Maatjesharing, Hollandse Nieuwe, or Dutch soused herring with onions is a typical Dutch delicacy. It’s common practice to simply walk up to your local fishmonger at the market, order a couple of herring – which are often cleaned as you order them, or should be anyway – and eat them immediately standing next to the herring stall. Many Dutch people, me included, look forward to the start of herring season (even though brined herring are available all-year round), which traditionally starts on ‘Vlaggetjesdag’ (Flag Day).
On ‘Vlaggetjesdag’ (which was on the 16th of June this year (2018)), the first barrel of new herring caught that year is sold to the highest bidder and from then on these new herring are sold all over the country. These ‘Hollandse Nieuwe’, or maatjesharing as they are named, officially only are caught within a couple of weeks from around the beginning of May until June, when the first young herring of the season have grown nice and fat (‘maatje’ comes from the Dutch word ‘maagd’, meaning virgin, which refers to the fact that the herring are caught before they start spawning in July). No wonder so many people look forward to Flag Day! Everyone is excited to get their hands on this relatively exclusive new catch in order to test and judge the quality of the fish of that year.
The manner in which the herring are processed – a traditional Dutch way – is quite interesting. After the herring are caught, the gills and part of the guts are removed from the fish in a process called gibbing (kaken in Dutch). However, the pancreas is left inside the fish during the salt-curing process, because it releases enzymes essential for the flavour and texture of the fish and these leftover guts are only removed right before consuming the fish. After gibbing, the fish are cured in a wooden barrel with salt so that they’re available all year round. In the past, the whole process of gibbing and barrel-curing was immediately done on the fishing boats in order to prevent the fish from rotting prematurely during the long travel back home. These days, however, it’s mandatory by Dutch law for the herring to be frozen somewhere during the process of preparing soused herring, in order to kill any potential parasites present in the fish, … so don’t worry about catching anything nasty.
As stated, as soon as the new herring reaches the market stalls, the Dutch love to eat the new herring in any way, shape, or form. Traditionally, Dutchies love to eat herring by simply grabbing the cleaned herring by the tail, dragging it through some diced raw onion, lifting it above their heads and taking a bite. Apparently, the addition of some diced raw onion is a habit that has stuck from the past when the raw onion was used to cover up the flavour of herrings that had gone a bit off during the slow distribution process. The raw onion does go well with the fishy, salty flavour, though, so do try it out… it’s a flavour combination people have gotten used to now, rather than a cover up for any nastiness, so don’t you worry! Having said that, real herring connoisseurs would probably tell you to never add anything to your herring and simply eat it plain to experience the real flavour of the fish.
Not everybody enjoys the rather crude way of ‘lift-and-chomp’, though. Traditionally, in Amsterdam, it’s common practice to cut the herring into smaller pieces, with the chopped onions on the side and the addition of a pickle. It is said that this way of eating herring developed from the fact that in the past not everybody could afford herring, but nobody wanted to be left out of enjoying this traditional snack either. In order to make the herring available to the poor, the herring salesmen started selling cut-up pieces of herring so that everyone could enjoy at least a bite. In this way, not only is it easier to eat the herring (no raw onion falling into your eyes), but it’s also easier to share the herring with others. Honestly, the ‘lift-and-chomp’ is more fun, though!
Whichever way you choose to eat your herring, the soft, slightly salty fish will still be delicious. Not convinced? Try eating your first herring in a white, soft bun (broodje haring). Does the texture and flavour of raw fish frighten you? Try a smoked herring (kipper). You like something more refreshing and equally daring as a raw herring? Try a ‘sour’ herring pickled in vinegar and rolled up with some pickles inside (rolmops). Or maybe you’d like to turn that delicious fish into a great main meal, or lunch, by adding some extra accompaniments, such as sweet beets, tart sour cream, dill and some horseradish. Sounds good? Well, try out this recipe for my Dutch herring and beet salad! It’s great as an appetizer, lunch, or small main-course, served with some dark rye-bread.
Tip #1: Can’t find Dutch maatjesherring? Make this salad using the sour, pickled herring (zure haring, or rolmops) that are often sold in jars. Since these herring are pickled in vinegar, they will obviously alter the flavour of the salad a little, making it brinier and tarter. In the case of using vinegar-pickled herring, you might want to omit adding the dill pickles listed in the recipe.
Dutch Herring Salad
- 4 Dutch maatjesherrings, or dutch soused herring
- 400g red beets
- 400g waxy potatoes, unpeeled
- 1 green sour apple like Granny Smith
- 1 yellow onion
- 3 medium-sized dill pickles
- 1 tablespoon capers, rinsed
- 5 sprigs of fresh dill
- 125g crème fraiche
- 1 - 2 teaspoon grated horseradish
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 4 slices of dark rye bread (optional)
- Prepare the beets: Place your unpeeled beets in a large pot and cover with water. Bring beets to a boil and boil until they are tender and cooked through. According to the size and type of your beets this can take about 30 minutes to an hour. When the beets are done, remove them from the pan and let them cool. They can be easily peeled after they have cooled down.
- Prepare the potatoes: In the meantime, thoroughly scrub your potatoes to remove all dirt from the peel. Place them in a pot and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil and boil potatoes until done in about 20 - 30 minutes. The potatoes are ready when they can be easily pierced with a fork and they easily slide off. When the potatoes are done, set aside to cool.
- Cut the cold ingredients: Whilst your beets and potatoes are cooling down, remove the tails from the herring and slice the fish into pieces of about 1,5cm. Dice your apple into cubes of about 1 cm and finely chop your onion, pickles, capers, and fresh dill. Place all ingredients in a large bowl.
- When the potatoes have cooled down, cut into 1,5cm cubes and add to the bowl with the other ingredients. Mix all ingredients in the bowl with 125g crème fraiche, a good teaspoon or two of horseradish, and a dash of freshly ground black pepper until everything is combined well.
- Finally, peel your beets and cut into 1,5cm cubes. Add cubed beets to the bowl and toss, or stir carefully. I like to keep the stirring of the beets into the other ingredients to a minimal to avoid turning the whole salad pink and to keep all of the ingredients visible. If you like bright pink salads though, keep stirring a little longer.
- Serve immediately as a main course salad, or scooped on to some dark rye bread.