We’re set floating in this light on midsummer day’s eve. The Baltic’s still, now that its been channeled around one island after another, though the surface slightly bends like a plate of glass heated and slowly turning in and out of itself. Think of a mirror dulled with age reflecting a dusted blue sky ringed by clouds and their dark underbellies. All around there’s a smudge of light as though this mirror lies flat on its back in an attic where only thin strips of sun break through to ghost an illuminated world. Trees and shoals remain steadfastly as black as ink.
Everything becomes a silhouette when dusk, our eyes, what our minds remember of light, a camera, and all that makes up this landscape conspire to remind us we live on an edge of blindness and at any moment may not be able to see a face in front of us.
A late-evening meal restores our insides. Bread with butter, boiled white potatoes covered in butter, pickled herring, a hard-boiled egg and crème fraîche with chives. Herring features prominently in the core cuisine of this land. Magnus Nilsson offers a history of herring in The Nordic Cook Book.
Herring has been, and is still today, one of the most widely consumed fishes in the Nordic region. It figures in a multitude of different recipes, and historically was important not only as food. In the eighteenth century, the streetlights of Paris and many other European cities were fueled by train oil, boiled from herring along the Scandinavian Atlantic coast and many European hands were washed in soap made from the same substance. (191)
A Proustian image lurks in Nilsson’s words, lets see if I can set the scene . . . Swann dresses for dinner and as his habit, after he’s put his coat on, washes his hands, turning a small piece of herring soap over and over with an air of enterprise, cunning and success. Out on the street, he steps from darkness to light under a series of hanging bulbs that pour down an uneven herring light on his face. He’s given his favorite table by the front window at La Pérouse. He orders Harengs à la Calaisienne, several herrings stuffed with their own roe, shallot, mushrooms, parsley and plenty of butter, then wrapped tightly and baked. He closes his eyes and remembers a small island in the Baltic where he spent a summer gathering wild strawberries and eating pickled herring. Fade to black.
Nilsson offers many herring recipes culled from the kitchens of Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark. Here’s the recipe for Pickled Fresh Baltic Herring, Base Recipe.
Mix 400ml/14 fl oz (1 2/3 cups) cold water with the vinegar, sugar and salt in a bowl and stir until the salt and sugar have both dissolved. Drop in the fish fillets and leave in the fridge for about 6 hours. Every 2 hours, go there and carefully stir around a bit so that the fish cures evenly. The fish is ready when it has firmed up and looks like it has been cooked almost all the way through when broken.
Out here when night falls only an occasional bird cry and the lapping of water keeps us company. A silence worthy of August Strindberg’s thoughts in his play Ghost Sonata. The dead walk the streets, a woman sits in a cupboard because she can’t stand the light, what we see on the stage characters do not see, and then there is the ghost supper.
Why do you call it the ghost supper?
They all look like ghosts. And they’ve kept this up for twenty years, always the same people saying the same things or saying nothing at all for fear of being found out.
A house of guilt, secrets and silence.
I prefer silence – then you can hear thoughts, see the past. In silence, you cannot hide anything – which is more than one can say for words.
These words don’t occur to me with heaviness, rather with a weight not too difficult to carry, one that seems suited to this place. Here with my thoughts and for hours a half-light that almost looks ready to plunge into darkness, but then pulls back up like a window blind into day, hours of midsummer dispel history and this could be any year in any century. Strindberg stayed in the archipelago on the nearby island of Runmarö from May to December 1889. Without moving, he would have traveled a long day’s journey into day and night, the early flush of spring to the burying of things in winter. Runmarö curls around the top of Storön and in the above photos is the land in shadow across the water. Tomorrow we’ll explore the island, but for now we’ll go to bed and dream of maypoles, moss, fallen pines, green wood, and Freyja and Freyr walking the waters of the Stockholm Archipelago.