As fishmongers and their customers enjoy the seasonal abundance of the herring, it’s good to remember how this humble fish has served our ancestors. It is wrapped in nostalgia.
During my childhood I remember going with my father to the local deli, which was percolated with magical fragrances of spices and pickles. I’d munch on a soft-crusted bulke and gaze at huddles of hatted Jewish women gossiping, while seeking out the plumpest herrings.
There would be smoked herrings — their polished bronze bodies artistically laid out in flat boxes. My father adored those “smokies” or buckling for supper on Sunday, with slices of dark rye bread and a new green cucumber.
There were salted pickled herrings looking like fat pewter ribbons, pulled out of rough wooden barrels, dripping with juice. My mother would either chop them with apple, pickled cucumber, ground almonds and egg to make her version of chopped herring, or she’d serve them with home-made mayonnaise, boiled beetroot hot out of the pan and new potatoes that had been boiled in their jackets.
And then there were tins of roll-mops — strips of fish wrapped around slices of onion and cucumber and set in jelly.
Now those delis have all but gone, destroyed by time, environmental health issues and the advent of the supermarket. Of course there are still Jewish delis — but on the whole you will now reach for your herring vacuum packed, tinned or sealed in a glass jar on the superstore shelves.
The herring, which feeds on plankton, is part of the fish family called clupeidae that also includes the European pilchard, the Baltic herring and the Atlantic shad and forms one of the most valuable groups of fish in our oceans.
So sought after, in fact, that the Marine Conservation Society now recommends avoiding herring from the seas off western Scotland and the west of Ireland due to depleted stocks in those areas. This is perhaps unsurprising given that herring has been harvested by man since 3000 BCE and formed a vital part of the Dutch economy since the 14th century.
It didn’t take long for Ashkenazi Jews to discover this wonderful fish, with its huge capacity to benefit from pickling, smoking and salting, techniques which extended its shelf-life to provide for harsher times. They began exporting it to their own communities and the herring became an integral part of Jewish trading history.
Traditional shmaltz herring is preserved by covering with coarse salt and placed under heavy weights for approximately four days. Because of the heavy salt content, before eating it needs soaking for a couple of days with changes of water, preferably in a glass container. The matjes herring is soaked in brine and only needs roughly one hour of soaking before use.
And, as many of us know, herring is extremely good for you, containing large amounts of protein, zinc, Omega 3 fatty acids and vitamin D.
So how should we enjoy a herring today? As a comparatively cheap fish they are perfect fresh, filleted and well rinsed — to remove any residual scales — then dipped in beaten egg, rolled in oats and shallow fried in fairly hot oil (if it is not sufficiently hot they become greasy). Drain well on kitchen roll and serve hot with potatoes — their traditional accompaniment.
Think of kippers — a split and smoked herring — cooked in a roasting bag to save the smell and served with rough brown bread. Or imagine the kippers as a creamy paté, blended with low-fat cream cheese, lemon juice and plenty of freshly-milled black pepper. Even the roe is usable either grilled or mixed with hard-boiled eggs. Or try my modern twist of tea-smoking — perhaps serve it as a starter at a dinner party or relaxed supper — bringing the herring of our parents’ past bang up to date.
Serves six as a starter with watercress and cucumber salad and slices of nutty granary bread, or four as a light lunch with steamed new potatoes, roasted beetroot and lemon crescents. Take care where you do the smoking — you need an area where you can open windows and doors.
● 55g, (2oz) demerara sugar
● 10g (¼ oz) Lapsang Souchong or Earl Grey loose tea — if you don’t have loose tea you can open some tea-bags, but the flavour won’t be as intense
● 55g (2oz) long grain rice
● 6-8 boned and cleaned fillets of fresh herring
● 20g ( ¾ oz) salt
● Freshly milled black pepper
● Drizzle of olive oil
● Mix rice, sugar and tea-leaves in bowl. Line a deep wok with a lid, with a double layer of foil and add the tea mixture.
● Cover with more foil.
● Season the fillets with plenty of black pepper and salt. Place on hob and when slightly smoking, place the fillets of herring carefully on the foil.
● Drizzle a little olive oil over the fish. Cover with your lid and cook for approximately 15-20 minutes depending on the thickness of the fillets. Take off hob and remove fish fillets and lay them on a serving dish.
● Pour a little water over your smoking tea mixture before disposing.