Raw Fish

Herring afficionados (according to a recent survey about 60% of the population) often get their fix at one of the more than 1,500 Herring stands. Here a mobile version in the seaside resort of Zandvoort .

More than just fish...
herring is a cultural symbol and national delicacy
t is as much a part of Dutch culture as tulips, windmills and cheese and right around this time of year, it becomes one of the most anticipated and talked about delicacies: herring. The salty, fatty fish with the creamy, velvety flavor boasts a predominant place in the country’s history. Although the Dutch might want to think differently, it wasn’t they who were the first to fish for herring, and even more interesting, perhaps, is that most of today’s Dutch herring isn’t all that Dutch. Still, it remains a powerful cultural element in The
18 - DUTCH, the magazine

I

By Paola WestBeek
Netherlands. One which elicits a fair amount of national enthusiasm and pride. Foreigners visiting The Netherlands often experience that pride first hand when they are taken to a herring stand to experience what can literally be described as a taste of Dutch culture. That is, if they dare to taste the fish, because let’s face it, not everyone is willing to grab the raw, slippery fish by the tail, dip it in onions, tilt their head back, and bite. Yet for many Dutch people, herring is something they grew up with and something they love. It is so intertwined with their identity that terminally ill patients often ask for a last taste of herring during their final days. But why is herring so special and what does it represent for the Dutch? The Dutch herring fishery had its origins in the North Sea approximately one thousand years ago, after the Danish, the Norwegians and later the Flemish, had been masters of this arm of the Atlantic Ocean. Agriculture in the marshy lowlands was difficult and farmers, not being able to meet the growing population’s demand for food, were forced to try their luck at sea.
May/June 2012

At first, they bravely ventured out in open, flat-bottomed boats meant for coastal fishing. A daring feat, for these small vessels, which were not more than thirty feet long, had to transport a crew of around seven men, sails, nets, baskets and provisions. Yet, for centuries to come, they managed to navigate through the plentiful, shallow waters of the North Sea which was a great source of all kinds of fish: cod, whiting, plaice, turbot, sole, and a lot of herring. It was not long before small fishing villages started to pop up all along the coast. Towns such as Yerseke, Breskens, Scheveningen, Katwijk, Volendam, Harlingen and Urk got their own fleets together and made it all the way to the English and Scottish coasts. ven though fishing had a lot of potential, the herring itself posed a problem that needed to be solved in order for its fishery to become a lucrative business. The fish’s high fat content meant that it quickly went rancid, making immediate preservation essential. Salting provided part of the solution, yet it was the gutting method called kaken (gipping or gibbing in English), that would become one of the two greatest innovations in the herring industry. Tradition has it that the discovery of the technique dates back to the second half of the

Straight up

With onions

Sliced with onions and pickles

On a bun

E

C/W: Jaap Kramer - max roeleveld - Bill miChalsKi - JaCKie Kever - Tom BiJvoeT - Janny BoneKamp

14th century and can be attributed to a Willem Beukelszoon, a herring merchant from Biervliet in the province of Zeeland. Using a small, sharp knife, the gills, heart and intestines of the fish are removed. The pancreas, however, is left untouched as this enables the fish to further mature and acquire its characteristic flavor, silky texture and aroma. Whether the credit for this great discovery really can go to Beukelszoon is not certain. What we do know is that the technique opened up new possibilities for trade. The other important innovation in herring fishery was the development of the herring buss (haringbuis) around the beginning of the

A Herring stall on a canopied trailer in Noordwijk
May/June 2012

15th century. Ships of this large specialized type measured between 50 and 85 feet, and could not only carry more crew and plenty of salt and barrels to preserve the fish on board, but they could also sail farther out into the sea in search of new sources of herring. These two innovations launched the beginning of one of the most profitable industries in The Netherlands. Together with the Baltic grain trade, the herring industry was one of the main pillars of the prosperous Dutch economy in the run up to and during its Golden Age. For centuries to come, Dutch herring fisheries were the envy of the rest of Europe. Although herring fishery became a profitable source of income for the nation, being a fisherman had its risks and dangers. Wars at sea and turbulent weather conditions meant that the lives of those on board were constantly in danger. Furthermore, living conditions were never optimal. Food was scarce and of mediocre quality. Sleeping quarters were small and fetid. Under these wretched conditions, the hard labor of fishing was endured for periods of six to twelve weeks at a time. And to think that boys as young as ten years old often had no other choice but to join their father and grandfathers at sea. It is no wonder that there was such joy and excitement
DUTCH, the magazine - 19

when ships returned and families were reunited. Up until 1977, the North Sea was internationally accessible for herring fishery, posing a serious threat to the species. It was not just The Netherlands, but countries from all over the world that were taking advantage of what was thought to be an endless bounty. In order to prevent further depletion, fishing was prohibited from 1977 until

Herring Facts
• That herring is a big part of dutch culture is evident in its representation in dutch art. herring features in many 17th century still-life and genre paintings. examples include pieter Claesz’ Breakfast (1636), hendrik ter Brugghen’s The happy drinker (1625) and Gabriel metsu’s The herring seller (appr.1660). • herring season runs from the middle of may to the middle of July. This year Flag day will be celebrated on the June 9th. • Traditionally, the first barrel of herring is auctioned in aid of a charitable cause. in 2011 it fetched €67,750. The money went to Jantje Beton, an organization that supports safe outdoor play for children in The netherlands. • not everyone is fond of eating herring by the tail. it is also a popular snack served on a soft roll along with chopped onions and pickles. in amsterdam, people prefer to eat their herring in pieces with pickles and a toothpick. • Good herring has a fat ratio of at least 16%. it should have a fresh, briny aroma, a creamy, unctuous taste and its flesh should be tender yet have a firm bite. • Before artificial cooling was generally available, more salt was used to preserve freshly caught herring than today. it is said that onions were added to hide the briny taste of the fish. many people these days eat their herring without onions, to savour the pure flavor of the delicacy.
May/June 2012

1983, and tightly regulated thereafter. These circumstances forced the Dutch to sail elsewhere in search of herring. The solution was first found in the Skagerrak Strait by Denmark. Dutch fishing companies established themselves in the north of Jutland and although eventually the North Sea fishing ban was lifted, the Dutch continued their business from there and even expanded to Norway and Scotland. Today roughly 80% of the Dutch herring supply comes from Norway. But herring is still as Dutch as ever. Flag Day (Vlaggetjesdag, see cover photograph), which has been taking place since 1947 around the harbors of IJmuiden, Vlaardingen and currently Scheveningen, marks the beginning of the Dutch herring season and symbolically celebrates the arrival of the New Herring (Hollandse Nieuwe). During this festive occasion, fishing boats are

Scheveningen coat of arms: three crowned herrings

decorated and there is music and all kinds of entertainment. This annual ceremony is proof that the Dutch passion for herring is still strong. Herring is a part of the country’s culinary heritage. It made the economy prosper, fed the nation and even today, continues to be a strong cultural symbol and national delicacy.

The herring seller Gabriel Metsu (appr. 1660)
DUTCH, the magazine - 21