In recent years many companies have tried to market a grand selection of herring to Jewish consumers. All these efforts required a lot of marketing, and asking the consumers to look afresh on this old-world dish. The flavor varieties of the herring brought to the consumers are endless, some with more success than others in the “flavor-taste” department.
There is more to a good piece of herring than just the fancy packaging and exotic sounding flavor. There is the baseline of quality and texture, and all herrings are not the same. Herring is not just one fish. My opinion is that many of herring choices sold today are not even close in taste and texture to a classic cured or marinated herring, and one would not even know that this could very well be the same fish the process started with. Some retail manufacturers over-flavor and over-sauce the herring, thereby masking the wonderful taste and texture. The ones that appear packaged in the stores are most likely caught in northern Scandinavian waters above the Arctic Circle and are just one of nearly 200 herring species.
Having been involved in the commercial food industry, both retail and manufacturing, I learned a lot about the professional culinary world, and still keep myself involved enjoying and satisfying my palate, or sharing my culinary skills with friends. Friends quickly get used to trying something tasty they never had before and enjoying specialties such as my authentic Gravad laks, and homemade pickled or marinated herring … no oil, PLEASE!!
On many occasions, my family and I have gone fishing for cod in Denmark and the by-product of the catch was herring. This is an absolutely thrilling experience, and we were happy to catch both the cod and the herring. Cod feeds on herring and therefore swims among the herring. In the waters around Denmark the herring are different from those found further North above the Arctic Circle. They are smaller, different in both fat content and texture, depending on the season in which they are caught.
There is nothing that tastes better than either poached or fried cod caught the same day in the beautiful pristine and clean waters. In fact, every time I fish in the waters between Denmark and Sweden, I can’t stop thinking that these specific waters were the place where many Jews, including my family members, escaped from the Nazis during the war in October 1943 to find safety in Sweden. This was really a miracle and maybe a story to be told a different day and time.
The classic process of a pickled herring starts often up to a year before it is even ready to be further processed for retail sale. This is the way the processing has been done for centuries. When they are caught and to be prepared the old classic way, the curing process starts with salt. Herring caught in the fall are the best for curing since they are large and with a high fat content. The herring are de-headed and packed with salt in large barrels with the intestines remaining in the fish to provide the enzymes for the curing process. This initial curing method is ancient and could preserve the fish for many months lasting through the winter to feed people.
Like other industrialized techniques, today there are quicker methods for the initial curing process utilized by large herring processors, ranging from 45 to 60 days with the help of strong industrial vinegar, but it does change the classic texture of the slow-cured and preserved fish. It is noticeable for the experienced herring maven.
Historically, the herring was the poor man’s fish. It was cheap since it was really a by-product (or known as a bycatch) of the main catch, and was plentiful. This was not only in the Scandinavian countries but also other places in Europe where times were difficult and there were a lot of people in the family to feed. Herring and potatoes were the staple and provided protein, fats and starch needed to survive. In fact, even marinated herring retains most of its vitamin D levels and also maintains its omega 3 properties. This was especially important for the people living in the high north where the daylight was very short and vitamin D was difficult to come by during the long, dark winter months. These days, commercial fishermen catch herring differently and it is no longer a cheap fish.
We now know that many health care guides list herring and other fish as good sources of nutrients and recommend that fish be eaten weekly. Today we have choices that our ancestors may not have had. The fish was eaten either after a curing process or it was boiled or fried when fresh. Someone even came up with the idea to fry the fish and then preserve it in vinegar for the sake of variety and in order to stay fresh for an extended period of time.
In other areas of Scandinavia, especially on the island of Bornholm, they started smoking the herring in specially designed smoke chimneys. When the herring is smoked the skin turns into a golden color; it is then ready to be eaten and is served on a slice of dark rye bread with a fresh egg yolk topped with chives. The name of the dish is “sol over Gudhjem,” literally “sun over Gudhjem,” the sun being the yolk and the Gudhjem being the small town located on Bornholm. If you are lucky enough to visit the Island of Bornholm, freshly smoked herring (“røget sild”) are sold every day directly from the smokehouses, and it is absolutely delicious. In Amsterdam, Holland, fish stands sell raw herring (‘haring’), a springtime raw fish with a strong and pleasant taste. It is popular in Amsterdam and it is said that people have been eating raw herring for over 600 years.
Over the years I had the opportunity to visit several large commercial herring processors and smokehouses. I always found that the best products came from factories that would make the processing simple and the traditional way. Due to the salt, sugar and vinegar, often no artificial preservatives are necessary and the fish maintains its wonderful flavors.
A true story was told to me about a large herring processor located in the remote parts of Iceland, far away from Reykjavik, that sold large container loads of herring in wine sauce to a Russian wholesaler for retail distribution. This went on for many years and one day the Russians announced that they wanted to come to Iceland to inspect the facility. The delegation from Russia finally showed up and inspected the factory. They were shown around and explained the entire manufacturing process to their great satisfaction. Finally they asked to see the wine for the herring in wine sauce. The owner explained that the wine sauce was actually not made with wine, but at this processing plant it was the style and consistency of the brine to marinate the herring that was called “in wine sauce,” The Russian buyers were very upset and the order of millions of dollars annually was canceled immediately.
Eating herring with your friends on any occasion is something that can truly be appreciated by many. We all know friends who don’t like herring. I often hear that eating herring brings back memories of the “good” old days where the old grumpy people in the shul had a stinky piece of herring with a lot of bones during kiddush. Since then, they can’t even think that eating herring would be a possibility. However, picking the right tasty piece of herring (with perhaps an Avec’) may even change someone’s opinion and show that herring can actually be delicious. I have personally “converted” many people over the years when they realized that the herring served by me was nothing like what they thought it would taste like.
After the initial curing process is completed, different spices are added with a sugar-vinegar brine depending on the taste preference. A classic pickled or marinated herring is again a favored delicacy. Many fancy Northern European restaurants serve an open herring sandwich with trimmings such as thinly sliced onion and fresh dill for an appetizer or a lunch item. You can also serve the herring on a cracker that does not overpower the fine flavors of the herring or just enjoy it “natural.”
Jan Meyer is the founder and senior counsel of The Law Offices of Jan Meyer & Associates, a 10-attorney law firm based in Teaneck and NYC. He serves as chair of The Teaneck Zoning Board and is an active member of TVAC, the Teaneck Volunteer Ambulance Corps; www.janmeyerlaw.com.