The Humble Herring

Image result for herring

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”


Shoals of Herring


Study of 5 mackerel by William Shackleton

Study of 5 mackerel by William Shackleton

Mackerel have a sparkle.  A very special way of catching the light.  The flash of iridescent metallic blues and greens that no photograph ever seems to capture.  A live mackerel is a work of art.  One of the great joys of my youth was catching mackerel, seeing them flash and glisten in the water, feeling the kick as they take the bait, watching them flicker and sparkle as you reel them in.

Such easy fish to catch, they will bite anything put in front of them.  A hook decorated with a feather or a triangle of shiny plastic will attract them.  When they are running you can catch them by the bucket-load.  You have to make a conscious decision to stop casting your line, because there is a limit to how many you can eat and give away.

The mackerel run in the height of summer, so for me mackerel are the harbinger of the summer.  Long warm nights, salad days, holidays, beaches, messing about in boats.  All the good stuff.

They are perfect for the barbecue, and there is no fish to rival a truly fresh mackerel.  A smear of Dijon mustard, ten minutes on the BBQ and you have a meal fit for a king.   Some green salad, good crusty bread and a nice sharp white wine to cut the oil, a Vinho Verde or a Pinot Grigio, nothing too sophisticated.

White Water; by John Montague

The light, tarred skin
of the currach rides
and receives the current,
rolls and responds to
the harsh sea swell.

Inside the wooden ribs
a slithering frenzy; a sheen
of black-barred silver-
green and flailing mackerel:
the iridescent hoop
of a gasping sea trout.

As a fish gleams most
fiercely before it dies,
so the scales of the sea-hag
shine with a hectic
putrescent glitter:

luminous, bleached—
white water—
that light in the narrows
before a storm breaks.