Herrings, from the family Clupeidae, are incredibly social fish, which usually move in large schools around fishing banks and in the open sea or near the coast. These long-living fish can survive up to twenty years, and together with cod form a vital component in the economy of numerous countries.
The herring played a pivotal role in the history of marine fisheries in Europe, a history which dates back to the Middle Ages. Under the iron hand of the church, all Catholics were required to obey the days of fasting and abstinence. These days constituted a way of repenting for one’s evils, and refusing to take part in this fast was a grave sin, both with regard to the church, but also public opinion. For the majority of the year, religious followers had to deny themselves the indulgence in meat, fats, alcohol, as well as sugars.
During this period of rigour and denial, the only extravagance permitted to the poor and religious peoples of Europe was the herring. Consequently the fish came to be enjoyed all across Christian Europe, from its Northern extremities all the way to its Southern seas. Thanks to its long durability when conserved in salt, the herring became a staple food and an essential part in the diet of both the rich, as well as the most poor. Over time, whilst remaining a symbol of fasting, it also achieved the status of a delicacy.
“The bean of coffee, the leaves of tea, the spices of the tropics, the worms that make silk, are of smaller influence on the nations’ richness than the herring of the Atlantic Ocean,” wrote the French naturalist Bernard Germain de Lacépède more than two centuries ago. He was not exaggerating. It is through fishing for herring that the Danes came to their riches, riches which were the great envy of the Hanseatic League – a commercial and defensive confederation of merchants and market towns which dominated the Baltic maritime trade along the coast of Northern Europe. The Hanseatic traders considered the herring as a blessing sent from the sea, and quickly made it their primary trading weapon. For such a small fish, the herring had an immense influence in the establishment of this powerful alliance.
The herring also played a vital part in the growing power of the Dutch navy. It is said that Amsterdam was built on herring bones, and that the Dutch converted the stench of the fish into piles of gold. French writer Voltaire expressed as much when he wrote: ‘The city of Amsterdam, now so famous, was then an inconsiderable little town, and did not dare to declare openly for the prince of Orange; this city was at the time engaged in a new, and in appearance a mean trade, but which, however, laid the foundation of its present greatness. The catching of herrings, and the art of salting them, do not appear very important objects in the history of the world, and yet there was this once barren and despised country raised to a formidable pitch of power.”
Until very recently, the British too have referred to the fish as ‘King Herring’, due to its intimate link with the history of this island. Even when King Philippe Auguste II reconquered Normandy from King John of England, or during the Hundred Years’ War, the herring formed a sort of truce between British and French fishermen, whose relations remained warm. Ultimately salted herring came to be used as a form of payment, an alternative to the golden coin – with French Count Mathieu of Boulogne paying an annual salary of ten thousand herrings to the monks of Saint Josse. Having saved the old continent from famine numerous times, the herring was essentially canonised, with the inhabitants of Boulogne praying to Saint Harenc, patron saint of the fish.
But why is the herring quite so popular? It is a rich source of healthy monounsaturated fats, which can prevent atherosclerosis, cardiovascular diseases, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol. It also contains a high amount of protein, with many necessary amino acids not produced by the body itself. However, due to this high fat content, herring is rarely sold fresh – as its preservation and transportation would be very difficult. Raw herring is also called ‘green herring’, referring to both its colour and freshness. Green herring is available almost exclusively by the seaside, and it forms a typical Dutch delicacy called Hollandse Nieuwe, typically eaten with raw onion.
More commonly, herring is processed before being sold, usually dried, smoked, tinned or freshly pickled – particularly in vinegar. In Poland there exist innumerable ways of treating herring, different from region to region, but herring can also be found in practically any shop or supermarket, sold as: Matiasy, Uliki, Bismarck, Rolmops, Moskaliki – all pickled but differing slightly in preparation, be that the concentration of salt, the age or part of fish, or condiments used – as well as Piklingi and Kipery, which are smoked at different temperatures. Such is the importance of the herring in Poland that it is traditionally served as one of the twelve dishes eaten at the Wigilia – or Christmas Eve dinner. Over the years the herring has been present not only on Polish tables, but also in poetry, illustrating its remarkable influence on culture. Thus, for example, in one of the great works of European Romanticism, Dziady, a drama referring to the ancient Slavic feast commemorating the forefathers, Adam Mickiewicz wrote:
“Spodziewam, się, że Panu przez myśl nie przejdzie,
Aby napisać wierszem, że ktoś jadał śledzie(…)”
– Adam Mickiewicz „Dziady” cz.III
(I expect your mind won’t ever be daring/ To consider writing verse on eating herring)
Smoked herring, bloater (cold smoked) or buckling (hot smoked) are also staples of British cuisine, to the point that, according to George Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier, Emperor Charles V even erected a statue to the inventor of bloaters. In Sweden herring is fermented to make cans of surströmming, which according to a Japanese study has one of the most putrid food smells in the world. Herring soup is a popular alternative there.
The dominance of this fish has been marked also in European languages. In Polish the word Śledź (herring) is used to refer also to the way one plans his course in a sailing regatta – travelling first with the wind and then against it. And who hasn’t heard of the famous red herring – a phrase describing distracting or misleading information. In many parts of 17th century Britain, smoked herrings, which have a very strong odour which masks other smells, were used to train hounds, when no dead animals were at hand to lay a trail with. Thus, by analogy, the phrase came to be used to describe any false trail. In 1807 radical journalist William Cobbett also wrote a presumably fictional story in the Weekly Political Register about how as a boy he had used a red herring as a decoy to deflect hounds which were chasing after a hare. The extended metaphor was used to decry the press, which focused on false information about the supposed defeat of Napoleon, thus allowing itself to be led off the trail of important domestic affairs: “It was a mere transitory effect of the political red-herring; for, on the Saturday, the scent became as cold as a stone.”
With this incredible array of cultural, literary and historical information at hand, we are led to admit one thing. Though it started as food for the poor, consumed for want of better things – do not be fooled by this biggest red herring of all. The herring has a surprisingly rich and influential history, and has grown to become an extremely important part of European cuisine and culture.
Written by Iweta Kalinowska
Communication Trainee at TermCoord
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