Monday, October 12, 2009

Back for Seconds: Herring and Aquavit Part I

When I was 16 I went on a yearlong student exchange. For a while I thought I'd go to Finland. But then someone told me that Finnish noun declension consists of 15 grammatical cases--after two years of Latin and struggling with its 7 cases, that was enough to make me reconsider my choice.

In the end I chose Denmark. It seemed incredibly exotic; no one in my family had been there (as a youngest child I wanted to do my own thing), and most students lived on farms.  A few months before leaving I found out where I'd live: on a dairy farm outside Sønder Harritslev, in the northernmost province of Vendsyssel on the peninsula called Jylland (Jutland). I remember finding the town (or its vague location) on our black globe and tracing my way back along the same latitude to North America. I would be as far north as the middle of Hudson Bay.

View Herring and Aquavit in a larger map
When I arrived there, I was determined to try and like every food.  I was more accustomed to exotic foods than many of the students.  Some kids had never eaten bread that wasn't white--so they were pretty horrified by the leverpostej (liver spread).

You can imagine how they felt about the sild (herring).  Most exchange students hated it, thinking it was too close to raw fish (this was, obviously, before sushi became a craze in the US).  But it wasn't raw--the herring was brine cured.  For me, the sild was a treat.   

I quickly learned the order of sandwiches at lunch (I hope I'm getting this right): sild, vegetables (often cucumber and tomato), meats, cheeses (these were NEVER combined), and, finally, butter and jam.  The first sandwiches were all made with rugbrød, a store-bought hearty rye bread.  The cheese sandwich offered a choice: stay with the rugbrød, or change over to the familiar looking white bread, franskbrød. I liked to eat my cumin flecked cheese on the heavy rye bread. But my Danish mother usually changed to her home-baked franskbrød with blue cheese.  Or sometimes she'd even use the course to bridge the shift to jam, putting  a little spoonful on top of her cheese.

But sild was a special treat, and when it appeared, it was the main attraction.  You put a half a piece of rye bread on your smørrebrød board, and carefully covered it with butter.  This is important: the butter makes an impermeable buffer between the bread and any brine juices, so your bread maintains its integrity.  The pieces of sild lay neatly across the sandwich, a few pickled onion slices hula hooping their way around them.  Never pick up your sandwich in your hands, always use your  knife and fork.

 I didn't need to pretend to like the sild (I saved my acting abilities for things like overcooked spaghetti served with ketchup and sliced up fuschia colored hot dogs).  In fact, I took an instant liking to everything about it: the meaty texture, the briny taste (part sea, part cure), and the cruncy pickled onions.

To accompany, we drank beer (families were faithful to either Carlsberg or Tuborg; we were a Tuborg family) and snaps (aquavit).  The first time I was offered a glass, I was a little surprised.  I was used to the occasional glass of wine with a meal, and in Denmark, beer.  But snaps was different: it was, well, hard.  But you couldn't avoid it. And pretty soon I didn't want to avoid it, its clean caraway taste the perfect foil for the briny fish.

At any family celebration or weekend lunch with sild, out came the Aalborg Aquavit and the tiny v-shaped glasses.  The first time I was confused--I was trying to maneuver the sild on to my knife and fork, carefully lifting it to my mouth hoping not to drop anything, when all of the sudden everyone had raised their glasses and yelled skål!  This happened many times, seemingly without warning, throughout the sild course.  But I caught on quickly, learning that when it was time to skål, everything stopped. Knife and fork went back on the plate, glass got raised, meaningful eye contact made with everyone at the table, and then skål!


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