Miss South and I have a long-running appreciation of the herring family: from whitebait, the essential anchovy (in all its multifarious forms) through to sprats, pilchards, sardines and herrings; little silvery fish get a full-on thumbs up.
Curiously I’d come late to the pleasures of sprats… but once I discovered how cheap (and I mean cheap) a handful of good fresh sprats could be, I was a convert. Normally I’d have them very simply; tossed in a dusting of flour and smoked paprika, grilled whole and finished with a little freshly-squeezed lemon juice, then eaten with some fresh crusty bread. The fact these small fish also answered to the delightfully silly scientific name of Sprattus Sprattus only enhanced their place high up the canon of favourite, fast, fishy fixes. But I alliterate too much…
So I was delighted when Miss South gifted me a tin of Swedish sprats as a Christmas stocking filler, which she’d picked up on her previously documented mission to the wonderful Scandanavian Kitchen. Miss South’s cryptic gift tag suggested whatever was under the wrapping paper would be perfect for Jansson’s Temptation. Suspecting this might be a lesser-known Ingmar Bergman movie, I was unsure what to expect, and was relieved when I found a tin of lightly pickled fish labelled ‘Ansjovis’. Produced, incidentally, by Abba, who seem to dominate the Swedish fish market as absolutely as they dominated late 70s pop charts. I thought she’d tapped into a long-running and slightly tongue-in-cheek tradition we’ve established of giving each other very good quality anchovies, but she soon set me straight.
An etymological note here: the pesky Swedes confuse English-speakers no end by referring to their sprats as ansjovis (and their anchovies as sardeller, to further muddy the linguistic waters). So when I started hunting around for recipes for Jansson’s temptation (or Janssons frestelse) I quickly found erroneous references to anchovies. However the basic ingredients otherwise seemed the same in most versions of the recipe. Today I decided to allay the chilly mid-January blues by finding out what Jansson got so hot under the collar about…
First, the main oven was pre-heated to around 200° (Gas Mark 6). I finely diced a large Spanish onion, and added the liquid from the tin of fish (a light salty-sweet pickling solution) with a little oil to the bottom of a pan to heat through. Softening the onions for around five minutes first, I then added three thinly-sliced Desirée potatoes (I went for sliced, rather than matchstick-like as some recipes suggest… and I also kept the skins on. I don’t care if I go to hell for this… I like ’em) and sweated the whole mix for around 10 minutes. A softly vinegar & aniseed-like aroma escaped from the lid everytime I checked progress: once I was happy I took the veg off the heat, stirred in a small pot of double cream, and seasoned generously.
A side note, I generally ‘season generously’. You can’t beat a goodly helping of Maldon salt and cracked black pepper in most things, not least something comprising primarily of spuds and cream. Finally I stirred in the finely chopped fish, ensuring everything was well-coated and mixed up. Then into an heat-proof dish and into the oven for about 30 minutes.
Fast forward half an hour, and I opened the oven door to let a quite wonderful smell and sight assail me. A crisp golden crust of potato and bubbling sauce sat atop the hot layered goodness. Resisting the temptation to immediately snaffle a good portion until I’d dutifully taken some snaps, I then cut into the dish and ladled the steaming contents onto a waiting dish. I’m very pleased to report that this tasted at least as good as I expected: creamy onion and mild fishiness playing against the almost-dauphinoisesque potatoes in an oh-so-moreable manner.
This is superbly easy-to-make comfort food for colder climes and times: I can see why this is a staple winter favourite with our Nordic neighbours. Heartily recommended (and consumed, no doubt). I understand why the mysterious Jansson was indeed tempted: it’s a great way of making basic ingredients sing harmoniously. Instantly added to the North/South list of winter faves. I expect this isn’t the last time a member of the clupidae family will grace the pages of this blog, given their natural pairing with gherkins and other pickles, and our penchant for such pleasures!