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17 September 2010

Vlaggetjesdag / the wonderful, sublime, ethereal (and historically important) salt-cured herring of the Netherlands / sidewalk cheap is best / haring in 't land / Dr. aan de kant

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The heck with sushi. 

I bought a hunk of pickled herring from a street vendor in front of Centraalstation in Amsterdam, and my mouth and belly wafted me to heaven. 

Vita brand sells jars of something called herring in USA supermarkets, and it's certainly tasty. 

But it doesn't taste anything like Dutch sidewalk herring.

USA Jar Herring is a respectable 6.

Dutch Sidewalk Herring is 29448. Or higher.

The New York Times
Sunday 12 April 1987

Cured New Herring of the Netherlands

by Theodore James Jr.

Every year on a Saturday in late May, the Dutch herald the new herring season with a festival. It's called Vlaggetjesdag, or Flag Day, and in the harbor at Scheveningen, a resort and seaport two miles from The Hague, ships large and small are festooned with rainbows of fluttering flags. Local people from nearby fishing villages don traditional costumes; there are folk-dancing exhibitions, and folk orchestras play favorite local tunes.

The celebration derives from as far back as the 14th century, when fishermen whose boats had been laid up for the winter would set out to sea in hundreds of small craft in quest of their annual catch. These days it is essentially an attraction for tourists and one to promote new herring, a delicate raw fish, cured in barrels with one part of salt to 20 of herring. The Dutch or people of Dutch origin everywhere call it the typical Dutch food.

Herring is so revered in Scheveningen that the city coat of arms bears three herrings topped with a crown of gold. And well it should be, for beyond being tasty, the herring has had far-reaching implications on the history of the Netherlands as a maritime nation, and thus, on world history.

The armadas of small fishing boats have long since vanished. These days the Dutch herring industry is supplied by about 25 immense ships, roughly 300 feet long, with all facilities on board to catch and then mechanically clean, cure, freeze and store the fish.

Most Dutch eat new herring as a snack, on a roll or on white bread, with or without chopped onion. Purists insist that for ultimate enjoyment, it must be held by the tail above the mouth and then slowly lowered and eaten, unadulterated by bread and usually accompanied by either gasps of horror or cheers and applause by onlookers.

When the season for new herring arrives sometime in summer, and exactly when depends on how the herring are running, a herring race ensues at sea. The gigantic floating processing factories race to port to capture the $1,500 prize offered for the first barrel brought into port. The prize is, in fact, an honor, for the money is always donated by the winning ship captain to Greenpeace, an environmental group. Of the first new herring sold at auction, and it is not necessarily the best, one barrel is always given to Queen Beatrix to do with whatever she pleases.

The following day and sometimes that very evening, all over the Netherlands signs reading ''nieuw haring'' are posted on restaurants, roadside and boardwalk stands and even on moped-driven vending carts. And even abroad, in Belgium, Germany, England and France, the hoisting of the Dutch flag before a fish market or restaurant signifies the herring's arrival. During the summer and early fall, new herring is sold everywhere from stands and carts. And the price is right, usually around $1 for herring with onion and bread or a roll.

The herring business in the Netherlands began during the 14th century, when a Dutchman named Willem Buekelszoon invented a process called gibbing. When gibbing herring, the gills and part of the gullet are removed, which eliminates any bitter taste. The liver and pancreas are left in the fish during the salt-curing process, these release enzymes essential for flavor.

To this day, Buekelszoon remains a national folk hero in Holland. An ancient song about him is sung in schools in much the same way children here sing ''Yankee Doodle Dandy.'' Herring lore is part of the vernacular in the Netherlands. An everyday expression, 

haring in 't land
Dr. aan de kant

means, ''A herring a day keeps the doctor away.'' It is thought to be healthy and particularly good for the heart. Studies show that the fatty acids in fish such as herring and mackerel help lower blood cholesterol.

In the 14th century, upon realizing that herring was marketable abroad, the Dutch built ships to carry the fish throughout Europe. It was then that the Netherlands emerged as a seagoing power, moving from the herring trade to exploration, colonization and ultimately to building an empire. Herring holds its place in Dutch political history as well. During the Thirty Years War with Spain, which ended in 1648, Philip IV's army had laid siege to the city of Leiden. Within the people were starving. To divert the attention of the occupying Spanish army, William the Silent attacked the Spanish in another part of Holland. The Spanish left Leiden to counterattack. New herring and bread was speedily brought to the starving citizens. To this day, on October 3, the liberation of Leiden is celebrated with a traditional meal of new herring and white bread.

In his office at the Netherlands Institute for Fishery Research in Ijmuiden, Ad Corten, project leader for herring research, discussed the industry. ''The fish are caught with large nets in the North Sea, near the Shetland Islands off the coast of Scotland,'' he said. It is here that fresh water and food pour into European waters from the Atlantic Ocean. The primary food of herring is plankton, most plentiful in North Sea waters from May to August. The herring eat the plankton, which has a fat content -- an important factor in producing the fine texture and taste -- of about 25 percent. In the fall it falls to 12 to 18 percent and in winter to 5 percent. Thus, summer is the season to catch herring best suited to curing.

As the result of a six-year fishing ban that ended in 1983, the kipper industry in England suffered severely. The English lost their taste for smoked herring and have not regained it. But new herring of the Netherlands is as popular as ever. Last year the catch amounted to 40,000,000 pounds, with 20 percent of that consumed in the Netherlands. This amounts to 10 herring a person a year.


Kandinsky is a formal restaurant in the Kurhaus casino and hotel, 30 Gevers Deynootplein, Scheveningen; 52-00-52. The herring is served as an appetizer with chopped onion. Reservations suggested.

Saur, 51 Lange Voorhout, The Hague, (46-33-44) is across the street from the United States Embassy. Closed Sunday.

Oesterbar, 10 Leidseplein, Amsterdam; 26-34-63. This popular fish restaurant has aquarium windows and tiled walls.

In most restaurants, new herring costs $3 to $5; the price from street vendors is $1. 

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Theodore James Jr. lives on Long Island NY and is writing a book on landscape gardening.

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