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Fornlämningar 2: Om sill

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Thursday, Jun 21, 2012

Ännu en opublicerad recension, denna ganska lång. Och den fick ett skojigt efterspel, som jag skrev om inte långt efter att jag satt igång Pressylta 2005:

För tre-fyra år sen läste jag en mycket rolig och intressant bok om sillens och sillfiskets historia, och skrev en halvlång recension som jag skickade lite på vinst och förlust till TLS. Nån vecka senare fick jag ett handskrivet brev (!) med posten (!!) från deras naturredaktör Redmond O’Hanlon, där han sa i princip: gillade artikeln skarpt, men den är inte riktigt i TLS:s “stil” (vilket var fair enough). “Men,” fortsatte han, “har du lust att skriva för TLS i framtiden? Det hoppas jag verkligen.” Så kom slutklämmen: “Nu gäller det bara för mig att hitta en annan bok om fisk åt dig.” Där hade han suttit, alltså, och tänkt: “Fan, kass artikel – men killen kan fisk! Precis vad vi behöver! Nån som kan fisk!” Så jag fick skriva tillbaka och säga, nej tyvärr, sillen var mer undantag än regel, faktiskt (den svenska västkusten, bla bla) men om du får in nån bok om hockey så kan du ju alltid höra av dig… Inte ett ljud sen dess. Det var mitt William Boot-ögonblick, tror jag.

Jag blev nästan TLS:s fiskkorrespondent… Recensionen i fråga följer nedan.

Mike Smylie
Herring: A History of the Silver Darlings
Tempus 2004

Possibly the cruellest thing you can do to a herring – and to humans, some would argue – is the preparing and serving of a dish from northern Sweden known, and feared, as surströmming. Perfectly innocent Baltic herrings, which are slightly smaller than the Atlantic variety, are caught at spawning time in late spring and then, over the warm summer months, allowed to ferment outdoors in wooden barrels filled with brine. At the end of the process they are packed into large tin cans which, due to the continuing fermentation, tend to swell ominously. On the third Friday in August they are ready to eat. This is the point when someone has to volunteer to open the tin – which must never, ever be done indoors – while everyone else moves out of harm’s way. The smell is so revolting that, until quite recently, Scandinavian Airlines refused to allow the tins on board their planes, not even stored in the hold, for fear that any change in air pressure would make them burst open and cause a nauseous panic among the passengers, never mind permanent damage to their luggage. Human instinct – in fact, every bone in your body – tells you that this is rotten fish and that you’d best go for the steak and chips option. However, the first is plainly (i.e. chemically) not true, and the second would be a serious mistake. Surströmming is utterly delicious, preferably on a piece of thin crispbread with a slice of red onion and a glass of ice-cold aquavit flavoured with Sweet Gale.

Mike Smylie passes over surströmming in respectful silence in his otherwise very comprehensive, and rather charming, study. I have to confess I approached this book somewhat warily, fearing I would be served yet another fish dressed up as a purported engine of history. Mark Kurlansky’s 1997 biography of the cod, “the fish that changed the world”, certainly offered a fascinating story but, in the end, seemed to me to read rather better on the menu than it actually tasted on the plate. With a definition of “world-changing” as loose as that, several other foodstuffs could be awarded the same epithet, not least the humble potato. Generally speaking, there is an inherent tendency in what has become known as “marginal history” to be a bit too cute for its own good. Type the words “A Cultural History of” into the Google search engine and you come up with hundreds of recent titles covering everything from “…Farts” to “…Barbed Wire”. The joke is wearing so thin in places it’s practically see-through.

I need not have worried, though. Sure enough, Mike Smylie’s book, like Kurlansky’s, is richly illustrated and offers several recipes along the way (more of which later), and although once or twice he succumbs to historical hyperbole, it’s rather harmless stuff. What shines through the book, though, is not just the author’s immense knowledge, but the obvious deep affection he has for his subject. Known as ‘Kipperman’, Smylie is described as a ‘naval architect, maritime historian, fisheries ethnologist, maritime archeologist and herring smoker’, i.e. clearly the possessor of the kind of personality and expertise – and prose style – that tend to attract BBC2 television producers, and if he is not careful there may well be a knock on the boat-house door some time soon. However, it should also be said that, although he is perfectly attuned to the poetry of the sea and the craft of fishing, Smylie is refreshingly clear-headed about the realities involved, whether it is the hellish drudgery of life on the herring boats, or the causes of the post-war stock depletion in the North Sea.

The herring is in more ways than one a poor relation to other species of fish. The author is surely right in saying that, at least as far as England is concerned, herring has not formed part of the staple diet for a long time. A straw poll among friends and acquaintances showed that very few had eaten it anywhere near regularly as children, and when they did it was usually because “we couldn’t afford cod”. Even where herring is a more common staple – Scandinavia, Holland, parts of Scotland – the fish has acquired a seemingly indelible stigma not just as the poor man’s food, but as a symbol of poverty itself. In the various narratives – novels, histories, documentaries – of Sweden’s transformation from a poor, rural nation to a prosperous welfare state in the early half of last century, you will find a recurring image of hope and progress in the simple fact of being able to choose not to eat salted herring anymore. Smylie may go a bit far in saying that poor people “hated it, although they often had nothing else to eat”. If anything, it was probably because they had nothing else: the tried and tested preservation techniques – primarily salting, pickling and smoking – gave herring a year-round ubiquity that made it uniquely resented, simply because starvation was the only alternative dish on offer.

