FILET O'FISH VIKING STYLE

The thought of eating pickled herring makes most British people feel queasy, but in Sweden Michael Bateman discovers the pleasures of authentic rollmops
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The Independent Culture
Pickled Herring is a delicious treat, especially in summer salads. Sprinkled with dill, chopped herring fillets go well with cold potatoes, chopped onions, sieved hard-boiled eggs. Or in a salad with chopped apple, grated carrots and gherkins or cucumbers.

Herring also likes a dressing of sour cream or creme fraiche, or even fromage frais or thick yogurt. The dressing is especially good with a sweetened Dijon-style mustard.

In northern Germany, Denmark, Holland, Norway and Sweden cured, smoked, and pickled fish are permanent delights of the table. Yet, though we are also a northern European country, our interest in cured fish really only goes as far as the smoked kind: salmon, haddock, kippers and, occasionally, eel. This is our loss.

If you were to visit Hamburg when the first of the new season's matjes (that's salted herring marinated with sugar, vinegar and spices) come in you would find the city in a mood of celebration, restaurants filled to bursting. Towering, blonde, Wagnerian wenches in colourful peasant costume dispense the best German lagers and spirit as you tuck in. You take a fillet of salted herring by the tail, suspend it above your mouth and let it slither in, immediately chucking back a slug of ice-cold aquavit, a spirit often flavoured with caraway, anise or cumin.

Pickled herring is the basis of a smorgasbord in Norway, a groaning festive table of all manner of cooked meats, eggs, but mostly fish - smoked salmon, sturgeon, pike-perch, mackerel and cods' roe, dry-cured gravadlax (cured salmon) and a dozen pickled herring dishes. Some will be very salty. Others are in sweet-sour marinades flavoured with dill and spices.

In Sweden it is much the same, and now that Ikea has established a spearhead of stores in the UK complete with cafes, we're beginning to get a taste of the real thing. A few lucky people who ate at London's first Swedish restaurant, Anna's Place, in Islington, before it closed down, will know what a joy good pickled fish can be. It was Anna (Hegarty) herself who introduced the British to the delicious dill-flavoured gravadlax (literally buried salmon).

The quality of her pickled fish was unique. But strangely it has never been easy to buy such good products in supermarkets. There have been a few exceptions, such as Marks & Spencer's herring rollmops, and good fishmongers sell Orkney rollmops in a pleasant sweet pickle.

There are also delicatessens, especially Polish stores, selling spiced matjes vacuum-packed in oil.

These are, unfortunately, the exceptions. I had always wondered why the majority of pickled herring sold in supermarkets have been disappointing, the selection dominated for 20 years by a brand-leader called Marina, imported from Denmark. It was hard to credit that the Danes themselves actually enjoyed this harsh, vinegary product.

Well, I can report that Marina (Den-mark) is no more. It has been swallowed up in a Norwegian take-over bid and the operation transferred to Sweden. The imports to Britain for the last year have been made to agreeable, traditional Swedish recipes. And the brand is now Marina (Sweden).

How fish is cured is a mystery to most of us in Britain, so recently I gladly accepted an invitation to visit Sweden's largest processors, near Gothenburg, the country's second city, on the western seaboard.

Fish factories are chilly and smelly places so my hosts decided to introduce me to their fish culture through the medium of chef Leif Manner-strom, Sweden's most famous fish cook, who organises an annual competition, Le Poisson d'Or, to find the best young fish cook.

Chef Mannerstrom is a neatly bearded but fearsome Viking who runs a great, timbered harbourside restaurant, Sjomagasinet, the speciality of which is roast saddle of cod. This is a 10kg fish first browned in olive oil, then dusted with breadcrumbs and chopped parsley, and roasted in a very hot oven for half an hour or so. It is served with a rich gravy made from brown stock (fish bones roasted with red wine and vegetables). It's meltingly tender.

