GUEST BLOGGER: Adam Lisberg
We must not have been paying attention, because we had no idea we were heading to Herring Island until we smelled it. My wife and I had been roaming the roads of West Sweden in early winter, through the low forests and farmhouses, heading west toward the water and a restaurant we only knew as Salt & Sill on a tiny outcropping of Tjörn called Klädesholmen. I am a profound fan of herring, an enthusiast for all forms of smoked and salted and pickled fish, and yet in my jet-lagged state I didn’t know that “sill” is Swedish for “herring.”
We learned quickly. The road from Hotel Vann took us through a small village, over a bridge and into a cove of red wooden homes ringed by grey boulders – and a smell in the air we couldn’t place at first. It wasn’t bad, and it wasn’t even fishy; it was a savory scent, salty like the sea air but with more zest. We parked next to a small industrial building in the fading mid-afternoon light, saw rows of blue plastic barrels stacked at the edge of the lot, and realized: This was a herring factory, the center of an island devoted to herring.
Klädesholmen was once awash in herring. For hundreds of years, fleets would sail out on the cold waters to rake in the catch; it was the basis of diets, of trade and of prosperity. Canneries on the island would process hundreds of thousands of tons of herring and other fish, developing new flavors and sending them out for sale in the rest of Sweden. The glory days faded through the 1900s, as the great schools of herring thinned out and the processing plants shrank and consolidated.
We knew none of this at the time. All we knew was that we had a lunch reservation at Salt & Sill, and we were hungry.
In an elegant but simple room reminiscent of a farmhouse, we sat a table with an oil lamp and a Christmas candelabra glowing. Out came a sampling of heaven: Six kinds of herring, flavored with black currants and creamy mustard and fresh herbs, accompanied by a flight of schnapps infused with flavors to match. For people like us, who usually catch our herring in a glass jar in the grocery store, this was a revelation. The restaurant manager set us straight: This was just a sampling. It was Christmas table season, she said, and in a few hours the waterfront room next to our table would be full of diners feasting on 30 different types of herring.
Outside, the sky turned a deep blue as we cleared our plates. Susanna Hermansson, who owns Salt & Sill with her husband Patrick, offered to show us around the property – a linked set of buildings that also hold conferences and cooking classes, plus what she assured us was the first floating hotel in all of Sweden. Built on a series of pontoons, with turbines underneath to generate power from the tides, the 23-room hotel was allowed to be moored to the island only after it passed muster with Klädesholmen’s environmental guardians. The rooms are named for the spices and herbs used to flavor some of the restaurant’s dozens of herring varieties – fennel, vanilla, lemon and the like.
Up on the roof, there’s a Jacuzzi. And attached to the side is what we were assured is the world’s fastest floating sauna, the SS Silla – that’s the female version of the fish. It has a conference room on top, a lounge that can hold 12, and a full-fledged sauna – perfect for work getaways and parties. On clear water, it can top 15 knots.
It was all a bit dazzling. We had always known herring as a fish, not a way of life. Klädesholmen showed us otherwise. By the time we headed out, it was too late to see the herring museum, or even to tour the factory near where we parked – though a few locals told us it packaged the herring sold in Ikea. Instead we drove back to Göteborg a little stunned, amazed at how hundreds of years of history and a floating sauna came together on a small speck of rock, all inspired by a humble fish.