The commercial fishing for herring has always been defined by, on the one hand, the potential richness of the catch (herring shoals can be absolutely enormous) and, on the other, the need for speed in getting the fish ashore, since the quality of herring deteriorates very rapidly. A (probably fictitious) 14th century Dutch fisherman, Willem Van Beukels, is usually credited with the discovery of on-board gutting and salting as the best way to preserve the fish, which at the same time allowed the boats to stay out for longer and reach more distant grounds. The Dutch, with their superior vessels, sophisticated preservation techniques and effective trade organisation, had a virtual monopoly on the herring trade from that time until the mid-1600’s, when Britain began to muscle in on this lucrative market. A series of “Herring Wars” followed which left the Dutch industry crippled and the emerging British one largely unable to take advantage, due among other things to a skewed system of royal privileges and punitively high salt taxes. In fact, it could be said that Britain never really developed a herring industry as such, but rather a series of smaller ones with characteristics peculiar to each locality – the north-east coast of Scotland, say, or in and around Great Yarmouth – and this book gives a particularly vivid account of them.

But another curious factor played a part in this process too: the fickleness of the herring. Marine biologists to this day cannot agree on what makes herring shoals appear year after year in roughly the same place, only to disappear suddenly, seemingly without trace, and never return. The consequences for local populations could be devastating: a classic example is the “silver rush” on the west coast of Sweden in the latter half of the 18th century. Massive herring shoals began appearing in 1747 and came back every season for more than five decades. Then they vanished almost as abruptly as they had arrived, leaving an entire fishing industry in ruins, as well as wide-spread starvation for many years. Coincidence or not, a similar thing had happened on the Vestlandet coast of Norway in the first half of the same century, leading some scientists to argue that it was the same shoal that simply moved south, while others claim there is no evidence at all for such a proposition.

Mike Smylie is very good on the historical side of things, and even better when the history turns British and local. The book could perhaps have done with a more wide-ranging discussion on the Hanseatic League, pre-dating the Dutch era, bearing in mind the centrality of the herring industry both to the League’s foundation and its subsequent wealth. Recent German scholarship, in particular, has questioned the prevailing view of a strong commonality in the League’s political and economic aims, drawing attention instead to a far more complicated and politically decentralised organisation, with sometimes sharp rivalries between its German and Nordic members. As far as herring is concerned, interest has focused on the so-called ‘Vitten’, fishing and trading enclaves on the shores surrounding the established fishing ports, particularly in what is now southern Sweden, which enjoyed a remarkable degree of legal and economic independence from the Danish Crown. That said, however, Smylie has some fascinating accounts of the sheer ingenuity of herring fishers, from sophisticated stone-and-wattle weirs in early times, through to a sometimes bewildering variety of nets. He also reminds us that the traditional herring boats, such as the Dutch busses of the Golden Age or the Scottish fifies of a hundred-or-so years ago, were some of the most beautiful around: low-slung, wide of girth, sturdy like shire horses.

Commercial fishing continues to be a precarious business, due above all to the ferocious effectiveness of new netting techniques and the resultant stock depletion in the last decades of the twentieth century. Nonetheless, there is reason to be cautiously optimistic: herring catches in the last few years have been good, if not spectacular. Mike Smylie takes some routine swipes at Whitehall gutlessness and Brussels megalomania, but he does at least acknowledge that those who did the over-fishing were those who did the fishing. I am prepared to believe that Britain’s herring TACs (Total Allowable Catch) for the North Sea are set too low. But if the historical perspective tells you anything at all it is that, unfair or not, TACs represent a peaceful solution to an age-old problem that was all too often “solved” by war, or pseudo-war. It may be little comfort to all those, in Britain as elsewhere, who have been forced out of business after generations of fishing, but the quotas have at least introduced an element of predictability into one of the most capricious and perilous of trades.

And, as this book shows in abundant detail, the poetry of it all has been severely depleted too. No longer do the men stand on the deck of a drifter at dusk, eyes squinting in search of ‘the appearances’, signalling the presence of a night-feeding shoal: the bubbling and simmering, gannets diving, a silvery sheen just below the surface of the water. Instead, we have the more prosaic image of a trawler captain who, from the moment he leaves harbour to the moment he returns, does not even have to look out of the window. Instead, he fixes his gaze on the virtual aquarium on his computer screen. Mike Smylie probably would not agree, but I have to say I don’t find that image entirely without lyrical merit, either.

