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European Traditions and History of the Herring Delicacy

The herring prepared in numerous ways across many different countries in Europe is considered a delicacy and sometimes a special dish on festive occasions. Its preparation and serving rooted in old traditions and culture makes it an acquired taste, relished by many Europeans, and in the case of the Dutch, considered a culinary icon.

Herring rollmops
Herring rollmops
In this article, we explore the history, culture and traditions of the herring across different parts of Europe, besides its many different ways of preparation.

Herring an European Delicacy

Herring an oily silver-colored fish found in the North Atlantic, Baltic and North Sea is considered a delicacy in many different countries in Europe, where it has been a staple food source for over 2000 years. Herring besides being ­inexpensive, is also a great source of omega 3 fatty acids, making it ­nutritious as well as flavorful. Due to its relative ease of production and long shelf life through pickling or marination with flavorful spices and herbs it became very popular with both the rich and poor families in Europe.

It is served by itself or along with other traditional recipes in numerous different ways; eaten raw, fermented, pickled, or smoked.

Map of Europe
Map of Europe
Herring are known to move in large groups and are always on the move, hence over a period of time they have migrated to different parts of the Baltic Sea and the North Sea creating an abundance and influencing not only the cuisine but also the economy of many European countries.

Influenced of Herring on Cuisine and Economy

During the 12th, 13th and the 14th centuries, herring was abundant in the Baltic waters around southern Sweden along the coast of Skåne, which was then a part of Denmark. Herring were traded with the Baltic German ports through the Hanseatic League, a late-medieval network of trade merchants.

Map of the Hanseatic League showing main Hanseatic cities and trade routes
Map of the Hanseatic League showing main Hanseatic cities and trade routes
When the herring spawning grounds moved westwards sometime around the early 15th century towards the Netherlands and later into the North Sea, it shifted the monopoly of the herring trade from the Hanseatic League and its economic and culinary influence to the western European countries including the Netherlands, Germany, and later towards the west coast of Norway and the northern part of the United Kingdom around the start of the 19th century.

After 1950s, the overfishing of herring in the North Sea caused sharp declines in mid-1960s and early 1970s. This briefly created a shortage of herring resulting in fishing quotas introduced in the 1990s.

Development of Different Preservation Methods

During catch seasons herring would be available in vast amounts, but occasionally, would also disappear for a long period making it seasonal but also irregular. This led to the development and adoption of preservation methods like drying, brining, pickling and smoking, which allowed the ability to store and transport fish, before the advent of refrigeration and artificial freezing. Preserved fish was also a very important protein source during the Christian fasting period of Lent and Fridays.

Traditional pickled herring served for the midsummer holiday
Traditional pickled herring served for the midsummer holiday
Though drying is one of the oldest method of food preservation, pickling and smoking were more popular among the Europeans because of the resulting flavors, especially in the form of snacks or when accompanied with other food dishes. Additionally, fatty fish species like herring are not very suitable for drying because of their higher level of oil.

The raw herring is a Dutch delicacy and tradition while the fermented herring known as surströmming is a big part of the northern Swedish cuisine. Pickled herrings are part of Scandinavian, Nordic, Dutch, German, Polish, Eastern Slavic, Baltic, Ukrainian, Russian and Jewish cuisine.

Raw Herring in the Netherlands

Herring has been a staple dish of the Netherlands since the Middle Ages. The Dutch have historically been a seafaring nation and a large part of their economy was dependent on fish trade.

During the Middle Ages, the Dutch were known to cure fish with brine and smoke for preservation so that they could be transported to different parts of Europe. Starting from the 14th and 15th century the process of preserving and flavoring the fish improved with the use of vinegar, followed by the use of herbs and spices.

Dutch herring fishing boat by Gerrit Groenewegen in 1789
Dutch herring fishing boat by Gerrit Groenewegen in 1789
The sea vessel used by the Dutch herring fishermen in the 15th through early 19th centuries is called a herring buss. These large boats and the salt-curing process made it possible to preserve herring at sea and as a result allowed the Dutch fishermen to follow the herring shoals far from the coasts.

The Dutch also have a historical connection with the herring as it played an important part in many of the long sea expeditions during the 16th and 17 centuries as the herring provided an excellent source of protein and omega fatty acids to the Dutch sailors on their long voyages.

In the Netherlands, herring is typically prepared and served the traditional Dutch way where the fish are ripened for a couple of days in oak barrels in a salty solution, or brine. Herring can also be soaked in a mild marinade containing vinegar, herbs, spices and chopped onion.

Dutch Herring Tradition

The Dutch have a long tradition of celebrating the start of the new herring season between mid-May and the end of June. Herring caught earlier than this is too lean; later than this it is too fatty. The young herring caught during this period is called Hollandse Nieuwe and must have a body fat percentage of at least 16% and prepared according to Dutch tradition.

To prepare herring in a traditional Dutch way the fish are cleaned, gutted and salted but the pancreas containing an enzyme which helps the fish to ripen is left in place. The herring is usually served with some chopped onions and pickled gherkins.

