For hundreds of years herring was the staple diet of the Dutch. Herring has always been plentiful in the North Sea, and Dutch fishing boats had not far to go to delve the ‘silver from the sea’. And the tastiest herring were the newly matured fish caught in late spring: the green, ‘new’ herring.
In the past, once the fishers had made their catch they faced the problem of conserving their prize. Cleaning the fish on board ship and salting it was the obvious solution, but as early as the 14th century the Dutch made an important innovation. In cleaning, for the sake of speed, they removed only the innards, and left the head, spine and scales. But they did not remove the pancreas. Somehow they had discovered that the pancreas contained enzymes that it continued to secrete, even in the dead fish. These enzymes seasoned the meat, very slowly, to render it tender and fit to eat raw.
Although the herring is no longer cleaned on board ship directly after it is caught, and most of it not even in Holland, the fish is still cleaned in two stages. First, after being refrigerated, it is brought to shore, where it undergoes the same treatment as in days of old: the innards are removed, but not the pancreas. The half-cleaned fish are packaged in kegs, which are sold to fishmongers who will do the final cleaning before the fish is sold as Hollandse Nieuwe.
In summer, directly after their arrival, most of the green herring are cleaned, sold and consumed at outdoor stalls and carts. Key is that the final cleaning takes place only when a customer presents himself. The raw fish is then offered with its tail left on, for the tail is used to hold the fish while the consumer lowers it into his mouth and consumes it bite by bite. (In Amsterdam the deviate practice originated of cutting the herring into pieces and transferring them to the mouth with a toothpick. This method is frowned upon in other parts of the country.)
In the old days, the arrival of the Hollandse Nieuwe in late spring was awaited with joy tempered by concern.. How large would the catch be? And what would be the quality of the green herring? Would the fish be big and fat, and provide enough nutrition, or small and lean? As soon as the boat was moored, the new herring was offered for approval to the authorities and traders gathered at the quayside to welcome the fishers. In the fishing town of Vlaardingen, Holland’s traditional herring town, just downriver from Rotterdam, this ritual is reenacted every spring. Perhaps these photos, taken last June, can convey the humor and excitement of this age-old event.
Continue to the Holland New Herring Festival Pictures