Scheveningen is one of the eight districts of The Hague and by simply walking around it’s harbor on Vlaggetjesdag (meaning: flag day) – a traditional Dutch holiday that’s usually held in June – you really get a feel of what life is and was like in this traditional fishermen’s district: it’s strong identity and history can be felt and seen throughout the entire area. Heck, even Scheveningen’s official coat of arms and flag, which can be seen all around the harbor and boulevard, features three herring wearing little crowns – indeed, a great way to honor and display their local tradition!
Historically, on Vlaggetjesdag, fishermen would do test runs to check the state of the fishing boats, compasses and (later) engines after the boats had been mostly unused during the long winter. Early June, the boats would be docked in the harbor and decked out in little flags (hence, the name ‘flag day’) before going off to sea to catch herring the day after Pentecost. Today, Vlaggetjesdag no longer celebrates the first day of sailing out to catch herring for the first time that year, rather, it celebrates the ships returning with the first new Dutch soused herring – the famous ‘Hollandse Nieuwe’ – of that year. Sounds like a good reason to celebrate to me, don’t you agree? Everyone is just really excited to get their hands on these new herring in order to taste and judge the quality of the fish of that year.
Even if Vlaggetjesdag is a celebration of precious, new soused herring and eating as much of them as possible, Vlaggetjesdag in Scheveningen is not just for those that simply love to eat herring (though, it’s mostly that, of course). Apart from eating herring and some freshly smoked eel if you’re lucky, there are many other activities to be found that are connected to the tradition and history of Scheveningen: you can stroll alongside women dressed in traditional Scheveningen costume, play old-school Dutch children’s games, have a look at a large display of fish and seafood that comes into the harbor daily, check out boat-shows and maybe even get on board of some boats too (most indeed decorated with flags!), learn about traditional Dutch crafts such as netting, basket-weaving and eel-smoking, or be taught all about the history of Scheveningen through oral storytelling, books and photographs.
Live music can be heard coming from the local cafes where locals celebrate the day with a beer in one hand and a herring in the other, while the harbor is full of decorated boats on which several generations of fishermen and their families are doing pretty much the same… minus the beer in hand for the little ones, of course. If you are not listening to any of the live bands playing rock ‘n roll (The Hague is a rock ‘n roll town after all), or any of the half-drunken karaoke coming from the bars, you will probably be met by the merry voices of choirs consisting of men dressed as sailors and pirates(!) singing traditional sea shanties.
Indeed, there’s something for anyone that enjoys a good party with an interesting tradition and history! But, honestly, if you’re not there to participate in all of the festivities with a Hollandse Nieuwe (or two) in hand, or at the very least some freshly smoked eel on a bun, or some fried kibbeling, then you are truly missing out on the true Scheveningen experience!
Okay, but what is it exactly that makes a herring a Hollandse Nieuwe, or ‘maatje’?
‘Hollandse Nieuwe’, or ‘maatjesharing’ are herring, but not all herring are Hollandse Nieuwe! So, what is exactly the difference between a regular herring, a Hollandse Nieuwe and a maatjesharing?
Only those herring that were caught in May or June are good enough to be made into a maatjesharing. At that time of year, the young herrings are fat enough and haven’t mated, or spawned yet: the name ‘maatje’ comes from the Dutch word ‘maagd’ meaning virgin, referring to the herring being caught when they’re relatively young.
Furthermore, a real maatjesharing should have a fat percentage of 16% or more, and should be salted, filleted and ‘gekaakt’, in the traditional Dutch way. Ge-what now? Well, after the herring are caught, the gills and most of the guts are removed from the fish in a process called kaken (gibbing in English). While that process is not something out of the ordinary, what is quite different is that the pancreas is left inside the fish during the salt-curing process, because it releases enzymes essential for the flavor and soft texture of the fish. These leftover bits are only removed right before consuming the fish. After this kaken process, the fish are cured in a wooden barrel with salt so that they’re available all year round.
But what about those Hollandse Nieuwe? Hollandse Nieuwe are maatjesharing, but according to the law, a maatjesharing can only be sold as a Hollandse Nieuwe after the official start of the herring season in June and until September of the same year it’s been caught. After the official season, the herring can only be named maatjesharing… unless it isn’t one, of course. But don’t worry, the name change doesn’t mean that herring are not good to eat after the official season is over: they are delicious all year round!
Now that we know all about ‘maatjes’ and ‘Hollandse Nieuwe’: how to properly eat them?
There is only one true way to properly eat a Dutch herring, which is what I have previously referred to as the ‘lift-and-chomp’. When you order a herring, you will get it filleted with only the tail and part of the tailbone attached. Chopped raw onion is a common and popular topping, but not mandatory. When you get your herring, simply grab the fish by the tail, drag it through the raw onion if you’ve got any, tilt your head back while lifting the fish over your mouth, and take a bite out of the thick end.
Not everybody enjoys the rather crude way of the ‘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 sliced dill pickle. I would advise you, however, not to ask the herring-salesperson to cut your herring into small pieces for you… while it may be more common practice to cut herring into bite-size chunks in Amsterdam, anywhere else it is usually only done if you are under the age of 4. If you want to look like a real Dutch pro when it comes to herring-consumption, stick to the ‘lift-and-chomp’! It’s a lot of fun!
A few days before Vlaggetjesdag (which was on June 11th this year), the first new vat of Hollandse Nieuwe is auctioned off to the highest bidder – this year, at a price of 95.500 euro, which will be donated to charity. Only after this auction the new herring are available to the public as well.
Historically, the first day of sailing out to catch herring was referred to as ‘buisjesdag’, named after the traditional late-medieval fishing vessel ‘buis’ (herring buss).
Vlaggetjesdag is also about paying respect to the very tough work of the fishermen and their wives. On the Boulevard of Scheveningen, you are greeted by a statue of the fisherman’s wife of Scheveningen (‘Vissersvrouw van Scheveningen’) standing tall and strong, with a melancholic look on her face, which is turned to the sea from which she hopes a loved one – a son, a husband, other family members – will safely return. Oftentimes, you will find flower wreaths around the statue that are placed there to commemorate those that went out to sea never came back home.