In anticipation of the annual Dutch herring run, the editors of True spoke with Donald Murray, author of Herring Tales: How the Silver Darlings Shaped Human Taste and History, about the fish’s cultural impact.
They were an unpredictable fish to catch, unlike cod, which tend to go the same path.
It was quite a skill at one time to be able to spot a gleam of herring. There would be a plopping noise and people actually heard it. You needed all your senses.
The bottom bit appears green, which prevents them from being noticed from below. The silver top, I can only guess, had something to do with birds not being able to spot them.
Herring went to the Baltic Sea at one point and then they suddenly stopped going there. They tended to make sudden switches in direction for unknown reasons. People believed that if a couple was committing adultery in a coastal village or any blood was spilt, the herring would shy away from that part of the coast and that seemed to be quite a common superstition throughout Europe. It was one way of social control and keeping eyes on the neighborhood.
Herring played a large part in the creation of modern capitalism.
The Dutch were the first people to really develop the industry. They did it using very very large boats. And that required a great deal of investment capital. it also required different skills coming together. forestry, woodlands being delivered to shipyards. even cutting the peat. And these ships went some distance in the 16-17th century — you’re talking about the early development of capitalism. It was an acute source of protein. It was how the poor of Europe were fed.
The Dutch were the first people to map the British coastland accurately and much of the European coastland. They weren’t really terribly interested in the bits of land that were there. They were looking for the herring. It was the herring that was marked far more than the land.
Everyone seems to see it in a different way.
The Jews ritualized it to a great degree, as a part of Shabbat meals. The Dutch saw it as an example of Protestant virtues. It wasn’t fancy. It wasn’t spiced. It’s very plainness was meant to be an example of Dutch Calvinism.
I never tasted it raw until I went to the Netherlands, but I thought that was the nicest way of eating, of all of them. They freeze it. That kills all the germs. And they defrost it very rapidly. I’ll be honest with you, I was used to having it in Scotland salted, or with a side of oatmeal. Sometimes kippered, of course. But I must confess, of all the ways, the Dutch way of eating it raw was by far the nicest. I became a convert.