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Gray, fishy "virgins"

Why the Dutch get so excited when herring, or "maatjes," season begins.

“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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