The meal starts, though, with drained matjes and here it's presented elegantly under a red, green and golden canopy of garnishes; chopped red onion, chopped dill, scrambled egg, chopped chives. A bowl of hot, boiled new potoatoes is served alongside.

This is the excuse to discuss the unique culture of the herring. From the 18th century Sweden had its herring laws (as other countries had corn laws and bread laws) which governed prices to ensure it was available to workers and the poorest people.

Preserving fish has always been a matter of desperate survival in Scandinavia. In the long, dark, bitter winters nothing grows and fishing is dangerous or impossible. Hence the drying of fish (stockfish as hard as planks) and dry-smoking of both fish and meat (salmon and herring, ham, sausage, reindeer).

But the most common form of preservation has always been, and still is, salting. This is what they still do at nearby Kungshamn, home of Sweden's largest fish company, called Abba.

It is no coincidence that it has the same name as the rhythmical Swedish pop group, but the fish company is the older of the two. Abba (fish) dates back to 1838, when it was founded by the brothers Ameln who named the company, in English and Swedish, Ameln Brothers/Broderna Ameln, or Abba for short. So it was, that in the Seventies, an unknown Swedish pop group, whose members had the same initials, approached the company and asked if they could use the name. The Swedish, who enjoy a bad joke, said yes. So Abba is named after a herring factory.

Abba is Sweden's largest fish pro-cessor and 30 trawlers dock here daily to land between 10,000 and 100,000 tons of fish. Much of which has been caught off Norway, and some has already been part-processed in Iceland.

On landing, the fish is taken to a unique storage site, miles of caves which were excavated in the mountainside in the Fifties when the Cold War was at its most threatening. Here, the fish can be stored at a constant temperature of 4C to 10C in plastic barrels (wood barrels for smoked cod's roe).

Every sort of fish product is prepared in the factory here and it's a fairly labour-intensive programme; fish balls in sauce or consomme, prawns, "caviare" of smoked cod's roe, salted lumpfish and the roes of other fish. Every Swedish family will have in their fridge a tube of roe to squeeze on to rye crispbread as a daily snack.

But the herring is now not only the most important product for national consumption in Sweden but also for export to Europe. Since Sweden joined the EC two years ago exports have really taken off (until then they had to pay 20 to 30 per cent duty).

Most of the herring arrives at Abba in barrels from Iceland and Norway in two main forms; salted or marinated. Salted is the more traditional. As soon as the fish is caught, it is beheaded and gutted, dry-salted, and left for 24 hours, in which time it draws out moisture from the fish to form a dense brine. To this is added 60 per cent volume of a diluted brine. It is packed in barrels and stored for four months.

The Dutch, Danish and Germans prefer it in this form, buying it straight from the barrel. They soak the fillets in water for several hours (or overnight) to draw out some of the saltiness.

At Abba, though, they use these fillets as the raw material for more sophisticated products, such as titbits of herring (rinsed of excess brine) and then marinated with vinegar and sugar, or blended with creamy and mustardy sauces.

Matjes, though, as far as the Swedish are concerned are fillets which have been initially salted for 24 hours, then drained and transferred to a spiced brine, which contains sugar and vinegar. The predominant flavour is allspice, though cloves, sandalwood and bay are usually added. These are also matured for four months. They may then be drained to be sold in jars as titbits in other guises, with dill, with sauces. Others are preserved in sunflower oil and vacuum-packed in plastic packets to be sold at chill counters.

This spicy matjes fillet is actually enjoying its centenary about now, having been created by Abba in the 1890s. Necessity was the mother of its invention, being the result of a failure in the herring catch one year. They pressed in to service the very small fish, sprats (brisling), salting the tiny fillets.

But brined in the usual way they had no substance (unlike Basque and Mediterranean anchovies in oil), so they experimented with flavourings adding sugar and spice and many other things nice, such as tomato sauce. When the mature herring returned, they successfully transferred the new marinade and today, this is the flavour a Swede would expect in herring.

