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Of the Earth: Jansson’s Temptation offers a cautionary fish tale

  • Jansson’s Temptation, a dish of potatoes, anchovies, onions and cream. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Wesley Blixt, left, and David Fersh enjoy table talk while consuming wine and Jansson’s Temptation, a dish of potatoes, anchovies, onions and cream, in Fersh’s Charlemont home. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • David Fersh, left, and Wesley Blixt prepare Jansson’s Temptation, a dish of potatoes, anchovies, onions and cream, in Fersh’s Charlemont home. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Jansson’s Temptation, a dish of potatoes, anchovies, onions and cream. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ



For the Recorder
Tuesday, September 11, 2018

It began, as some things do, with anchovies.

They’re called sprats in Scandinavia, boquerones in Spain — you know, the tiny green fish with a blue iridescence and silver stripe. An aphrodisiac, some folks say, anchovies melt into any recipe. Whisper “anchovy,” and I am there.

This is why I responded immediately in January when David Fersh of Charlemont sent me a recipe for an anchovy-laden dish from Sweden called “Jansson’s Temptation.” I was new to this column at the time, and needed reader-submitted recipes. I still do. And Fersh, a talented writer, was able to spin a good tale about the mythology behind the dish.

All that mattered, along with the fact that I’m a Swede.

Fersh was good enough to make up a batch of Jansson’s, and he invited me to join him, along with a bottle of akvavit — a distilled spirit much like vodka, but seasoned with spices like coriander and dill. I, unfortunately, never made it, and Fersh froze the dish for another day. The days became months.

Fast forward to mid-August. Digital technology actually makes fast-forwarding quaint and unnecessary. Just snap your fingers and you are there, which is how we decided to attempt a big Jansson’s “reveal” on camera. We would dramatically thaw the Jansson’s Temptation like Geraldo Rivera opening Al Capone’s vault. And then we would relish the dish itself on camera, with all kinds of fascinating cultural references, like Anthony Bourdain in Vietnam. We booked Greenfield Recorder photographer and videographer Paul Franz to do the shoot.

It was a compelling idea. Apparently, it was a little too compelling. The first problem was that, after an advance peek at the earlier batch of Jansson’s, Fersh decided to chuck it. Too risky, he said. Better to start off anew.

Secondly, it seems that the word “video” can make you a little crazy. So can anchovies. Between the two, we wound up with an exaggerated sense of what was possible.

Fersh generously put together a three-course meal, full of surprises, just for the video shoot. He prepared an intricate soundtrack that began with The Doors’ “Soul Kitchen.” I ordered special Swedish flag T-shirts, and practiced Swedish pronunciations of words like Temptation — “Frestelse.” We were happily indulging in all this preparation on the appointed afternoon when the doorbell rang.

It’s hard to describe Paul Franz’s face at the door on that steamy afternoon in Charlemont. The air was heavy with anchovies, and Franz had just raced across the county from New Salem where he had been shooting a house fire caused by a lighting strike. It had been a long, hot day. “So, what do you have in mind?” he asked.

We laid out the whole plan: the carefully constructed camera angles, the music, the Swedish, the fact that Fersh would substitute pine nuts for bread crumbs. Fersh guessed it would run about an hour. “Or maybe half an hour,” I said cautiously, watching Franz growing paler. These videos, Franz said quietly, rarely exceed two minutes.

And thus began a delicate navigation of the possible, as we filled several video memory cards before sitting down to dinner with a hearty toast (Skol!) and a rendition of Bob Dylan’s classic “Country Pie.” With great patience and skill, Franz eventually edited the sprawling video down to something just under six minutes.

And the Jansson’s Frestelse? Truly tempting.

Jansson’s Temptation

Ingredients:

9 to 10 medium potatoes

20 anchovies (sprats)

1 medium onion

5 oz. milk

5 oz. cream

2 tsp. butter

Bread crumbs (or pine nuts)

Salt

Pepper

Chop the potatoes into sticks, thinner than french fries. Cook the onion slices in butter, then add the potatoes and cook a few minutes to soften.

Layer half the mixture and two-thirds of the milk/cream in an oven-proof dish. Top with 10 sprats. Repeat the layering, adding nuts.

Bake at 200 degrees for 45 minutes or until the potatoes are fully cooked.

Wesley Blixt lives in Greenfield. He is a longtime reporter and is the author of “SKATERS: A Novel.” Send him recipes, stories and suggestions at wesleyblixt@me.com.