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Pickled herring with boiled new potatoes Herring (Clupea harengus) is a small saltwater fish found mainly in the North Atlantic and the North Sea, but also in the Pacific Ocean. There are different herring varieties confined to their own sea areas  —  the North Sea, the Baltic Sea, the Irish Sea, etc. A smaller subspecies of the common herring is the Baltic herring (Clupea harengus membras), found in the Baltic Sea and commonly consumed in Finland.

In picture on right: Finnish summer delicacy  —  pickled herring with boiled new potatoes.

Being one of the most frequently caught fish, herring has been a staple food since the Middle Ages. During the recent decades, the herring stocks in some areas have been greatly reduced due to overfishing and pollution. Herring is especially popular in the north European countries and Russia, where there are a multitude of dishes prepared with it.

Herring is an oily fish, containing many essential nutrients and healthy fatty acids. Its nutritional value and fat content are at their highest just before the spawning season. Herring is usually caught when it contains the minimum of 16 % of fat. A higher fat percentage makes a better tasting fish.

Salted herring

Danish herring frokost Herring is most commonly eaten salted or preserved in various ways. A traditional way of preserving the raw herring is to let it undergo an enzymatic ripening process, a method developed by the Dutch in the 14th century.

In the process, the freshly caught herring is nobbed or gutted and cured in salt brine for several months, packed in large barrels. During the process, the fish obtains a pleasant taste and odour and a tender consistency. Nowadays the herring is frozen before salting in order to kill any possible parasites harmful to humans.

In picture on right: typical Danish herring frokost (lunch)  —  marinated herring fillets with crème fraîche, chives, rye bread, lard, butter, beer and aquavit schnaps.

The basic ingredient in the various high-quality herring preparations and preserves manufactured and consumed in the Nordic countries of Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Iceland, is the best-quality traditionally ripened barrel-salted whole herring. No artificial additives or ripening accelerants are used in this process, which takes a minimum of six months and has remained the same since the Middle Ages.

Salted herring contains about 12 - 14 % salt. Before consuming, the cured herring is soaked to remove the excess salt. After this, it is ready to be used in various dishes, either raw or cooked. Nowadays, also lightly salted cured herring is available, being ready to use without soaking. Thus the water-soluble healthy fatty acids and nutrients are maintained in the fish and will not be lost during soaking. Although called lightly salted, this type of herring still contains a considerable amount of salt, about 6 - 7 %.

Finnish herring products

Pickled herring fillet pieces Like in the other Nordic countries, in Finland the consuming of herring has a long history, and various herring dishes and products maintain a special status in the Finnish gastronomy. The raw material for Finnish herring products is the high-quality Icelandic barrel-salted herring.

In picture on left: typical herring product sold in Finland and Sweden  —  salted herring fillet pieces pickled in dill-seasoned brine.

In the old days, the Finnish consumers used to buy whole salted herrings, which they then soaked, filleted and prepared according to their liking, either cooking the fish or pickling it in various marinades and sauces. Even though most pickled herring products are nowadays commercially made, and the buying of whole salted herring has become less common, it is still used to prepare homemade pickled and marinated herring preserves and other dishes, especially during the summer and Christmas time. Boiled new potatoes with pickled herring is a traditional Finnish summer treat and herring marinated and pickled in various ways is an indispensable part of the Finnish Christmas dinner.

Danish herring frokost Spice-salted herring is another popular herring product used in the Nordic countries. In the spice-salting method, sugar and spices are used to cure the fish in addition to salt.

In Finland, this type of herring is sometimes called Matjes herring, not to be confused with the term maatjesharing used by the Dutch, meaning fresh young herring, a summer delicacy in the central Europe.

In picture on right: Matjes herring fillet with boiled new potatoes, crème fraîche, marinated red onion, chives, chervil and capers.

See an old Finnish recipe for preparing Matjes/soused herring below.

Soaking and preparing of salted herring

Vacuum-packed lightly salted whole herring In Finland, the most often used unprocessed salted herring products include the vacuum-packed salted or spice-salted whole herring or herring fillets.

In picture on left: vacuum-packed lightly salted whole herring.

The average salt content of the various products ranges between about 7 and 13 %. Before consuming, salted herring must be soaked to remove the excess salt. Spice-salted or lightly salted herring usually does not require soaking, but is only rinsed with cold water.

