Herring – fresh, salted, or salted and smoked – were for centuries a staple food. They were widely eaten throughout Northern Europe and played an important economic role, serving as currency, gifts, and even as a ransom! This fish, known to the Gauls as "wheat of the sea", was even behind the first rules of maritime law.
In France in 1254, King Louis IX (Saint Louis), who was not only concerned with the Crusades, divided the sale of herring into three categories: fresh, salted, and salted and smoked, which remained in force until 1345, in the reign of Philippe de Valois.
The harangères, fishwives assembled on the Petit Pont in Paris (a bridge joining the island then known as Lutèce to the right bank of the Seine), were the only ones allowed to sell salted herring. François Villon immortalized some of their insults in literature.
Fresh herring should have bright eyes, colored gills, and firm and shiny bodies.
Herrings undergo different methods of preservation.
. Herring in oil:
This is the most common method. The fish are salted, smoked, and left to marinate in oil with onions and sliced carrots (or other aromatics).
. Salted herring:
Herring from Dieppe or Boulogne have their heads removed and are salted on board the fishing boats. Herring from the Baltic are cut into thick fillets and pickled in brine in barrels.
. Salted and smoked herring: salted for 2–6 days, then cold smoked, they may be gutted or not. They are stored in wooden barrels or boxes and sold as fillets, either vacuum packed or canned.
. Bloater: whole and not cleaned, the herring are salted for just one day. They are then smoked until they turn the color of straw.
. Buckling: salted for a few hours, then hot smoked. This type of herring is already a little cooked.
. Kipper: with the head removed, open, and flattened, the herring are salted for 1–2 hours. Then they are lightly smoked on each side over wood chips. They are sold in cans, frozen, or in ready-to-cook bags.
. Gendarme: salted for 9 days, then smoked for 10–18 hours, they are quite dry.
. Rollmops and Bismarck herring: open like the kipper, these herrings are pickled in vinegar and aromatics. Rollmops are rolled around a dill pickle and held with a toothpick. Bismarck herring, named after the German chancellor who loved this dish, is kept flat.
As the herring is a delicate fish, it is usually cooked by steaming, pan-frying, broiling with its roe, or en papillote.
Hareng fumé pommes à l'huile (smoked herring with warm potatoes and fresh herbs) is a classic first course.
Fresh herring: in the refrigerator or cold room at 4°C for up to 48 hours.
Herring in oil: several days in the refrigerator, provided they are covered with the oil.
All preserved forms of herring should be kept in a cool place: because they are somewhat delicate, they have an expiration date.
Herring are oily fish, high in unsaturated fatty acids and, therefore, in Omega 3, which protects cells. They also contain protein and vitamins A and D.
However, those caught in the Baltic Sea, an almost fully enclosed body of water that has reached dramatic pollution levels, are contaminated by dioxins.
There is only one species of herring, regardless of the sea in which it lives.
However, the tastiest is the roe herring, which is caught from October through January before the spawning season, the females filled with roe, and the males still having their milt or "soft roe". The flesh is perfectly oily. Outside this season, it is drier and less tasty.
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