) are beginning their Midsummer celebrations with maypoles, dancing, bonfires, snaps, strawberries, and loads of pickled herring with new potatoes. When there's a holiday to be celebrated in Sweden, pickled herring can't be far away.

I didn't know this before I visited Sweden—nor did I know if I liked pickled herring. But after eating more pickled herring during the first two days of my trip than all of my mostly herring-less existence up until then, I found out, yup, I like it (and if I were in Sweden now, I would happily join the festivities by stuffing my face with pickled herring).

Those weren't just any two days, though. My arrival happened to coincide with Herring Weekend in the province of Bohuslän from June 4 to 6, in turn coinciding with a bigger holiday, Sweden's National Day on June 6. But as important as that holiday may sound, the National Day is actually not a big deal, especially compared to Midsummer—it only became a public holiday in 2005. That's not to say it doesn't signify something important (it's the day King Gustav Vasa, the "founder of modern Sweden," was elected back in 1523) or that Swedes don't enthusiastically break out their blue and yellow flags (so many flags, I did see), but since it's only been celebrated in the "worthy of getting a day off work" sense for a few years, holiday traditions haven't set in the way, say, Americans celebrate the Fourth of July.

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View of Marstrand from neighboring island Köon.

Not only is the National Day quite new, but so is Herring Weekend. This year's celebration of Sweden's essential holiday food was the first in Marstrand, a popular summer resort island about an hour north of Gothenburg known for sailing competitions, car-less streets, charming architecture, the towering Carlstens Fortress, and a history of herring that dates back about 500 years.

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Marstrand's coat of arms. I saw it on trash bins, the sides of buildings, and flags.

Even if you don't eat any herring there, you can't ignore it; you'll probably run into Marstrand's coat of arms features three herrings around a six-pointed star.

But first, a little background info about Marstrand.

It was founded in the 1200s by Norwegian King Håkon IV, not becoming a part of Sweden until 1658 as part of the Treaty of Roskilde. What happened in between? ...Herring. (Well. Other things happened, but for the purposes of this post, I'll focus on herring.) Bohuslän, the province that contains Marstrand, is known for its herring periods, during which there'd be an unusual spike in herring numbers off Sweden's Skagerrak coast for several decades. During Bohuslän's first major herring fishing period between 1556 and 1589, Marstrand was the center of the European herring industry, and with the fishing of this staple food came great wealth (at least, until the herring ran out, resulting in poverty). More herring periods followed from 1660 to1680, 1747 to 1809 (dubbed "The Great Herring Period"), and 1877 to 1906—a somewhat steady rate of one a century. (For an in depth look at each herring period, check out this feature at fjallbacka.com about herring in Bohuslän. As for what caused the herring periods, you'll find more in depth information in this paper from the ICES Journal of Marine Science, "A proposed mechanism for the Bohuslän herring periods".)

For reasons besides having loads of herring that provided a great source of food and oil, Marstrand became particularly wealthy and famous during the Great Herring Period due to being given Porto Franco (free port) status in 1775. Marstrand became attractive to merchants, traders, and Jews seeking religious freedom (Marstrand is home to Sweden's first synagogue)—and less ideally, criminals seeking a safe haven. The Porto Franco status only lasted until 1794.

After the Great Herring Period, some of the no-longer-needed herring salt houses were converted into bath houses, leading to Marstrand becoming a famous spot for bathing, in particular for being a favorite of royalty.

There's much more history to this small island (and by small I mean you could circle the city limits in about an hour; most of the island's area is uninhabited), but now you're armed with much more information than I was when I arrived there on my first day in a semi-jetlagged stupor.

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Make your own pickled herring snack at Bergs Konditori; just add crisp bread, sour cream, and chives.

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Pan-fried pickled herring on crisp bread topped with sour cream and chopped red onions from Marstrands Wärdshus.

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Pickled herring with thinly sliced onion, sliced new potatoes, and Västerbotten cheese in butter sauce at Mastrands Havshotell.

During Herring Weekend, buying a Herring Pass granted visitors access to herring samples at each of the island's 17 food outlets and special activities included herring tastings, demonstrations from professional chefs, and a "best herring recipe" contest, along with non-herring activities such as boat trips and guided historical walks. Since my boyfriend Kåre and I were still in an "I just got off the plane" daze, we didn't partake in much of the herring-related festivities (I sampled herring from just two places and ate some more herring at dinner, pictured above), choosing to get our bearings by strolling around aimlessly on what seemed to be the first sun-drenched, perfectly summery day of the year.

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And while I don't like to toss around the world "perfect," I'd say that Marstrand on that day was the closest thing to a perfect relaxing summer vacation spot I've ever been to.

