Across the continental European countries that line the North Sea, herring is a way of life. Danes will put the little fish on open-face sandwiches they call smørrebrød; Norwegians will eat it for breakfast; Swedes turn into surströmming, where they let it ferment long enough that the smell is so bad that they’ll generally only eat it outside; and the Dutch look forward to a brief window each year where they can eat slightly cured herring whole.
For the better part of six centuries, the people of Holland have delighted in new Dutch herring. Beginning in late May, the herring swimming along the coast of the Netherlands are at their best because as the waters warm, they plump themselves up for mating season. This also marks the beginning of new Dutch herring season, where the citizens gorge on the little fish for four-to-six weeks.
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Great Big Story ventured to the country’s seaside resort town Scheveningen, where the tradition originated. Each year there’s a festival on Flag Day to commemorate the start of the season by auctioning off the first barrel brought in by fisherman. Scheveningen fishmongers and restaurateurs put the herring in a light saltwater brine, then decapitate and clean them so that people can pick them up by the tail, lean their head back, dangle it above their heads and then chomp off as much as they can in one bite.
Back in Amsterdam, the custom is slightly different. The fish is served chopped up with onions and pickles (and sometimes on a sandwich), because in the centuries before the advent of refrigeration, some of the fish got a bit too funky and needed some strong flavors to offset the taste. The Dutch eat the herring at little stands around the city that are becoming a dying breed. “Fifty years ago, on every bridge there was a stand, but nowadays, there are seven left here in Amsterdam,” says Ruben van de Ven of the stand Frens Haringhandel.
The tradition hasn’t been confined just to the Netherlands. Every year, stateside herring fanatics make their pilgrimage to the famed appetizing shop on New York’s Lower East Side, Russ & Daughters, to eat this delicacy just like the Dutch do. People will take the whole filets, drag them through some pickles and onions then dramatically lower them into their wide-open gullets.
There’s still a few weeks left to try the new catch Holland Herring in person at Russ & Daughters or order them for nationwide delivery.