It’s Herring Season in Holland!
Basketball season? Over. Football? Not quite yet. So what’s there to get excited about?
Herring is one of the most common, cheap and most delicious fish – one that can be prepared in an endless array of ways: marinated, pickled, salted, fermented, smoked, or, as with the exquisite Hollandse Nieuwe, straight from the sea. And in America, this specialty fish is gaining a cult following.
Hollandse Nieuwe – A Dutch Treat
This specific herring can only be caught from mid May through mid July, when the fish are at its fattest and ready to lay eggs. (Think of this as the sea’s version of foie gras.)
For over 600 years, herring has been a staple of the Dutch diet. Fishing boats never needed to go far to seize this “silver from the sea.” Plentiful in the North Sea, fishermen would reel in these shimmering swimmers throughout the year – but it was soon discovered that the tastiest catch were the newly matured fish caught in late spring.
They would be called the “new” herring – or Hollandse Nieuwe.
Herring Season Opens In Holland
The herring season in Holland opens every year on a Saturday in late May with a festival called Vlaggetjesdag – or Flag Day. Decorated ships both large and small fill the harbor at Scheveningen, a vacation resort and seaport located near The Hague.
Herring and Scheveningen are so closely related that the city’s coat of arms bear three herrings topped with a crown of gold. People from nearby fishing villages put on their traditional costumes, while folk dancing and folk orchestras entertain the crowds with local music – a tradition that dates back to the 1300s.
Today, the Dutch herring industry boasts around 25 large ships about 300 feet long. Each contains all the facilities necessary to mechanically catch, clean, cure, freeze and store the fish.
The Taste that Launched a Thousand Ships
The herring business in Holland began in the 14th century when Dutchman Willem Bueckelszoon invented what was known as the “gibbing” process. (Now here’s the equivalent of an “attention, viewers” notice on TV. What you’re about to read may not be suitable for everyone. If you get queasy, immediately hit the fridge for something tasty.)
Gibbing removes the gills and part of the gullet from the fish, which eliminates any bitter taste. The liver and pancreas are left inside during the salt-curing process because they release enzymes essential for flavor. The fish is then cured in a barrel with one part salt to 20 herring.
With the discovery of the herring business, the Dutch began to build ships, which resulted in the Dutch becoming as a seafaring power. Not too shabby for a little plankton eater.
Eating Herring? That’s a “Whole” Other Story.
Fish stands all over Holland serve up these salty slivers on a paper plate with onions and pickles. The herring is chopped up into little pieces and placed on bread. Ask for it by name – “broodje haring.”
But why buck tradition? Grab the whole fish by its tail, dip in onions and let the slippery sucker go down smooth. Need a chaser? Herring’s alcoholic accompaniment is a pint of jenever. This juniper-flavored gin can only be sold in The Netherlands and Belgium – the European Union says so.
Herring as Healthfood
Unlike tuna and swordfish, herring isn’t laden with mercury. It’s also chock-filled with Omega 3’s which we’ve been told is good for us. Must be. Just a few years ago, the oldest person in the world, a 114-year-old Dutch woman, said she attributed her longevity to eating pickled herring every day. (Whether she was married as long, we’re not so sure. Clearly, her breath could kill.)
Take the “Red” to the Herring.
Ready for a taste? Travel to Amsterdam from Paris in just over three hours, or from Brussels in under two. Known as the “red train,” Thalys makes over 50 round-trips per day, so you’re sure to find a train that fits your schedule to catch this event.
And that’s no red herring.