Herring Day in Klädesholmen

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Klädesholmen, population 417 as of 2005. Here's a larger version of the map.

We got our real herring on the next day in nearby Klädesholmen, where Herring Day, instituted in 2008, was being celebrated to coincide with Sweden's National Day on June 6.

Klädesholmen is a centuries-old historical fishing community like Marstrand (with a less colorful history, as far as I can tell), but unlike Marstrand has an active herring industry whose five factories produce almost half of all of Sweden's pickled herring, mostly under the company Klädesholmen Seafood. Klädesholmen is also famous for being site of Salt & Sill ("sill" = "herring" in Swedish), a combination of an award-winning restaurant focusing on local seafood and Sweden's first floating hotel.

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Scenes from the factory.

Our main herring activities of the day were touring Klädesholmen Seafood's pickled herring packing plant, making our own custom jars of pickled herring, and having a pickled herring lunch.

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The "make your own" herring was the most interesting part. Participants were given free reign to line their jars with a range of seasonings and spices: dried onion, cloves, black pepper, allspice, fennel, anise, lemon pepper, cumin, dried carrot, powdered ginger, dill, and bay leaves. Fill the jar with traditional pickled herring, matjessill (described by receptfavoriter.se as seasoned with cinnamon, oregano, nutmeg, dill, and pepper), or onion pickled herring, then take it to an employee to fill the jar with matjes brine or onion brine, and your jar is done.

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Technically you're not supposed to use all of the seasonings in the same jar, but we did something close to that since we didn't know any better. When it was our turn to get our jar filled with brine, the employee said it was an unusual combination—and if it actually tasted good, we'd have to share the recipe. (I'm sure the employees had good laughs throughout the day while looking at people's ill-conceived jars, thinking, "YOU DID IT ALL WRONG.") Alas, we didn't try our creation; Kåre gave the jar to his dad as a gift. And his dad ate it. And liked it. Unintentional success!

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Herring plates (20 SEK, about $3) and herring eaters.

For lunch we had sampler plates of three types of pickled herring with traditional accompaniments of boiled new potatoes, sour cream, minced onion, and rye crisp bread. I'll admit that on its own, pickled herring wouldn't make me swoon—it's quite pungent, the heavily spiced matjessill especially (I prefer the plainer kind), and some may find the super soft and firm texture of the oil-rich fish off-putting (I wouldn't go as far to call it slimy, but others have). But potatoes and cream mellow it out, and it goes well with the hearty crunch of crisp bread. It's the full package I'm after, a package I recreated right after I got back home to New York. (Yup, I was missing Sweden, just a bit.)

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The herring consumption lived on when we ate dinner at Salt & Sill. Our starter: a herring sampler (159 SEK, about $25) of six kinds of pickled herring and traditional accompaniments (boiled new potatoes, hard boiled eggs, hard cheese, sour cream, and red onion). The six kinds of herring: dill, fennel and aquavit, mustard and malt whiskey, black currant, matjes, and leek and black pepper.

That last one won the 2011 title of "Herring of the Year", described by the judges (through the power of Google Translate) as, "A safe herring. Really good, tasty and generous. You become happy." If that description isn't enough to make you want to try it (happiness, guaranteed!), it's also good to know that one kroner from each jar of leek and black pepper herring sold will be donated to the non-profit sea rescue organization, Sjöräddningssällskapet (Lifeboat Institution).

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View from Salt & Sill.

I ate more pickled herring during the rest of the week, just not in as great quantities as during those two days in Bohuslän. Thank you, pickled herring, for giving me the chance to visit Marstrand and Klädesholmen. Also, for being part of one of my new favorite very easy-to-make meals.

Where to Eat/Stay

Marstrands Wärdshus
Mitt på Kajen, 440 30 Marstrand, Sweden (map)
0303-603 69; marstrandswardshus.se
Ate a good lunch here, along with a herring sample.

Bergs Konditori
Hamngatan 9, 440 30 Marstrand, Sweden (map)
0303-600 96; bergskonditori.com‎
A lovely-looking bakery...that I didn't get to try, aside from a herring sample. (I wasn't very hungry at the time. It happens!)

Mastrands Havshotell
Varvskajen 2, 440 30 Marstrand, Sweden (map)
0303-24 02 00; marstrands.se
Where we ate dinner and spent the night. It's just across from Marstrand Island, which is a short ferry ride away.

Salt & Sill
471 51 Klädesholmen, Tjörn, Sweden (map)
0304-67 34 80; saltosill.se
Where we ate dinner and spent the night.

More Snapshots From Sweden

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Max, Home of 'Sweden's Tastiest Burgers' »
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Sourdough Bread and Forested Trails at Sundsby Säteri »

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