Sprats are prepared in this marinade but misleadingly the Swedes sell them as anchovies. So any attempt to recreate Sweden's famous baked potato dish, Jansson's Temptation, will fail if Mediterranean anchovies in oil are substituted for Swedish cured sprats. We had it for lunch at Abba and very good it was too. The recipe is below.

You can buy Swedish spiced matjes and "anchovies" at Ikea and delis. Orkney rollmops are increasingly available. And most supermarkets stock the improved Marina (Sweden) jars of herring in marinades and sauces.

If you have access to salt herring from your fishmonger, you can pickle your own, soaking them for 24 hours to draw out exccess saltiness. Here is the modern recipe. (Some will add diced carrot, white pepppercorns, a clove or two, several bayleaves, a piece of horseradish.)

MARINATED HERRING

2 salt herrings (500-750g/1lb 2oz-1lb 8oz)

1-2 red onions, sliced

For the marinade:

6 tablespoons vinegar concentrate

150ml water

Or:

250ml of 7 per cent vinegar

150-200g/5-7oz sugar

10 allspice berries, crushed

Clean the herrings and soak in cold water for 24 hours. Change the water frequently (three times should be sufficient). Skin and fillet the herring. Place whole herring or pieces of herring in a jar with the onion.

In a saucepan combine all the ingredients for the marinade and bring to the boil. Cool. Pour the cooled marinade over the herrings and onion and leave to marinate for several hours, preferably overnight.

Garnish with thin slices of red onion.

HERRING SALAD WITH BEETROOT GARNISH

This is one of the traditional salads.

Serves 4

2-4 matjes, herring fillets

2 onions or leeks, finely chopped

2-3 pickled beets or sour pickles, finely chopped

3 tablespoons capers

4 bolied eggs

100g/312oz melted butter

sprigs of dill, to garnish

Drain the fillets and place on a serving dish. Alongside, group the onions, beets and capers. Pour melted butter over the dish. Arrange the eggs around the salad and garnish with dill.

Serve immediately, preferably with Swedish crispbread or toast and butter.

JANSSON'S TEMPTATION

Serves 4

8 medium-sized potatoes

1 large onion, coarsely chopped

125g tin Swedish "anchovies" drained, the marinade reserved or 125g chopped matjes (titbits) and their juice

30g/1oz butter

200ml/10fl oz single cream

6 tablespoons breadcrumbs

Peel potatoes and cut into matchstick-sized pieces. Do not wash.

Line a buttered oven dish with half the potatoes, then the onion, then the drained anchovy fillets. Cover with the rest of the potatoes, then the breadcrumbs, dabbing with blobs of butter.

Pour the "anchovy" marinade and half the cream on top and bake (400F/ 200C/Gas 6) for 50 to 60 mins. Add remaining cream after half an hour.

GRAVADLAX

For every 1kg (214lb) of salmon

312 tablespoons salt

7 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon white peppercorns, crushed

dill

Combine the salt and sugar and rub into the salmon.

Arrange a layer of dill in a low dish which just holds the fish. Dill should only be chopped once. Place one side of salmon on the dill, skin- side down, sprinkle with the peppercorns and a generous amount of dill. Top with the remaining side of salmon, skin-side up. Cover with dill. Leave for a couple of hours at room temperature.

Weigh down the salmon and marinate in a dark, cool place for 48 hours. The gravadlax is now ready to serve, but it can keep for a week in the fridge.

Mackerel, trout, char and whitefish can also be marinated in this way.

GRAVADLAX SAUCE

Serves 4

3 tablespoons mustard (Swedish - available from Ikea, or Dijon)

1 tablespoon sugar

200ml/7fl oz neutral oil

chopped dill

salt and white pepper

Combine mustard and sugar. Whisk in the oil. Stir in a generous amount of chopped dill and season to taste with salt and pepper. !

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