During the herring season feasts are organized in many places to celebrate the first herring catch of the season. One of these is the famous Vlaggetjesdag or 'flag day' in Scheveningen that dates back to the 14th century when fishermen went out to sea in their small boats to capture the annual catch, and to preserve and export their catch abroad.

Dutch boy eating a herring in the traditional way
Dutch boy eating a herring in the traditional way
In the Netherlands, the whole herring is often eaten by lifting the herring vertically by its tail, holding it over the mouth and savoring each bite of this cured delicacy dipped in chopped onions. For the less adventurous tourists, herring is served inside a bread roll.

Fermented Herring in Sweden

In Sweden the Baltic herring, known as strömming in Swedish is fermented to create surströmming, considered a delicacy in northern Swedish cuisine. The Baltic herring found in the inner parts of the Baltic Sea is caught just prior to spawning, from May until the first week of July. It is smaller and less fatty than the Atlantic herring found in the North Sea.

During production of surströmming, just enough salt is used to prevent the raw herring from rotting. It is then fermented for one to two months, then canned. Inside the can, the fermentation process continues which gives it its characteristic strong smell and somewhat acidic taste. Surströmming must always be stored in a cool environment as a warm storing temperature causes the lactic acid to destroy the fish proteins and its flavor.

Fermented fish is an old staple in European cuisines as the ancient Greeks and Romans made a sauce from fermented fish called garum. The process relies on naturally occurring enzymes in the spine of the fish and may have been developed to preserve fish with as little salt as possible. In this method the fish are cured with a light brine, fermented and canned.

Swedish Herring Tradition

In some regions of Sweden, surströmming has been a staple food for many centuries. It was also popular among the Swedish troops in the 17th and 18th century, when they needed non-perishable food for their long assignments away from home.

Traditionally the fermented fish were stored in large wooden barrels but the canning procedure, introduced in the 19th century, allowed surströmming to be marketed in stores, stored at home and be readily available to be served with other food dishes.

Surströmming which means 'sour herring' is an acquired taste and many complain about its strong smell and weird pungent taste. However, much of that impression depends on how it is stored and the way it is served.

Surströmming served on thin bread
Surströmming served on thin bread
Late August is the traditional period for Swedes to eat surströmming, when it starts being sold around the third Thursday of August. The traditional festivity is called surströmmingsskiva (surströmming party), accompanied by schnapps and light beers. Surströmming is commonly served on thin, crisp bread called tunnbröd, with boiled potatoes, chopped red onion and sour cream and sometimes with tomatoes or dill.

Pickled Herring in Germany

Pickled herrings have been a staple food in Northern Europe since Medieval times, being a way to store and transport fish, before the advent of refrigeration and artificial freezing.

Pickling of herring is a two-step process. Initially, the herrings are cured with salt and the second step involves removing the salt and adding flavorings, typically a vinegar, salt, sugar solution to which ingredients like peppercorn, bay leaves and onions are added. Though other flavorings may be added, onion, mustard seeds and dill are some of the traditional flavorings.

In the olden days, the coastal waters around Northern Germany was rich with herring, and fishermen did not have to venture as far as they do today, so seafood was an important part of the cuisine for many Germans living near the coastal areas. Pickled herring allowed the Germans to store it, and its strong flavor which can be combined with other foods made it a favorite snack or a part of a main meal.

German Herring Tradition

Although most Germans love to eat fresh fish, they have a special craving for pickled and smoked fish flavors which have been a staple food for many centuries due to the long history of fishing and fish trade among the countries around the Baltic Sea and the North Sea. Pickled herring is particularly popular among the North Germans due to its old fishing traditions in the North Sea.

There are many different pickled herring recipes in Germany, but some very popular marinated herring preparations are the Bismarckhering, brathering and rollmops.


Bismarckhering is named after Otto von Bismarck (1815–1898), Germany’s first chancellor, known to have introduced several progressive reforms including establishment of the welfare state. He is said to have been an admirer of this way of preparing the herring, and a crafty fish trader named it after him.
Bismarckhering sandwich
Bismarckhering sandwich
For the preparation of Bismarckhering, the herring filet is cleaned and cured in brine with the skin left on, then pickled in a solution containing water, vinegar, sugar and salt, with flavoring from onion, bay leaves, mustard seeds and other herbs. Bismarckhering is served as is or sometimes as part of fish sandwiches (Fischbrötchen).


Brathering is a traditional German dish of fried, marinated herring. It is typically served in northern Germany as a snack or as part of a meal. Traditionally, this was something that was prepared only in homes. Today, it can be purchased as a snack at fast food stands or take-out restaurants or as a commercial product in cans.

In traditional home cooking, fresh herring is gutted, cleaned and then turned in flour, and pan-fried until golden and crispy on both sides. Usually, this is then a part of a meal, called 'grüner Hering' which means 'green herring' in German, where 'green' stands not for color but for 'fresh'. The leftover herring is allowed to cool and is then marinated in a solution containing white vinegar, boiled water, onion, salt, bay leaves and mustard seeds.

