The fight for the silver darling

Categories: History of food

Regula Ysewijn on the fascinating history of herring, and why we should all be eating it

Words: Regula Ysewijn

Herring. Who would have thought that we would forget about a fish that was synonymous with power and prosperity for centuries?

In the 14th century, long before the invention of refrigeration, a Dutchman invented a more successful way to preserve herring: gutting and cleaning the fish, before brining and barrelling it.

Herring could now be preserved for longer, enabling the Dutch to catch the fish in greater numbers, going further out to fish and catch them in large vessels called 'herring busses' and transport them inland, the bellies of their ships fit to burst. By the 15th century, they had control over the North Sea, which would continue for more than 200 years.

England tried to regain control over its own waters on several occasions, resulting in three Dutch Wars. By 1775, its fleet had been reduced drastically, and the Dutch rule over the North Sea came to an end.

Consumption soon dropped in the UK, however, and most herring caught was exported to the West Indies where it was used as cheap food for the slaves. It became associated with poor man’s food—many didn't have anything except salted herring and potatoes, while the rich feasted on fresh fish. It came to be a reminder of dire times, in much the same way that white bread was favoured following unpalatable wartime bread, which was dark, dense, sticky and unappetising. Except that herring is a marvellous fish!

Declined drastically
In recent years, there’s been a herring ban in England. Due to overfishing, the catch had declined drastically so people had to look for alternative ways to fish, involving small boats that could go out to sea faster than large herring busses. The EEC herring fishing ban lasted from 1976 to 1983 and gave the final blow to herring fishing in these parts. People forgot about this fish, and how to cook it.

Paul from Sussex Fish at Borough Market tells me that herring is still being caught at Newhaven where he fishes. But only in limited amounts because if they cannot sell it, it isn't worth their time. He regrets that people do not buy herring, not only for tradition but mostly because it is such a healthy, inexpensive fish, which is plentiful at the moment.

The first herring means the start of autumn for Paul; the herring come when the water gets colder, and the colder the water, the better the fish because it becomes fatter and will contain even more goodness. Herring fishing starts nearly everywhere on Michaelmas, and ends either after Christmas on the west coast and as late as April where Paul fishes in Sussex.

The fact that people have forgotten how to cook whole fish, or how to fillet them themselves, means the fishmonger needs to gut and fillet them, resulting in spending too much time on something which doesn't give a proper return.

Coated herring

Beautifully deep red
Paul recalls his grandmother sousing herring and having a tub of them at the ready at any time during the season. He is more adventurous with his herring, stuffing them with a risotto made with white wine and fennel. I prefer them coated in coarse oatmeal and fried in a generous amount of butter, along with the roe which can be either soft and pink, or hard and beautifully deep red. This is how a herring fishwife made them for me after we had caught them an hour before dawn.

There is so much more to herring than meets the eye. Let’s try to put more herring on our plates! In doing so, you’ll not only be supporting small-scale fishermen like Paul and so many others around the British coast, but upholding a centuries-old tradition.