Hollandse Nieuwe Amsterdam style

Help at hand for the hard of herring

In the Netherlands this Saturday June 22, the flags will be out in force in the nation’s fishing ports. And not just in support of the Dutch football team in…

In the Netherlands this Saturday June 22, the flags will be out in force in the nation’s fishing ports. And not just in support of the Dutch football team in their bid for glory at the Euros in Germany. No, it’s also Vlaggetjesdag (Flags Day), celebrating a new season of Hollandse Nieuwe herring. But why the fuss?

A healthy snack?

The eating of haring (herring) in the Netherlands is a tradition that goes back centuries. It’s a healthy protein source packed with fish oils, and being relatively cheap it was a vital source of nutrition for peasants in the Middle Ages unable to afford land-reared meat.

Sometimes referred to as Dutch sushi, Hollandse Nieuwe (literally ‘New Dutch’) and its ‘almost’ conjoined twin maatjesharing (loosely ‘virgin herring’) are beheaded, cleaned and filleted ‘raw’ herring. Except they are not really raw at all, whatever they might look like. They will have been packed into barrels and soused by curing in brine, which preserves the fish and, even in the days before refrigeration, meant they could be stored through the winter. One part salt to 20 parts fish is about right, apparently.

Divide and conquer

Delicious as I think it is, even in the Netherlands, not everyone is a herring-head. That’s despite the eating of said fish from street stalls being considered a national sport on the same level as speed skating, or claiming there is no English word for klompen (hence the fervent insistence on calling them ‘wooden shoes’ rather than simply ‘clogs’).

Thanks to its preparation style, the texture of the fish is seen by some as slimy. It’s an issue that creates a dividing line separating the ‘Hooray for herring!’ cheerleaders from the ‘I’m not eating that muck, Chuck’ crowd.

Why two names?

For that we have to get technical for a moment. Herring can live for a decade and more (if they manage to avoid being caught by humans, that is), and they only reach maturity after two to three years. That determines how what looks on the surface to be identical fish can have two different names on street carts and supermarket shelves.

The name maatjes is a clue: it derives from the word maagd, meaning virgin. These are herring caught before they reach maturity that do not contain roe. They also have a slightly lower fat content than the ‘grown-ups’, which is why true afficionados claim their flavour is inferior to the more revered Hollandse nieuwe.

To be called Hollandse Nieuwe, the fish must reach full maturity, contain 16% fat or higher, and be cleaned in the traditional way, known as kaken (gibbing).

Gibbing? What the **** is gibbing?

Gibbing means using a special knife to remove the herring’s gills, all of its bones (except the tail), and most of its guts (the bits that go off first), but leaving the liver and pancreas intact as they release enzymes that allegedly intensify the flavour. See, it’s more complicated than you think.

This traditional process has a lot of history behind it, as well as a certain amount of myth surrounding its origins.

Commercial herring fishing off the coast of the Netherlands started 1,000 years ago. At its peak between the 16th and 18th centuries, the national fleet comprised some 800 boats. The fish were a popular target because they swim together in large schools in coastal shallows, making them the McDonalds of the sea, i.e. easy to catch.

The habit of smoking or salting fish and preserving them in barrels began in the Middle Ages, and by the end of the 14th century the addition of vinegar, herbs and spices had evolved the brining process into the one used today. It created a commodity that was easily transported around Europe, and made the Dutch the economic power in a lucrative European industry that had hitherto been dominated by the Danes, Swedes, and Hanseatic towns.

One 17th-century story attributes the invention of gibbing to a 14th-century fisherman named Willem Beukelszoon, who hailed from the town of Biervliet (in today’s Zeeland). His ‘discovery’ entered Dutch folklore, and was considered so important that his image still appears in a church stained-glass window in Biervliet. You’ll also find a statue of him there.

That story does however have one tiny flaw: it is rubbish. The fact that it only circulated three centuries after the event should be a clue. The reality is there is no record of when (or indeed if) Willem Beukelszoon existed, nor of what he did. Moreover, there is evidence that gibbing was done for centuries before Beukelszoon’s supposed time, and it likely originated in Sweden. Sorry Willem.

