When my mother made this dish, it was always set next to my father’s place at the table. (We all had our assigned seats.) Obviously, Mama was showcasing that it was intended for him. When he saw what my mother had prepared, his demeanor lightened, and he appeared to become lost in the days of his youth along the shores of the Bodensee (Lake Constance, Germany). There were no herring swimming in that freshwater lake, of course, but he must have relished herring for the first 26 years of his life when he lived there. My mother seemed to enjoy a herring salad as well, which might indicate that it was once popular here too. We were never forced to eat anything set on the table we didn’t want, and so, I never forced myself even to try it. Having given this some thought, perhaps they didn’t mind that, because they didn’t want to share the Herring Salad with us. Today, I might think differently about any dish that makes an attractive presentation – Herring Salad did that.
Herring, small-headed, streamlined, beautifully colored fish with shiny, silvery, iridescent bodies and deep blue, metallic-hued backs swim in enormous shoals across the North Atlantic from north of France to the Chesapeake Bay. Once, they were known as the North Sea stock, but their numbers have declined by 50%, which has led governments to restrict harvesting. In the 1990s fishing quotas were imposed. Global warming may get the blame, but that we essentially ate them faster than they could spawn will likely be closer to the truth.
During the Middle Ages, the Dutch were known to cure herring with a salt brine and smoke them for preservation so they could be transported and preserved for long periods of time. Starting in the 14th and 15th century the process of preserving and flavoring the fish improved with the use of vinegar, followed by adding herbs and spices. Herring played an enormous role in long sea expeditions during the 16th and 17th centuries as the preserved herring provided an excellent source of protein to sailors. Recent studies have shown that herring had a greater influence on the accumulation of wealth of nations than that of the coffee bean, tea leaf, or even the silkworm. And all these years we have been told Spain became the richest for having discovered all that gold.
Herring are relatively “oily” fish which likely led to a very large number of ways in which they were cured or preserved. Cold smoking, much like the way we smoke our venison sausages, is one way. “Hot” smoking using temperatures around 85ºF is another. Many are not gutted at all but preserved and eaten whole—blood, guts, and bones, including heads. So, what kinds of herring are there?
A Red Herring is one soaked in brine and dried before smoking. And all these years we had been led to believe this meant a deliberately misleading clue to divert attention from the truth! Bloaters are those that are not gutted before drying, but are slightly salted before briefly being smoked. One can speculate why they might have puffed up. Buckling, popular in Germany are hot smoked, but may or may not have had their heads and guts removed. Typically, they are eaten with rye bread or served with scrambled eggs and fried potatoes. Rollmopse are those that have been beheaded, gutted, deboned, and split open in the form of double fillet, which can be rolled up around a pickle in a vinegar or a wine solution. Bismarck, another popular German dish, are simply marinated in vinegar with onion rings and seasoning. The Danish seem to like their herrings with a mustard sauce and are referred to as Sweet Pickled Herrings. The Swedes like their herrings fermented whole in the summer heat with salt alone. So notorious and revolting is their smell, even when canned, these Sürstromming were opened with great care outside or on the top decks of ships only. Typically, seeing a puffed, tottering can of anything means spoilage—not so with these.
From these descriptions, I can safely assume that the way my mom served them were in the Bismarckian style. Remarkably, this method of preserving them actually named after Otto von Bismarck, Germany’s first chancellor. Supposedly he had been a great admirer of this method of preparing herring in which herring filets were cleaned and cured in a brine with skin intact after which they were pickled in vinegar, sugar, salt and flavored with bay leaves, mustard seeds, and other herbs. Its name evolved when, a fishmonger Johann Wichmann, a shop owner in Stralsund, sent Bismarck two small wooden barrels of these and asked them to be renamed the Bismarck herring. Remarkably, Bismarck agreed, and the former Stralsund herring became the Bismarck herring for nearly the next 65 years, that is, until the end of World War II. That was when the world had had enough of anything smacking of authoritarianism. Even sinking the SS Bismarck hadn’t sufficed. The herring was forbidden to be sold as anything other than the Stralsund. Until 1997 when it was again revived as the “Bismarck Herring.” They continue to be packed and sold as such to this day.
Searching through two editions of the Fredericksburg Home Kitchen Cook Book, I found but three recipes for herring. Neither of these was the way my mother had presented it. Each called for the herring to be soaked overnight for at least for 12 hours. They were obviously attempting to remove some of the salt in which they had been brined. Herring simply could not have been purchased any other way.
Today, raw herring remains a delicacy, but pickled herring retains a popularity among many Baltic nations, including parts of northern Germany. It could well be that herring provided an excellent source of protein and omega fatty acids to our German pioneers while on their extended sea voyages from their former homeland. Like Salzfleisch, barrels of herring were certain to have been among their provisions.
The ways to serve herring are practically limitless—perhaps only by the extent of one’s imagination. Here are two Herring Salad recipes. The first is most like that which I remember in the ‘50s.
1-12oz jarred pickled herring
1 white or red onion, sliced to form whole rings
2 tbsp apple cider vinegar
2 slices of lemon
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 pinch sugar, salt and pepper
2 tbsp olive oil
Arrange herring into a serving dish.
Add olive oil, lemon juice, and vinegar.
Add salt, pepper, and sugar.
Mix slightly and toss with onion rings.
Cover and chill before serving.
1 ½ pounds small red potatoes boiled in their skins—then cooled
3 dill pickles (drained and chopped)
10 capers (drained and minced)
1 (24-oz) jar of pickled herring (rinsed, patted dry and chopped into 1-inch pieces)
1 cup chopped red onion
1 cup sour cream
3 to 4 tbsp white vinegar
2 tbsp. olive oil
¼ tsp salt
¼ tsp pepper
¼ tsp sugar
½ cup sliced radish
¼ cup chopped fresh dill
Slice the cooled potatoes if so desired, or leave whole.
Add chopped pickles, minced capers, salt, pepper, onions and chopped herring.
Mix well and set aside.
In a small bowl, mix the sour cream, onions, sugar, white vinegar, and olive oil. (Season to taste.)
Pour dressing over the potato-herring mixture, fold gently.
Refrigerate, covered for at least 2 hrs.
Decorate with radish and chopped dill before serving.
Serve in a shallow dish for a more beautiful presentation.