Since man first cast nets into the frigid oceans for food, his survival depended on knowing when fish would be most plentiful and accessible. The changing seasons brought great frothing multitudes of fish into the nearby shoals to feed, spawn and die. Coastal communities likewise lived and died by the season’s harvest, and each new arrival would be met with celebration. To these early fishermen (and their ancestors to come) the most prized of all the migratory fish were the herring.
Herring are a forage fish species (meaning : small fish that cruise in large schools and get eaten a lot by predators) found in both the Northern Atlantic and Pacific oceans. They’re small, about 8 to 10 inches long, flat, brilliantly silver-coloured and rocking a massive underbite. My good friend Mark surprised me with a whole bag of them this week, pulled from the seine nets out in the Strait of Georgia. They were so fresh! Each tiny silver scale shone with this near-hypnotic iridescence.
Hailed by Northern European traditions as the “Silver of the Sea”, this humble little fish would inspire poetry, songs and festivals as well as transform the fishing industry of medieval Europe from a pastoral survival practice, to an economic Juggernaut. In Britain and Scandinavia especially, they have been a staple food source, and are traditionally fried, smoked, salted and pickled.
Here on the Northwest coast herring fishing is also a big deal. They are commercially netted during the late winter both for fishmeat and for the precious roe sacks found inside ‘em (most of the pre-spawning roe is shipped to Japan). The First Nations people have been smoking, whole-roasting and rendering the oil of herring since time immemorial. The early spring tradition of laying pine boughs into shallow intertidal areas to collect roe is a particular favourite of my wife’s family.
So why don’t more people eat them anymore? Not many people here on the West Coast have kippers with their morning eggs, or bother to pickle their own herring. When I asked Mark what he was doing with his herring, he was kind of at a loss. Why has this most traditionally beloved of all fish not found it’s way onto modern North American dinner plates?
After hashing it out for a while we came up with a couple, sadly obvious, reasons:
First, freshness is all important. Herring are oily little fish that will begin to soften and rot very quickly if not processed and eaten right away. The guts have to come out, the head off, and right into the pan they go while they are still stiff and the meat is dense and clean tasting. Behind every bad, mealy, too-fishy mouthful of pickled herring is a bucket of by-catch left to rot on the dock for too long. If you don’t live in a coastal area, or know a fisherman, or have access to flash frozen right-off-the-boat herring, I’d suggest you pick some other fish for dinner.
Second, herring are a lot of work to process, for what appears to be very little gain. For all the scaling, gutting and cutting you end up with two fillets, each the size of two business cards placed end-to-end… Not impressive. It’s no wonder that even some fishmongers consider them “trashfish” or “fishbait”.
Third… Oh the bones! Herring, typical of forage fish species like smelts, anchovies, or their close cousin sardines, have tons of little hair-thin bones running throughout their bodies. Even after filleting there is a small line of pin-bones that remains in the meat. They will soften during cooking or pickling, but some people will still be sensitive to them. North American people are slowly getting over their “boneless-skinless” mania thanks to Food Network and informed food writing, but I think it’ll be awhile before they welcome the herring back with open arms.
And people really should give herring a chance again! They are a far more sustainable a food source than any of their more culinary-prized predators. Yeah, it’s a lot of work to break them down, but the meat has a unique taste and texture that you won’t get from all those big endangered fish farther up the food chain. So, if I haven’t totally scared everyone away from these tasty little fish, and you fancy a go at ‘em, empty the sink, set up a cutting board with a couple of towels and grab a sharp utility knife.
- Scaling – Herring’s scales are some of the most beautiful and annoying in all the marine world. Don’t let their semi-translucent soft appearance fool you, If they aren’t removed before processing they will get everywhere and into everything and make eating a pain. Place your herring in a sink with the drain net in. Grab a scaler (you can find these handy tools at kitchen supply stores everywhere) or a fork, or just use the back side of a pairing knife and scrape the surface of each herring’s skin from tail to head. Use a firm hand, but don’t bruise the little guys too much. Rinse them constantly under cold water, emptying the drain net of scales when full.
- Take the head off by slipping your knife under the pectoral fin and cutting to the spine. Repeat on the other side of the fish and remove the mantle and head. Take the point of you knife and stick it into stomach of the fish just half an inch from the tail fin, then slip the knife through the stomach in a straight line to where the head used to be. The stomach will open to reveal the guts. Pull them out (don’t get squeamish on me now!), save the two roe sacks (yum!) and wash the stomach cavity with cold water.
- Fillet – Place the blade of your knife (facing towards the tail, along the flat side) against the nub of spine sticking out of the neck. Run your knife along the spine, starting from the neck to the tail, repeat on the other side to get two fillets.
- You’ll notice the bottom half of the fillet is covered in a thin membrane and a line of bones. I ‘dunno why, but I always think of those old pictures of whalebone corsets that Victorian women wore… Weird. Anyway, slide your knife underneath the exposed tips of bone and use a few long slices down toward the bottom of the fillet to remove it. I like to place the fingertips of my free hand over the bones to guide the knife blade under them. The closer you cut to the bone, the more meat will remain underneath. There you go! You’re done. Cover the fillets with cling wrap and refrigerate for up to four days, the roe can go into a tight-lid container and into the fridge as well.
From this stage there are many possibilities: pan fry, rub with salt and barbeque, lightly braise, pickle, smoke. Hiro-san even made herring sashimi and it was incredible!
I’ll fire up a simple herring recipe in the next post that will satisfy all tastes and (hopefully) change some opinions about this beautiful… Alright, somewhat trashy, and often misunderstood piece of coastal culinary history.