When I first met my Finnish partner some ten years ago, I didn’t share his enthusiasm for pickled fish. In fact, if I’m honest, the thought of their slimy skin made me shudder. But considering that my nation’s major contribution to international cuisine, vegemite, makes most non-Australians recoil in horror, I realize now that I was too quick to pass judgment. Almost a decade later, I’ve come to embrace the humble herring and even found myself this week eagerly awaiting the opening of the annual herring market in Turku, southwestern Finland.
Now in its 40th year, the Turku Herring Market is a veritable feast for fish lovers. Secretary of the Turku Fish Market Association, Olli Ylönen, estimates that this year there are around 30 professional fishermen and primary producers spruiking their wares on the banks of the Aura River. Ylönen says that most vendors have made their way from Åland, Merikarvia and Pyhämaa, including one fisherman who has made an appearance at every market for the past 40 years.
Most vendors have made their way from Åland, Merikarvia and Pyhämaa, including one fisherman who has made an appearance at every market for the past 40 years.
As I’ve come to learn, Baltic herring has long been a dietary staple here in the north. Not only is the pint-sized fish relatively affordable, but it is also rich in omega-3 and other valuable nutrients. Baltic herring is found in abundance in Finland’s coastal waters and far outstrips its rivals as the most important species in commercial fishing. In fact, according to the Natural Resources Institute Finland, there were almost 840 000 tonnes of herring spawning stock in the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Finland in 2017 alone.
While herring is often pickled or salted, it can also be grilled, smoked, or marinated, and stallholders at the Turku Herring Market have experimented with almost every flavor imaginable: garlic, juniper, blackcurrant, sherry, buckthorn, and even tar. Sari Sahlgren, whose stall boasts some of the most unusual combinations, says she enjoys presenting herring in unexpected ways. Working alongside her husband, Sahlgren says they prepare every product by hand, a commitment that has fittingly earned them a loyal following.
For those who find the prospect of tar-flavored herring somewhat alarming, rest assured that there are other products available to purchase. As well as the arguably more palatable smoked whitefish, there are piles of berries, mounds of mushrooms, and a selection of reindeer-related produce. There are, of course, also handicrafts and other types of goods that are found in most markets these days. But at least for this culinary convert, the highlight remains the herring and I’m now busily rearranging my refrigerator to make more space.