It is long overdue that I write about my one great food love: herring. The new season started in June and to my joy the New Herring (Hollandse Nieuwe) can be obtained in Berlin as well!
Herring is a major part of Dutch food culture: it is eaten “raw” after a process of gibbing, saltening, curing, and – nowadays – freezing. This technique was invented centuries ago as a way to preserve the fish longer. Back in time more salt was used and not all fish was equally fresh, so diced raw onion was served with the fish to obscure any unpalatable flavours. Still today herring is generally served with onion and pickles – out of preference, not necessity :).
It is a controversial dish in that people tend to either love it or hate it. Whether it´s the idea of eating raw fish, the soft but slippery texture, the salty flavour, or the fact you´ll smell like fish the rest of the day – herring has collected a solid hater base. The fan base is formed of those who know how to appreciate the soft, fatty flavour of the New Herring.
Every June we celebrate the arrival of the New Herring with a festival in Scheveningen: Flag Day (Vlaggetjesdag). The first barrel of herring is auctioned and the best herring can be eaten there. Then the hunt for the Netherlands´ best herring shop is on: there are tests and competitions. Every Dutch herring fan will know where to get the best herring in his or her town.
Not any herring can be a New Herring though. No, no, no: the fish is subject to a strict set of rules before it can call itself New. It has to be caught between mid-May and mid-June, so that the fat percentage is up to standard (minimum 16%), it must be processed as described above, and it needs to be filleted correctly (head and fish bones removed except for the tail). Anything fished later can still be eaten of course, but then it´s just a plain old “salt herring”…
The true herring lover will recognise the New Herring without knowing its background: it will taste soft, not too salty, tender, and, well, delicious! The fanatics among us herring fans will tell you the New Herring does not need any condiments (no onion! no pickle!) and should be eaten whole by lifting the fish up by its tail and lowering it to bite off a piece.
I agree a good herring doesn´t need much, but wouldn´t frown upon a pickle or bit of onion here and there. In terms of accompanying drinks, you could think of a good glass of white (sparkling) wine. But as a true Dutch, I secretly prefer to pair it with fresh milk.
Then there are tons of variations on how to serve the fish: on rye bread, in a bun, or even as sushi. In the Netherlands we tend to stick with the salty herring, but other countries have found a great diversity of ways to prepare the fish: marinated, smoked, fried, or matched with sweet or sour sauces, or vegetables. A truly versatile fish!
And if you´re still not convinced of the culinary qualities of herring, perhaps the health benefits will do the trick. A good herring is full of healthy fats, proteins, and vitamins. I strongly believe my grandma made it to old age in good health thanks to her tendency to eat a herring almost every day.
I find this a very good excuse for getting a good herring as often as I can!
Photo credit: LL, JLO, NT