Story and photos by Manos Angelakis
The new herring season has just ended.
You don’t have to be Dutch, or Swedish, or a citizen of any of the nations that border Europe’s North and Baltic Seas to appreciate herring.
In the Netherlands, the herring fishing season starts end of May and the first week of June is when the New Catch Holland Herring, known in the Netherlands as “Nieuwe Maatjes” arrives.
What is caught is young, immature herring that are of a specific size and are at least three years old. They should have a fat content of at least 16%, which only occurs after they start eating plankton in the spring, so the herring season spans mid-May through very early August.
Knowledgeable food lovers know it is a spring delicacy and there’s only a short window of time when herring is at the peak of its flavor. Just once a year, in a short 4 week period, herring in the North Sea reaches a peak of taste coming to the table succulent, buttery, mild and soft with a delicate flavor and a slightly salty undertone. It is as satisfying as the finest sashimi.
In Amsterdam, its arrival is celebrated as a national holiday and the first barrel of herring to reach port is auctioned off for charity. New herring is a very popular treat as well as perennial street food in the Netherlands and also in Belgium in June and July but is also still popular later on in the year when the fish has matured; it is leaner and is preserved by heavier salting.
The new catch is rushed to market by air express; the first to arrive on American stores are the best of the incoming crop. They go to upscale restaurants in New York City and delicacy shops throughout Manhattan; most notably Russ and Daughters, a direct importer that takes first delivery of the new catch and sells them in their retail shops at Manhattan’s Lower East Side and at 34th Street and 10th Avenue and in Brooklyn.
In New York, the herring is typically served as close to whole as possible. After the head, intestines and spine are removed, the two fillets of the fish are still attached at the tail and the whole thing is served on a plate. If you have the herring at Grand Central’s Oyster Bar, they artfully display the two fillets out on a plate in a “V,” and serve them with chopped hard-boiled egg, diced onion, and minced chives as a garnish.
In Holland and Belgium, only the head and intestines are removed and the young fish, held by the tail over the mouth is consumed, backbone and all!
Herring has always been a staple food for Northern Europeans; the Scandinavians of course, but also for the British, Russians, and Germans. In France the herring is grilled and accompanied by mustard sauce; in Britain cold-smoked and turned into breakfast kippers. They’re spiced, salted, pickled, doused in mustard and curry, teamed with cucumber pickles, tomatoes and dill, manipulated in dozens of ways.
With the exception of the foreign born and their families, we Americans are hardly a factor in the herring world. We do have our fun with the fish, talking of “red herrings” and whimsical dities like “herring boxes without topses...”
Otherwise, they are hardly mentioned on this side of the Atlantic. But for the knowledgeable, particularly in the first weeks of June, fresh herring are a delicacy worth a place on anyone’s best plates.
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