I have to admit I was never a great fan of herring. It’s those tiny pesky bones you get in small fish that annoyed me. We had fresh herring regularly when I was a kid. That was back in the days when eating fish on Friday was de-rigeur for Catholic families.
Herring was cheap. So was Whiting, Mackerel and Cods Roe. As a kid, at the elbow of my mother when she was shopping, you picked these things up. So knowing it was cheap probably reduced its desirability in my young mind.
But more to the point, my mother would pan fry herrings or grill them and what made Friday special was deep fried fish and chips. My favourite was deep fried smoked cod.
But herring was an engine of the Industrial Revolution, and in the time before we figured out canning it was one of the most important foods for armies. So important that there was a Battle of the Herrings fought, on this day, in 1429. During the Siege of Órleans a supply column was successfully defended from attack at the town of Rouvray to protect the vital supply of food to the English forces.
The English protector of the herrings was none other than Sir John Falstaff, made famous by the plays of Shakespeare.
Herrings were abundantly available in Northern Europe. Until the modern era and the arrival of the Factory Trawler it seemed that they would never run short. Herring stocks recover very quickly as they are a fast breeding fish. The vast shoals were followed and harvested by great fleets of small fishing boats. Fishermen derived their living from the abundance of this one fish. Entire communities were engaged in the processing and preservation of the catch.
The fresh fish is still prized in Baltic countries where it is dipped in chopped onions and downed with a shot of aquavit or vodka.
But it is the fact that you can preserve the little oily fish easily that made them the staple of the working class populations. First farm labourers, then soldiers and eventually poor industrial town populations relied heavily on this cheap and easily replenshed source of protein.
You can simply fillet them and salt them and store them in barrels. That is probably what the English were defending at the battle of the herrings. But you can also use a wide variety of other preservation techniques. Pickling, fermenting and smoking of some variety turn into hundreds of local variants when you carry out some research.
So popular a fish it is of course celebrated in poem and song. Here is the Clancy Brothers version of the highly popular “Shoals of Herring”