Excitement is building here in the Netherlands. Ever since it was announced in April social media has been chattering with events and my mailbox has been slowly filling with invitations. This year the official start date of the herring season is 15th June. Although herring can be caught through the months of May and June, there is always an official season start date picked by experts earlier in the year. They decide when the herring are at their best based on, amongst other things, plankton levels in the North sea, this gives an indication of how fat the fish will be and when. It’s a huge thing here and announcements are made in National media keeping us up to date with the condition of this year’s herring. Parties and events are held all over the country to celebrate the landing of the herring. The most famous of which is ‘vlaggetjesdag’ or flag day in the seaside town of Scheveningen near Den Haag. This party takes place around the day of the opening of the season and the first barrel of herring is auctioned off for charity and always raises thousands.
This all makes it sound as if herring is only available at a specific time of year, but in fact we eat it year round. Once caught in the herring season, the fish is frozen and defrosted throughout the year to ensure the best of the catch is available whenever we want it.
A lot of fuss about a little fish you might think? Well I did too until I learned more about the significance of this tradition. For starters, with all this publicity and excitement people are aware of where their food comes from, not only that, we also learn about the state of our sea – not a bad thing. And of course where would Amsterdam be without herring? Probably still a little town fighting to keep its head above water – literally and financially. Amsterdam in particular has a lot to thank the little herring for. It gave a huge boost to the economy of the evolving city hundreds of years ago. Amsterdam’s origins are inseparable from the sea, herring was plentiful and so was always one of the main catches, as it was for so many cities and countries bordering the North sea. But, the Dutch made a discovery that gave them the competitive edge when it came to catching the fish. They found that by leaving a certain part of the stomach in the fish and not gutting it completely, enzymes were produced which kept the herring fresh for longer. This had huge consequences for the industry and for Amsterdam. Fishermen could stay at sea longer, make bigger catches for less cost and then the herring industry really took off and Amsterdam along with it. Boat builders were needed to make the bigger vessels needed to catch and transport their precious cargo and of course numerous other trades and industries were needed to service the thriving herring industry.
Herring is eaten today as a street food. You won’t see it in a restaurant, well, you might, but probably cooked or pickled or in some other fancy guise than the authentic raw version. Yes, I said raw, the Dutch eat their herring raw. Not pickled, that’s Germany or Scandinavia, not here. You’ll get the best herring from stalls on the street or at markets. Every area of every city has its herring stall. These stalls sell other fish snacks like ‘kibbeling’ which is deep fried, seasoned pieces of white fish. Traditionally cod, but when stocks became low and prices went up in recent years it was replaced by other white fish. The word ‘kibbeling’ is a mix up of ‘kabeljauwwang’ which means cod cheek and is a really tasty alternative if you can’t quite handle raw herring. I would urge you to try though, it is delicious, if it’s nice and fresh it’s hardly even fishy tasting, just creamy and sweet. And of course it’s packed full of that famous healthy Omega 3 oil which does us so much good. Think of it as Dutch sushi (no wonder Japanese travellers go wild for it!).
If you’re an Amsterdammer, you’ll more than likely want pickles with your herring. This combination is a centuries old version of fusion food (really, there is nothing new). Pickling is big here in Amsterdam and was brought to the city by Jewish people.
So, if you want to eat your herring like and Amsterdammer, get over to the Albert Cuyp Market, look for the fish stalls – which will stand out from the crowd at this time of year with their big banners with ‘Hollandse Nieuwe’, written on them meaning that they have taken delivery of the new season herring and ask for ‘Haring met uitjes en zuur’ – herring with little onions and pickled gherkins. Then stand at the stall with your fellow herring connoisseurs from all walks of life and all ages whilst you stab at small pieces of herring with your Dutch flagged cocktail sticks muttering about this year’s quality and saying ‘hmmm lekker!’ (tasty!) at regular intervals. Oh, but maybe not tell the Dutch that their prized herring was probably caught in Danish or Scottish waters.
Read my article on the best place (and most famous) to buy your authentic Amsterdam pickles. De Leeuw.