Then, the recipes. I have not tried all of them yet, but the Ramsholt Herring, developed by the author together with Mrs. Pearl Simper, is a definite winner: marinated overnight, baked in the oven and served on toast (although here, as always, I would substitute Leksand crispbread). A salmagundi based on herring, rather than anchovy, is an inspired idea and may help in the revival of this unjustly forgotten dish. Likewise, the author’s own kippers – smoked and sold at various herring festivals across the country – seem well worth a detour next time they’re on offer. On the whole, though, the simpler recipes are slightly underrepresented here, and they are often the best ones. For example: two herring fillets, meat-side against meat-side, with a parsley/dill/chive mix in between, sprinkle with flour, salt and pepper, stick them in the frying pan for 3-4 minutes on each side, and Bob’s your uncle.

9 Responses to “Fornlämningar 2: Om sill”

  1. Ha – Redmond O’Hanlon! Jag minns ett par obetalbara reseskildringar av honom i Granta, en till Sydamerikas djungler och en i Afrika, på jakt efter en möjlig dinosaurie.

  2. Mycket intressant och roande läsning!
    Nog kunde väl redaktörn ha tagit den, eftersom han uttryckte så pass mycket gillande! Var det för sent att skicka den till någon annan? Den håller ju ändå utmärkt som essä utan recension/aktualitetsaspekten.

  3. På TLS hade och har man ett speciellt sätt att skriva, ett tonläge liksom, lutande åt det akademiska (till skillnad från LRB, t.ex.) och den här bedömdes väl som lite för lättsam i tonen. Antar jag.

  4. Trots att jag hade viktigare ting att syssla med var det tvunget efter att ha läst denna strålande artikel att gå ner i köket, plocka fram burken med saltsill i olja och lök – den godaste variant av sill som finns till salu här i Manchester – ta fram Aalborgs akvavit ur kylen och – njuta.

  5. Klokt gjort av dig! Skål, Dan…!

  6. Nu blev jag hungrig.

    Ordinara butiker i Zurich erbjuder faktiskt helt ok inlagd sill; rejala fileer i en latt syrlig graddsas, och dessutom finns Abba’s matjesill overallt. Samt prima farskpotatis. Imbelupna glas finns redan i frysen, fast jag maste nog kyla akvaviten (Norrlands, forstas)…

    PS. Om lokalbefolkningen undrar kan man be dom kika pa foljande informationsfilm: http://youtu.be/u8ZLpGOOA1Q

  7. Jag håller med Einar J. ovan – med enklare justeringar har du ju här en
    essä om sill som håller än idag.

    Jag noterar vad du skriver om TLS speciella skrivsätt och tonläge men tror du inte att det förhållandet att en viss tonvikt i din text ligger på icke-engelska länder (Skandinavien, Holland, Hansan osv) kan ha bidragit till avböjandet?

    Emellertid: Just i dag är det ju sillens dag framför andra i Sverige. Då kan man notera att den som tänker besöka någon skärgårdskrog eller själv tänker fixa en strömmingsmåltid på kusten eller öarna i sommar får nöja sig med råvara importerad från söder om Kalmar eller troligen västkusten. “Havs- och vattenmyndigheten” (smaka på det!) har nämligen utfärdat omedelbart förbud mot kustnära, småskaligt strömmingsfiske i Östersjön. Detta inte för att tex. dioxinhalterna blivit för höga utan för att hela (hela) kvoten givits bort till stordriftsfiskare från just västkusten som behöver sillen/strömmingen för att kunna mala ner den till fiskmjöl, ett utmärkt gödningsämne och fiskodlingsfoder.

    SVT ser dock ett ljus i mörkret: Inger Dahlgren på Havs- och vattenmyndigheten i Göteborg (sic!) lovar att “ta med sig kritiken till nästa års beslut.” Troligen kommer hon att “se över sina rutiner.”

    Nu väntar ABBAs sill och en liten liten Löjtens på balkongen. Inte heller särskilt närproducerat. Så det jämnar ju ut sig.

    Glad midsommar!

  8. Ni måcklisar som bara kan hämta sill från kylen, immade glas från frysen, och löjtnanter från skåpet… Här skulle jag fått köra till IKEA för att kunna tillfredsställa mina midsommarbehov… Ack ja…

    Det gläder mig att Dahlgren tänker “ta med sig kritiken”, bara hon inte glömmer den i hallen när hon kommit fram. Men – och jag vill iofs inte lägga smolk i snapsglaset – men om man använder fisk som födoämne i fiskodlingar blir det inte “galna fisk”-sjukan av det hela då, som med kossorna?

    Ni undrar hur galna fiskar beter sig? Dom kastar sig självmant i stekpannorna, ropande “Bonjour tristesse!”

    Glad midsommar alla! Häpp!

  9. Immade glas i frysen anvands iofs normalt for limoncello, men det latsas vi inte om idag. Och inte heller i morgon, nar nordiska klubben i zurich mumsar ikea-sill och ikea-nubbe och diskuterar om det ar faderallan eller fallerallan som galler.

    (Glad midsommar, etc)

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