The humble herring
The herring (from the Clupeidae family) grows up to 20 cm in length and lives in very large schools. They feed on plankton and other tiny sea creatures. Herring stocks had been threatened by over-fishing but quotas have solved that problem. The Dutch will eat 185 tonnes of them this year.
Hollandse Nieuwe is the name given to young herring caught between mid-May and the end of June which have a body fat percentage of at least 16%. The fish are gutted and salted but the pancreas containing an enzyme which helps the fish to ripen is left in place. This process – known as haringkaken – apparently dates way back to 1380 when it was developed by a certain Willem Beukelszoon of Biervliet. In 2015, the EU granted Dutch herring the label ‘guaranteed traditional speciality’.
New herring are also known as maatjes, said to be a corruption of maagden (virgins) because their sex organs are not yet developed.
Fresh or frozen?
Hollandse Nieuwe are actually caught weeks before the launch of the season off the coast of Norway and Denmark, salted and deep frozen until the official start. Fishmongers advertise their supplies as being ‘fresh from the knife’. After all, fresh from the sea would not be quite true. The fish has to be frozen by law anyway to kill off the nasty little herring worm.
The day of the little flags is supposed to hark back to times of yore when the herring fleet came home. Now it is a nice excuse for front page pictures of Scheveningen and people in national dress. The last two boats in the Dutch herring fleet became British several years ago. Most Hollandse Nieuwe are caught by the Norwegians and the Danes and processed by Eastern Europeans.
Uitjes en zuur
When you buy your herring at the fish stall, you may be asked if you would like ‘uitjes en zuur’. The onion is said to have been added to disguise the salt but today’s fish are not as salty as they used to be. In some places you can also get a slice of pickle for the same reason.
Whole or sliced
Eating the whole herring while dangling it into your mouth is practiced in much of the country but not in Amsterdam, where the herring is served sliced. In Brabant they like small herring which is not as salty.
The humble herring is a symbol of national pride. And big money is at stake. We spend some €150m on 85 million fish a year. Hardly surprising then that shopkeepers who decide to sell the fish before the official start date face fines of up to €11,250.