In Holland There are Long Lines at the Herring Shacks

by David Latt

herringtruck.jpgI was looking forward to seeing the tulips on a recent trip to Amsterdam. I imagined endless fields of brightly colored flowers. Unfortunately I missed tulip season by a week. While the tulips were gone, the spring herring were running and long lines of devotees waited patiently at the herring stands throughout the city.

Pickled herring with sour cream and onions was a staple in my house when I was growing up. Every night my dad had several fat pieces on buttered pumpernickel bread.  Wanting to connect with him, I would join in. The firm fleshed pieces slathered with sour cream, topped with thin strands of pickled onions took some getting used to, but eating herring wasn't so much a culinary preference as an attempt at father-son bonding.

My dad passed away many years ago and I haven't eaten herring since.

While I was in Amsterdam, I wanted to try the local favorites. The Dutch love Gouda, beer, bitterballen – a crispy fried ball of meat and dough – and, of course, herring. I wanted to try them all.

herringtypes.jpgThere are herring stands in the squares and on the busier canal bridges. Pretty much where ever people congregate you'll find a herring stand. The Dutch way to enjoy them is to eat the herring whole. Pick it up by the tail, tilt back your head, and let the fish descend into your mouth as you greedily ingest it.

Alternately, the fillet is sliced into fat pieces and served either on a plate or a roll with onions and pickles. I had read that a purist prefers the fish without condiments, not wanting anything to get in the way of the simple, clean flavor of the fish.

As people stand in line to buy herring, they crane their heads the better to watch the chef as he prepares the herring. When the fish is taken out of the brining pan, it has already been gutted and deboned. As the last act before serving, the skin and tail are efficiently removed in one quick stroke.

I wanted an authentic Dutch experience, but I wasn't sure I was ready for raw herring.

On a trip to the Friday morning cheese auction at Alkmaar, 30 minutes by train north from Amsterdam, there was a crowded area where vendors sold souvenirs, wax wrapped balls of cheese, pastries, and, of course, herring.

I watched as people pushed past me to grab paper plates of herring. As they ate, they smiled. I took that as a good sign, but even so, it took me a bit of time to work up the nerve to place my order.

herring2.jpgI was definitely not going the authentic route of grabbing the herring by the tail and eating it whole. And I opted not to have the roll. Reconnecting with my dad, I chose to eat my herring with onions.

I paid my 1.80 Euros ($2.35 U.S.) and picked up a plate of herring, raw onions, and a pickle. Using the toothpick-flag as a utensil, I tried a fat piece.

Like the best sashimi, the herring melted in my mouth. The fresh tasting fish had a pleasant sweetness, the onions added a crunch, the pickle tartness. All in all, a very good combination. The second bite was as good, but by the third I had started to have second thoughts. I didn't want to waste the fish, so I had a fourth piece, but that was the last.

Ultimately, the fish was just too rich for me.

fries.jpgI needed something else to eat, something that would change the taste in my mouth. I considered some fries (in Holland, call them frites, not "French" fries) but to eat them the Dutch way meant using mayonnaise instead of catsup. That didn't sound any better to me than it did to John Travolta in Pulp Fiction.

On the walk back to the train station, I saw a gelato shop, A.C. de Boer (12 Scharlo), and hoped that cold and sweet might trump the herring taste in my mouth.

There were a dozen flavors to choose from. They all looked good. Ultimately I settled on a scoop of vanilla and one of pistachio. I went outside in the sun and savored the creamy, cold sweetness. The vanilla might have been the best I'd ever eaten. Now I felt better.

Sorry, dad.


David Latt is an Emmy-award winning television producer who turns to cooking to alleviate stress. He shares his experiences with food and his favorite recipes on his blog Men Who Like To Cook.   


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