New Dutch Herring
New Dutch Herring

Flavors of Holland


Herring in May

The herring season in Holland opens every year, on a Saturday, in late May with a festival called "Vlaggetjesdag", or Flag Day. Large and small ships are decorated with a rainbow of flags in 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. This is a tradition that dates back to the 14th century when fishermen went out to sea in their small boats to capture the annual catch. Today this ritual has become more of a tourist attraction and a way of promoting the new herring season.

Restaurants, stores, and herring carts announce the new season by posting signs. Abroad in Belgium, France, Germany, and England a Dutch flag is hoisted before a fish market, store, or restaurant also indicating the opening of the new season. The way to eat the fish, usually as a snack, is to hold it by the tail over one's mouth and lower it while eating. It can also be consumed on a roll, with or without chopped onions.

Eating herring dates back to 3000 B.C. when it was first eaten in Scandinavia. The Scots were great herring eaters and created their first factory in the 7th century. The Dutch were their first customers. Business in Holland began in the 14th century when a Dutchman, Willem Bueckelszoon, invented what was known as the gibbing process. This process removes the gills and part of the gullet from the fish, which eliminates any bitter taste. The liver and pancreas are left in the fish 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 advent of the Dutch as a seafaring power.

The trade of herring eventually led to the Dutch empire through exploitation and later colonialization. Herring has always been important in Dutch history. During the Eighty-Year War with Spain, the Spanish army, under Philip IV, laid siege on the city of Leiden, whose people were starving. To divert the Spanish, William the Silent attacked the Spanish in a different part of Holland. The Spanish left Leiden to counterattack and the people of the city were immediately fed with new herring and bread. To celebrate this, the people in Leiden continue to eat herring on October 3, the date of their liberation.

The primary food of herring is plankton. The fish are caught with large nets in the cold waters of the North Sea off the coast of Scotland. The plankton is most plentiful in the months of May through August. The herring is therefore most suitable for curing during the summer months. The curing is very essential to the fish because it not only preserves the fish but also contains vitamin D, calcium for the bones and mineral salts, the greatest safeguard against disease. Herring is a good source of food for people leading strenuous lives because it is both healthy and very easy to digest.

Herring can be known by various names. Some of these names are Matjes, Schmaltz, Kipper, and Bismarck. Matjes are a delicate, young fish which was once only servant's food but now feasted upon by all. They are juicy and salty. Schmaltz, or the fat herring, is less saltier but fattier. This is a direct result of adding spices and sugars to the Matjes. Kipper, once a British breakfast fame, is a herring cold-smoked after pickling. Bismarck herring is so called because at one time the German chancellor, Bismarck, loved herring and ate it preferably marinated in vinegar and salt. All these forms of pickled herring are cured in a salt brine of varying strengths.

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