Gray, fishy "virgins"

VLAARDINGEN, The Netherlands — No amount of sushi will prepare you for the way the Dutch eat raw fish.

Forget the elaborate Japanese combinations of color and shape, the delicate bite-size morsels of tuna, salmon or snapper. The Dutch version takes uncooked seafood back to the basics.

Here’s what you do:

  • First, take a lightly salted, raw herring that’s been packed into a barrel for a couple of days, headless and gutted, but otherwise whole.
  • Next, grab it by the tail and lift into the air, simultaneously throwing back your head until the fish, gray and glistening with grease, is dangling over your lips.
  • Open your mouth wide and lower in the six slippery inches of fish bite by slimy bite, until all you’re left with is that tail.
  • Finally, wash it down with a shot of the local firewater — in Vlaardingen this would be a spicy, blood-red brew known as schelvispekel, or "haddock pickle."

While many people might contemplate such a meal only in extreme circumstances — after several days adrift on an ocean raft, perhaps — the Dutch will stand in line under pouring rain and pay good money for this fishy treat.

Thousands show up to celebrate the start of the herring season with quayside parties complete with sea shanties, women in wooden shoes and speeches by civic dignitaries. This nation of 16 million consumes 12,000 tons of raw herring every year. First barrels unloaded from the trawlers were traditionally whisked off to the Royal Palace and are now auctioned to raise tens of thousands of euros for charity.

“You don’t bake it; you don’t boil it; you just eat it raw with salt; it’s very nice,” said Tjerk Bruinsma, mayor of Vlaardingen, a town of 70,000 that was once the Netherlands' biggest fishing port.

“We always say, when you eat herring, you don’t need medicine,” he added with pride as citizens besieged a street stall to secure their first herring of the new season.

The herring season starts in early June and runs through the summer. Dutch law states that only after the first barrel is auctioned in the port of Scheveningen can fishmongers start to market Hollandse Nieuwe — the much anticipated fresh herring (which actually must be previously frozen because of modern health regulations). They are also known as maatjes, a derivative of the Dutch word for virgin, because the fattest, greasiest and tastiest fish caught during the warm months have yet to breed.

Once the season is underway, mobile fish stands bedecked in the red, white and blue national colors are set up in city centers around the Netherlands to bring the Dutch their favorite summertime snack. Beyond Holland, chefs from Paris to Berlin have caught on to the trend and incorporate "maatjes" into seasonal dishes — without requiring diners to use their hands. They are even flown in to the Oyster Bar in New York's Grand Central Station through the month of June.

“They have to be fat and young,” said Hannie Baauw, who dressed up in the traditional white-bonneted costume to celebrate the start of the season in Vlaadingen. “When you eat herring in September it has less fat; the bite is not a good bite.”

Some people prefer to add a sprinkling of raw onion to their maatjes, but the practice is dismissed by fish fundamentalists as a big city affectation introduced by Amsterdamers who fail to appreciate the herring’s pure piscatorial flavor.

“No, no, no, onions have a terrible smell! Herring also, but onions more than the herring,” said Baauw. “It’s their mistake, you must eat it without onion.”

Herring have been everyday food around the coasts of northern Europe for thousands of years. The Scots love their “silver darlings” dipped in oatmeal and fried, the Danes take them smoked, Swedes have herring pickled with dill for breakfast.

The Dutch taste for raw herring is thought to date back to the 14th century, when a certain William Beukelszoon developed a gutting technique that involves retaining the pancreas inside so natural enzymes allow the fish to ripen in the barrel. It might not sound too yummy, but it allows the fish to remain edible for up to year, Baauw said. Beukelszoon’s technique meant the herring became a staple for sailors throughout the history of this sea-faring nation.

Vlaardingen’s herring fishing industry collapsed after World War II, faced with foreign competition and lack of government support, explained Arnoud van Aalst, director of the town’s fisheries museum. These days, he said, most of the herring is shipped into the Netherlands from Danish and Norwegian waters. Modern heath regulations state that the herring must be frozen for at least 24 hours before they are salted and packed, to eradicate any dangerous parasites.

Despite the industry’s decline, the herring remains rooted in the culture of this city on the western outskirts of Rotterdam.

“Everybody is still involved, everybody has a grandfather who was involved in the fisheries,” said van Aalst.

“People didn’t have herring for several months and everybody’s waiting for it,” he added, watching crowds gather for the return of the museums’ early 20th century trawler, the VL 92 Balder, with its symbolic first cargo of new season herring on June 10.

Jo-Anne Verschoor, 12, and her twin sister Leslie were among the throng on the harbor to show the love of pure, unadorned raw herring is undiminished among the town’s younger generation. So what’s the attraction?

“It’s delicious,” says Jo-Anne. “It’s salty, and err … it tastes of fish.”

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