Brathering is typically served with fried potatoes (Bratkartoffeln) or cold potato salad (Kartoffelsalat) and sometimes also offered as part of fish sandwiches (Fischbrötchen).


Rollmops are made by rolling and stuffing raw herring fillets in a cylindrical shape and then marinating them in a vinegar and salt mixture or by rolling and stuffing already marinated Bismarckhering. The stuffing usually consists of pickled cucumber and onion with toothpicks to secure the rolls. Onions and capers can also be used in the marination mixture.

Rollmops which are served as finger food or in sandwiches grew popular throughout Germany during the early 19th century and were considered as a favorite snack in Berlin. Today, they can be found in many non-European stores and markets.

Marinated and Old-fashioned Matured Herring in Denmark

The important history of herring in Denmark goes to the period between 1397 and 1523, when Denmark and Sweden were were part of the Kalmar Union under a single monarch. Legend tells that, in the Middle Ages, the herring fishery off the coast of Skåne was so rich, that one could scoop up the fish with one's hands.

Herring fishing in Scania by Olaus Magnus published in 1555
Herring fishing in Scania by Olaus Magnus published in 1555
During the 13th and the 14th centuries, the Skåne market or Scania market was a major fish market for herring which was abundantly found in the strait between Sweden and Denmark. The abundance of herring abruptly ceased sometime during the early 15th century and the region lost its importance as a major herring trading market.

Due to the seasonal availability of the herring various preservation techniques were commonly used in this region which included salting, pickling and smoking. Danish cuisine has always been inspired by foreign and continental practices and the use of imported tropical spices, therefore the influence of different herbs and spices have created many different ways of preparing the herring.

Marinated Herring

Marinated herring is popular with the Danish people and there are numerous ways for preparing the herring such as pickled herring, spiced herring, herring in curry, herring in mustard and herring with onions etc. Marinated herring is a two-step process where the herrings are first cured with salt and the second step involves removing the salt and adding flavorings.

Old-fashioned Matured Herring

In Denmark, salting of herring in barrels is a traditional preservation process that has been a common practice for many years. This method is also called 'old-fashioned ripening', and it is now a protected product in Denmark with special manufacturing rules that the food authorities control.

In the old-fashioned ripening process, the herring are put into large barrels of salt to produce marinated-herring or in a mixture of salt, sugar and spices for spice-marinated-herring. The herring ripens naturally over a period of 6 months with its own natural enzymes, after which it is filleted and the skin is flushed off and packaged in a solution containing vinegar, sugar and selected spices.

Danish Herring Tradition

Marinated herring in Denmark is a tradition to serve at Christmas and especially on Easter Sunday lunch along with Danish snaps and strong Easter beer. The marinated herring is served on buttered, black rye bread, topped with white onion rings and usually served with hard boiled eggs, potatoes, capers, fresh dill, pickled gherkins or tomato slices.

Danish marinated herring served on rye bread
Danish marinated herring served on rye bread
Though the herring is mostly served cold after being marinated, other serving styles include smoked, fried, breaded, or charred.

The herring draws every spring into Ringkøbing Fjord to spawn, making the area at the wharf in Hvide Sande a fishing mecca for anglers. This is celebrated each year in Hvide Sande with the traditional Herring Festival and the unofficial World Cup in herring fishing. The event also includes competition for herring filleting and the best herring recipe for the year.

Kipper in the United Kingdom

A kipper is a whole herring with guts and gills removed, split down the back from head to tail, cured in a light brine and cold smoked at an air temperature not higher than 30°C, typically over smoldering oak. The quality of kippers depends a great deal upon the fat content of the herring from which they are made.

Kipper for breakfast
Kipper for breakfast
Kippering as a verb means to preserve by rubbing with salt or other spices before drying in the open air or in smoke. Kippered herring originated in the early nineteenth century when the waters around the north of Scotland experienced an abundance of herring, as these fish have been known to move in large groups and are always on the move.

Kippers are often dyed in the brine bath as most consumers prefer a rich mahogany color which cannot be achieved by smoking without losing its fat flavor and producing an over dried product. However, some producers from the Isle of Man and Scotland prefer not to dye the kippers and use the traditional smoking techniques.

British Herring Tradition

In the United Kingdom, kippers have been traditionally served for breakfast with fried or scrambled eggs and toast besides lunch and dinner. In recent years, kippers have been replaced on many restaurant menus with smoked salmon or mackerel.

Some of the reasons that kippers lost its popularity in the United Kingdom is due to the overfishing of herring in the North Sea which caused sharp declines in mid-1960s and early 1970s, besides its strong flavor, mass food production and the advent of fast food which has had a greater appeal for the younger generation.


Encyclopedia of the Arctic by Mark Nuttall

The Unnatural History of the Sea by Callum Roberts

Socio-economic importance of ecosystem services in the Nordic Countries by Nordic Council of Ministers, 2012

Article Category:
Food & Culture

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