After mustard herring and plain pickled herring, skärgårdssill or “archipelago herring” has to be my favorite. And — as we soon shall see — I am far from the only one who finds it difficult to resist this creamy herring with fish roe and dill.
The creamy sauce and fresh flavors make it especially popular for a smörgåsbord for summer, such as a Midsummer celebration. In fact, I’d nominate this dish for your Midsummer feast, right now.
We’ve got a recipe coming up, but first, I’d thought I’d find out a bit more about the origins of archipelago herring. Apparently, it is a relatively new classic…
The origins of archipelago herring
So, when does the archipelago herring dish turn up? We’ve previously looked at the history of herring in Sweden, but that article focused on the standard pickled herring.
Now, we’ll take a look at herring in creamy roe sauce. The name skärgårdssill didn’t appear in my cookbooks so I started to look for similar dishes. There are plenty of recipes for herring in white sauce, for example, “delicatessen herring with sauce”, in Stora Kokboken (1946). The dish is made with whipped cream, a mild salad sauce, or mayonnaise. There’s no roe in the recipe — instead, the herring is garnished with finely chopped cucumber, hardboiled eggs, pickled beetroots, and capers. Prinsessornas kokbok (1934) also features a recipe with thick, cultured cream, but instead adds a hardboiled egg.
Even in later cookbooks — Vår kokbok (1962), Rutiga kokboken (1984) and Bonniers kokbok (2002) — are the roe sauce herrings absent. The first similar herring recipe I can find among the books in my collection is from Niklas Husmansklassiker, where Niklas Ekstedt shares several herring recipes. His Ingarö herring contains mayonnaise, sour cream, and fish roe. I have however not been able to find other recipes under the name of Ingarösill.
Did ABBA create the archipelago herring?
Not to have clickbaity headline… But ABBA is not only the Swedish musical group. It is also a large producer of mostly fish and seafood products. As they are among the biggest herring producers in Sweden, I contacted them to see if they had further information on the archipelago herring. Rebecca Lundgren, Brand Team Manager for ABBA, assisted me with answers.
Apparently, ABBA launched the archipelago herring, skärgårdssill, sometime in the 1990s. It turns out that it is a popular flavor, as ABBA sold 1.2 million jars in Sweden during 2020. In the popularity contest, it wins fourth place among ABBAs herrings, after mustard herring, onion herring, and plain pickled herring.
ABBA’s website offers plenty of recipe. The recipe for herring in roe sauce should be closest to the archipelago herring we find in the stores. Apart from herring, it includes crème fraîche, mayonnaise and lumpfish roe. The sauce is flavored with lemon, red onion, dill, and chives. If we take a sneak peek at the list of ingredients of ABBA’s skärgårdssill, the main ingredients seem to be herring, sour cream, mayonnaise, and onion (not specificied which type). The dill is added only as an aroma (oh no!) but the jar contains real chives. One interesting thing to note is that it is also seasoned with cayenne pepper, which is not normally listed as an ingredient in the archipelago herring recipes I’ve seen online.
So, according to the information I have now, it seems like ABBA created the archipelago herring in the 1990s, even although the custom of enjoying herring dipped in a creamy sauce is far older.
Herring names come and go
So, even if we’ve seen herring in creamy sauce earlier, the idea of adding fish roe to the sauce seems to be more recent and the name “archipelago herring” definitely is.
When looking into archipelago herring, it became clear that many herring flavors have come and gone. For example, this Vingasill, “Vinga herring”, in dill from ABBA seems to have been mighty popular. An old menu shows that Vinga herring was on the lunch menu of the second class passengers of Svenska Amerika Linien’s M/S Gripsholm on the first of February, 1929, going from Gothenburg to New York and Canada.
The backside of a herring jar makes it clear that “Vinga herring is a recognized name for herring in dill sauce and get its name from the lighthouse Vinga on the Swedish West coast” and also mentions that it is tinted with sandalwood. Today, we can still find plenty of dill herring on the Swedish supermarket shelves, but it is hardly sandalwood-colored — I have yet to see Vinga herring.
Even if archipelago herring’s popularity seems to be well-cemented today, who knows what herring flavors we will enjoy and consider classics a few decades from now. Glögg herring? Lemon herring with green tea? Saffron herring? Only time can tell.
Speaking of trends in herring names, can we just take a moment to enjoy the name of this herring jar?
Sill vous plaît instead of s’il vous plaît (French: “if you please”). It made me smile… Luckey’s promises that it is “the herring that pleases you”.
How to make tasty, simple archipelago herring — skärgårdssill
I tend to only use dill for this recipe as it’s easier and cheaper to just buy one bunch of herbs and use all of it, but the combination of dill and chives is delicious. I’d say this recipe comes pretty close to ABBA’s original — though it skips any aromas or preservatives. This serves about four people as a light lunch together with potatoes and maybe eggs, or works well as a smörgåsbord dish.
1 pack of ready-pickled herring, “five-minute herring” (or another neutral, pickled herring). I use a pack of 420 g (15 oz), resulting in about 210 g (7 1/2 oz) herring without brine. The exact quantity is not important, but if you have a much larger quantity, you may need to scale up the sauce.
1 1/4 dl (1/2 cup) crème fraîche or sour cream
3 tbsp mayonnaise
1 small jar of red fish roe, such as lumpfish roe, about 80 g (slightly less than 3 oz), reserve about 2 tbsp for the garnish
2 tbsp finely chopped red onion (can be omitted)
1/2 pot dill, finely chopped, about 4 tbsp
1/2 pot chives, finely chopped, about 4 tbsp
1/4 lemon — zest and juice
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper (white or black)
a touch of cayenne pepper (according to taste — can be omitted)
about 2 tsp reserved fish roe, from above the sauce above
1 tbsp finely chopped dill
1 tbsp finely chopped chives
- Drain the brine from the herring. Go over the fillets and tidy them up, if necessary. Cut the fillets in pieces, about 2 1/2 cm (1 inch) wide.
- In a bowl, prepare the sauce by adding the crème fraîche or sour cream, mayonnaise and fish roe. Add finely chopped red onion, dill, and chives. Stir it all together.
- Add lemon zest and lemon juice to the sauce. Flavor it with salt, pepper, and a little cayenne pepper. Taste test and add a bit more seasoning, if necessary.
- Place the herring in the sauce and stir until it is well coated. Place the herring with the sauce in a jar or covered bowl and let it sit in the fridge for a few hours, preferably over night. Store in the fridge. I aim to finish herring in creamy sauces within four days.
It doesn’t matter if the sauce is somewhat strong in flavor — the herring dilutes it a little, so to speak — but the sauce should be tasty in itself. You can easily vary the sauce depending on what you have at home, easily can buy, and what you prefer. For example, a friend of mine uses smetana instead of sour cream and omits the dill in favor of chives.
If you don’t want to buy “five-minute herring”, you can pickle herring yourself, or use a neutral, already pickled herring that you drain.
This herring feels very summery and is perfect for a Midsummer celebration. Serve the herring together with freshly boiled potatoes, as part of a smörgåsbord, or on crisp bread. Or, to be honest, I can eat it with a fork straight from the jar as a snack (don’t tell anyone).