Maatjes, Dutch new herring
Very important: the fishermen have to catch the herring before they start spawning, which starts in July. ‘Maatje’ comes from the word ‘maagd’ (virgin in Dutch), wrongfully pronounced after centuries of maatjes tradition. Maatjes are young virgin herring!
Once caught, the young herring is cleaned: its intestines are removed, except for the pancreas. During the herring’s ripening process in salt in wooden barrels, it’s this pancreas that releases the necessary enzymes to help it rot (there’s no other way to put it really) but will also give the herring its very particular strong flavor.
The matjes herring tradition started somewhere in the 14th century in Holland. Back then people preserved the herring in lots of salt because there was no other way to keep it. Nowadays fishermen freeze the freshly caught herring right away for 24 hours for health reasons and food safety. Freezing fresh fish kills any parasites that might still be present in the fish. After that, factory workers clean the young herring and stash them into wooden barrels with salt to ripen.In June you can eat the first new herring, pickled and preserved for 2 to up to 4 weeks. My fishmonger Luc Vis (pun intended) in Mechelen, Belgium buys them straight from the barrels and he cleans the fish on the spot. He removes the head, the pancreas and the spine all the way up to the tail. So basically you got 2 fatty herring fillets joined by the tail. I love matjes herring in its traditional way: sprinkled with chopped onion to soothe the salty and pungent fish flavor. And wash it all down with an ice cold and crisp beer from the local brewery!
How to eat Dutch new herring
You can eat maatjes with knife and fork but here’s the coolest way. Do you want to eat it in the most traditional way? Pick the matjes herring up by its tail (never mind the chopped onion falling on your face), raise it above your head and bite in it. Great tradition!
Dutch new herring with green bean salad
I love to serve the maatjes with a side salad of fresh green beans and vinegar or a chopped green bean salad with garlic and cream cheese. I sometimes add some grated green apple and a slice of bread, preferably rye bread.
- 2 fat matjesherring cleaned
- a handful green beans
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 2 tbsp onion chopped
- 1 tsp toasted sesame oil
- 1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
- Trim the green beans and rinse them. Fill a small pan with water, add a good pinch of salt and place the pan over high heat. Once the water is boiling, add the green beans.
- Turn the heat lower and cook the beans for a couple of minutes until they are nearly tender, kind of al dente. Don’t overcook the beans. Immediately drain the cooked beans and refresh them under cold running tap water. This will stop the cooking process and will keep the beans bright green.
- Place the beans in the fridge to chill for 15 minutes. Then chop the beans up into small bits. Add them to a mixing bowl together with the chopped onion. Season with a pinch of pepper, salt and garlic powder.
- Stir the beans well. Drizzle with the olive oil, the toasted sesame oil and the balsamic vinegar.
- Stir the beans again. Check the seasoning and add extra pepper or salt to taste if necessary. Place the beans in the fridge for another 15 minutes. Then divide the herring fillets over plates and add the the chilled bean salad. Serve immediately.
Is soused herring the same?
Soused herring, or Dutch brined herring, is also a raw herring delicacy but it is not the same as the matjes herring. It is the same fish however, also cleaned out apart from the pancreas, and then cured in salt. After that the herring pickles in a vinegar and sugar brine for a couple of days.
If you have never tasted the two herring versions before: you can compare it with the flavor and texture difference and intensity between salted anchovy fillets and pickled anchovy fillets in brine. Same product but totally different end result.Soused herring soaks in a mild preserving liquid such as a mild vinegar mixture. This marinade usually contains cider, wine or sherry, sugar, herbs (dill or chives), mustard, spices (such as pepper corns, juniper berries or mace), mayonnaise and raw sliced or chopped onion. Raw herring pickled in vinegar often goes by the name of rollmops (also spelled rolmops) as well. You will find it served with a green salad or in a bread roll for lunch.
Pickled herrings isvery popular especially in Northern Europe, even since the middle ages. It was a way to store and transport fish safely, especially during the meatless periods like Lent. Soused herring is very popular in Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway, The Netherlands, Belgium, Iceland and Germany. It is also a staple in Polish, Scottish and Jewish cuisine.
Over the years I have noticed that both names are very often used interchangeably even though the soused herring and matjes herring are actually quite different products.