The Herring has landed…..

dreamstime_14711283.jpgThe first herring of the season, freshly caught, arrived yesterday afternoon in the Dutch fishing port of Scheveningen. If you’re not from the Netherlands this little fact may not mean much to you, but to many Dutch people it means everything. Herring, or more specifically the eating of herring, is almost an institution in Holland, and the skill of catching and gutting it dates back centuries.  The whole thing has turned into such a national event that bringing in the first catch and selling it has turned into an annual race, which in Holland naturally means a reason to party.

Did you know that…

  • The season for new herring is short: they are only caught in June and July
  • The fat content of the young herring has to be a minimum of 16%
  • The herring must be filleted, ripened and salted
  • The herring must have been frozen for at least 24 hours to kill of any parasites

We’ll need to get some facts clear to start with though. We’re talking about raw, salted, young herring here – not ‘rollmops’, not smoked herring – but something called Hollandse Nieuwe, the Beaujolais Nouveau of the fishing world.

Young Herring – Old Traditions

During the middle ages fish was an important part of the diet of most Europeans. The spawning grounds along the coast of Scandinavia and the Baltic States made catching herring very easy, which meant big business for prospective traders. So important was herring that the Hanseatic League set up strategic trading ports all along the coasts. The only problem they had was working out how to keep the fish fresh.

With a grain of salt…

The answer was found in salt – which was in plenty supply around Hamburg – and before long the trade in salted herring made the Hanseatic League extremely wealthy. Dutch fishermen tried to muscle in on the business by selling the Hanseatic League sea salt imported from France but they didn’t get the foothold they were looking for. In fact, they didn’t really get a look-in until for some unexplained reason the herring spawning grounds suddenly moved to the North Sea. The tables were turned.

Plenty of fish in the sea

With their eye firmly on their business prospects, the Dutch developed a new way of gutting herring. The new technique, invented by Dutch fisherman Willem Beukels in 1380, involved removing all the insides and gills, but leaving the pancreas in place. Enzymes it produced helped the herring to ‘ripen’, a process further enhanced by adding salt.


It is this method of gutting which gives salted raw herring  its distinctive flavour and taste. Although fishing for herring has been around for centuries, celebrating the first catch of the season is a relatively young tradition. The first recorded ‘herring race’ took place in 1947 when fishing boats participating in the race left the harbour of Scheveningen, all decorated with bunting and flags. By now ‘flag day’ in Scheveningen is so well established that it attracts large numbers of visitors of all ages each year.

Vlaggetjesdag Scheveningen

The ‘Flag Day’ festival is great fun: think street stalls selling food and drink, arts and crafts exhibitions, demonstrations of artisan skills and of course music provided by shanty choirs. There is something for everybody and kids will love it… 🙂 Many of the exhibitors will wear the traditional costume that was so typical for the Scheveningen community, and of course there are flags and bunting everywhere you look. A crucial part of the start of the herring season is the sale of the first keg of herring by auction, with the proceeds going to charity.

Do as the Dutch do….

Herring 2.jpgSo much for traditions. The really important thing you need to know is how to eat raw herring. Well, it’s really not that difficult. Queue up at the stall and place your order, which will consist of however many herrings you think you can muster. It/they will be filleted and come served with finely chopped onion. Grab the herring by its tail, dip it into the chopped onion, which will helpfully stick to the herring. Throw back your head, open your mouth and lower the herring into your mouth. Bite, chew and swallow. And that’s all there is to it – as these two photographs prove.

Herring 1.jpgAnd so the first herring boat returned yesterday afternoon with its prized catch of the day. Meanwhile, the preparations for ‘Flag Day’ on Saturday 11th June are well and truly under way. The auction of the first keg will take place on the 7th June and is expected to fetch more than 50,000 EURO for charity. If you’d like to get your chequebook ready, you’d best make your way to Scheveningen quick…. 🙂

Annemieke Waite is a freelance travel writer who specialises in writing for families and young people about EU travel destinations.


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  1. Aleida Brinkman
    Posted June 6, 2011 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

    wish I could lay my hands on a couple of freshly caught herring !!!
    To far away I am afraid !

    Very well written !

  2. Alison Paton
    Posted June 6, 2011 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

    This is fabulous! well done xx

  3. Elske
    Posted June 7, 2011 at 12:37 am | Permalink

    You mean they’ll be actually auctioning Herring tomorrow?? I can’t believe they’re going to auction Fish.
    Love the article though… 🙂

  4. Brian Staines
    Posted June 10, 2011 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

    I just love the sound of this.Herring is a brilliant fish anyway and this sounds really great.Currently eating an apple and want to swap for herring just a bite will do

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