The actual story of the Dutch and gibbing is more prosaic and practical. Before gibbing was adopted, Dutch herring was caught on a small scale near the local coast and sold fresh or lightly salted. But that industry could  not feed a rapidly growing population in the Middle Ages.

To catch more, Flemish and Dutch fishermen had to tap into the abundant herring shoals found along the English and Scottish coasts. It was impossible to land this fish back in the Netherlands in good condition using the old methods. Adopting the gibbing process the fishermen had seen used in Scandinavia solved this problem.

A couple of other factors then led to the Netherlands’ rise to fishy dominance. Firstly, Scandinavian herring stocks collapsed in the 15th century, probably due to overfishing, giving the Dutch the upper hand (or fin). They then consolidated their success by moving the gibbing process from shore to ship, ending a need to return to port each night. Other advances like bigger ships with larger nets turned market dominance into an invincibility that lasted another 200 years.

Un/sustainable

The Scandinavians weren’t the only ones using unsustainable fishing practices. Herring was overfished all around the North Sea for centuries, and the species nearly became extinct. Fortunately, stocks rebounded after stringent global quotas restricted the permissible catches. Today’s industry is more-or-less sustainable – if the merciless slaughter of millions of unarmed creatures could ever be called ‘sustainable’.

But what many people don’t realise is that very few of the herring eaten today in the Netherlands come from Dutch waters. Most are caught by Danish and Norwegian trawlers and landed and processed there (albeit by Dutch-owned companies based in Skagen, Denmark), before being exported for sale.

You said something earlier about flags

Ah yes. Both Maatjesharing and Hollandse Nieuwe have their own individual traditions.

Maatjesharing is consumed in huge quantities on Ash Wednesday, at the start of Lent fasting period. Known as Haringhappen (‘Snacking on herring’), this habit owes its origins to Dutch Catholics, who considered fish to be abstaining from meat. The tradition continues, even if religious beliefs play somewhat less of a role in today’s rowdy pre-lent Carnaval, which envelops most of the southern half of the country every year. These days it’s more of a hangover cure, rounding off a long weekend of over-indulgence.

It is the landing of the first batch of Hollandse Nieuwe that is celebrated on Vlaggetjesdag in mid-June each year. A few days before Vlaggetjesdag, the first barrel of soused fish is landed at Vlissingen and auctioned off for a chosen charity. This year it raised €81,000 for the Netherlands Brain Bank, a highly creditable sum – if some way short of the €159,500 record set in 2023.

Vlaggetjesdag was only named in 1947, but the tradition can trace its roots to the 18th century, when a cap on catches was imposed to preserve stocks, leaving only a few boats allowed to land herring and forcing most of the fleet to switch to other species. During that time, Stadholder Willem V sometimes appeared in person to check the boats. To welcome him, local fishermen festooned their villages with flags. There was also a race between the boats to be the one to land the first fish, which were traditionally gifted to a high-ranking official.

Enough history – when do we get to eat?

Now. As I type, today is the first day of the 2024 Hollandse Nieuwe season. And you can put that knife and fork away.

As well as the fish you will first need some finely chopped raw onion, and perhaps some sliced gherkin, although many purists will pour scorn on the latter.

In Amsterdam they cut the fish into squares, and eat from a paper tray using cocktail sticks sporting the tricolour Dutch national flag. Ostensibly this habit derives from a time of poverty in the Dutch capital, when sharing meant more people could enjoy at least some fish for the same money.

But the traditional method of consumption is to grab the whole fish by the still-attached and often slippery tail, dip its body into the aforementioned onions, watch and shrug as most of the onion falls straight back off again (it’s all part of the ritual), then tip your head back, lower the fish into your waiting mouth and devour like a performing dolphin.

Do not eat the tail.

Unless you are an actual dolphin, in which case fill your flippers. And well done for reading this far.

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