Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Humble Herring

When I first arrived in Amsterdam in April, I was told that I must try raw herring (haring), that this was Holland's food star, next to Stroopwafels and Gouda cheese. I looked and looked, but realised the timing wasn't right. I was too early. Fishmongers catch these special (minimum 16% fat) herring from mid-May to mid-July in the North Sea, and the first Hollandse Nieuwe ('Holland's new herring') only start to appear on the market at the beginning of June.

Instead of being raw, like sashimi, the herring is actually soused. This means that it's been marinated in a brine which enhances the herring's natural flavours, gives the fish a gorgeous melt-in-the-mouth texture, and preserves them for months of future enjoyment.

Rotterdam Blaak Market

Broodje Haring literally translates to 'herring sandwich' 

When I returned to Holland in June, this was one of my missions: find raw herring. And happily, I didn't have to look far. As a nation-awaited Dutch delicacy (also signalling the beginning of summer), the Hollandse Nieuwe was being celebrated at every fishmonger in sight. I eagerly ordered a broodje haring (herring sandwich) at the Rotterdam Blaak market and as soon as I bit into it, I was in heaven. The fresh, soft-as-goose-down-bread roll was a delightful backdrop to the raw herring and accompaniment of diced white onions, whose sweetness accentuated the herring's mellow yet rich flavour and texture.

So good that upon coming across the eighth-or-so fishmonger with Hollandse Nieuwe, I ordered another one but without the bread. Just as lovely, if not more, for being able to shine in all its bread-less glory as well as novelty presentation (a great touch, I thought).

Nieuwe haring without the bread

In Amsterdam, I revisited the stall where I stood sadly in April - Stubbe' Haring. This time, they were bustling with customers. As I knew I would be leaving the Netherlands within a few days, I had to try this delicacy again. Compared to Rotterdam, it appeared commonplace for the nieuwe haring in Amsterdam to be served with gherkins as well as diced onions (and a higher price tag), so I tried this version and with equal delight. Actually, while I enjoyed the sweet/sour aspect of the gherkin against the oily/salty haring, I think I prefer it pared back - with onions alone.

Stubbe Haring, a few minutes walk west of the station

Amsterdam-style broodje haring with pickles and onions

Many purists believe that both onions and gherkins are guilty of covering the true flavour of the haring and encourage tourists to try it without either. This, I'll have to do next time.

And meanwhile, back in Ireland, I have finally brought myself to try kippers - herring that has been butterflied, salted and smoked. A fine substitute to fulfil my newfound love for this small, cheap, Omega-3-filled fish. Many articles over the last two years have discussed kippers as a food that has come, gone and come back again into our lives as an appealing, even 'fashionable', food. Most popularly eaten at breakfast in the past, it can be enjoyed as any other smoked fish, e.g. mackerel or salmon.

Smoked herring, known as 'kippers', was traditionally a very popular breakfast food

While I can understand some people being a little iffy over the need to cook it (very briefly poached in boiling water straight out of the kettle, or equally briefly in a pan with a smallest amount of oil or butter), or the fact that you are eating all of it's really inoffensive, barely noticeable, bones... I'm sold on this fish. It's strong, smoky flavour and oily texture are equally satisfying, creating - what I think is - a pleasant cross between salmon and mackerel while at a guaranteed fraction of the price.

This morning, I enjoyed a gorgeous breakfast of pan-fried kippers on lightly-buttered wholegrain pita bread halves, with shredded baby spinach, sliced green onions and a soft fried egg (for the lack of a second egg, where I would have had scrambled). Heaven!

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