Whole salted herring or herring fillets are soaked in cold water for about 12 to 24 hours, or until they do not taste excessively salty. (They do remain quite salty, however.) The soaking water must be changed for a couple of times. Soaking the herring in milk, cold tea or buttermilk instead of water will improve its taste. Also spice-salted or lightly salted herring may be soaked in milk or tea for a couple of hours.

Herring fillet that has been soaked and skinned is simply wiped dry before use.

Whole herring is skinned, gutted and filleted after soaking (see the pictures below).

Cut open the stomach with a sharp knife or scissors, remove the guts from the cavity and the dark membrane lining the abdominal cavity. Depending on the use, the herring is then skinned and used either whole, sliced or filleted.

To fillet the whole herring, cut the gutted herring in half from head to tail along the backbone. Remove the skin by pulling it off the flesh  —  the skin may also be removed before filleting. Remove the backbone and the smaller bones  —  note that it is almost impossible to remove the thinnest and smallest of the bones, which are quite soft and are simply eaten along with the fish. Use the cleansed fillets whole of sliced, according to the recipe.

  Figure 1 Arrow Figure 1
  Whole salted herring   Open the stomach
Arrow Figure 1 Arrow Figure 1
  Remove the entrails   Fillet the herring...
Arrow Figure 1 Arrow Figure 1
  ... to get two herring fillets   Remove the skin
Arrow Figure 1 Arrow Figure 1
  Remove the backbone and smaller bones   Slice the fillets

In Finland, herring fillet slices are pickled in numerous ways, using a multitude of different dressings, sauces, seasonings and spices, with new variations being created almost daily...

Herring preparations

Bismarck  —  Bismarckhering
Fresh herring marinated in white wine/vinegar brine with eg carrot, onion and spices. Named after the first chancellor of Germany, Otto von Bismarck (1815 - 1898).
Ungutted, lightly salted and mildly hot- or cold-smoked herring, similar to kipper (see below).
Herring briefly pickled in brine and hot-smoked.
Deboned, split and flattened, lightly salted and dried, mildly cold-smoked herring.
1. Young and delicate, fresh or lightly salted herring (Dutch: maatjesharing).
2. Herring cured in spiced sugar-vinegar brine, also called soused herring (see a recipe below).
Schmaltz  —  fat herring
Mature, fatty herring filleted and preserved in brine. (Schmaltz is Yiddish for rendered chicken or goose fat, whereas Schmalz is German for (melted) animal fat, usually pork or goose fat.)

Old Finnish recipe for soused herring

Fredrika Runeberg's recipe book The below recipe is freely translated from a recipe book of the writer and newspaper editor Fredrika Runeberg (1807 - 1879), best known as the (rather submissive) wife of the Finnish national poet Johan Ludvig Runeberg.

The hand-written book, containing recipes and notes on household management, dates from 1850s, and the first printed copy of it was published in 2003, both in the original Swedish and in Finnish translation, by The Society of Swedish Literature in Finland and The Porvoo Museum Association respectively.

fresh Baltic herrings
vinegar marinade:
¾ parts spirit vinegar
1 part water
small amount of salt
spice mixture: *)
1 skålpund dry, finely granulated salt
skålpund powdered sugar
lod black pepper
lod bay leaves
lod saltpetre
lod sandalwood
lod ginger
lod dittany of Crete
lod cloves
or, instead of the above mixture, use:
1 skålpund dry, finely granulated salt
skålpund powdered sugar
lods black pepper
lods allspice
lod cloves
lod dittany of Crete

Pour the vinegar marinade over the fish and leave to marinate for 24 hours, after which the fish are drained. Layer the fish in a dish and fill it with the spice mixture, using the amount given above for every portion consisting of eighty (80) fish. Leave the fish to stand for two months. If during storing the fish should become exposed, pour over some good salt brine made with Lüneburg salt.

*) Measurements and ingredients explained:
lod (lot) = about 13 grams
skålpund (pound) = about 425 grams
saltpetre, saltpeter = potassium nitrate (E252)
dittany of Crete =
Origanum dictamnus
Lüneburg salt = salt extracted from the salt dome of the German town of Lüneburg


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