The Keukenhof tulip gardens, stone’s throw away from Leiden, are beautiful this time of year. If you haven’t been yet, I implore you to make the trip (make sure to consult Buinradar first- tulips and rain are a poor combination). But this post is not about Keukenhof- or rather, if it is, it’s only indirectly. A friend and I were exploring near the windmill at the far edge of the garden when we both, through some magical process of synchronisation, or perhaps telekinesis, felt the insistent pangs of hunger. Having lacked the foresight to pack a picnic, our choices were limited to a trio of small food kiosks: the first selling shredded ham rolls, the second fresh strawberries and cream, but it was the third that captured my imagination and my stomach. I was about to try my first ever herring sandwich.
Herring, a smallish, oily school fish, has featured prominently in the cuisine of Europe for thousands of years. In the Netherlands, the typical herring is called Hollandse Nieuwe, available all year round. Being the staple food that they are, there is an understandable plethora of preparation methods: fermentation, smoking, pickling, salting, or none at all, save for basic cleaning. One of the most common preparation methods is sousing, involving the marinating and soaking of a raw herring in mild preservatives, such as brine, vinegar, cider and complemented with herbs and spices. It is important that the liver and pancreas are left during this process, as they release essential enzymes that give the fish its flavour. After soaking for approximately five days, the skin is removed and the fish may be eaten then and there, as cold as a midnight bicycle ride in the rain, gripped by its slippery tail and lowered down the gullet in a manner recalling Peter Stormare feeding Steve Buscemi’s corpse into the wood-chipper toward the end of the Coen brothers’ Fargo. I would not have been quite as gastronomically bold had there not been a reassuring bread roll wrapped around the herring. The Nordic countries tend to take their herring sandwiches on rye, but the Dutch, bless their clogged-artery hearts, believe zealously in the sanctity and primacy of fluffy, white rolls. The sandwich should ideally be accompanied by strong, savoury flavours, the sort provided by pickles and brown onion.
I approached the kiosk timidly (partly because I knew four euros was a steep ask for potential revulsion) but also with a sort of gross fascination. The herring were laid out on a silver tray, looking obscene in their oily nakedness. A lone fly swooped around the fish, approaching from each direction as a Great White does as it sizes up some unfortunate seal. Feeling impending stasis at the unappealing sight of my lunch, I ordered suddenly, swiftly and irreversibly. The attendant slid a spatula beneath the cold herring and, with a graceful twist of the wrist, plopped it onto the roll with a wet sounding slap. A sprinkling of pickle and onion later, and lunch was served.
Everything I’ve written up until this point suggests I was about to devour something truly horrible- but you know what? It was entirely inoffensive. I will stop short of saying it was delicious, or even satisfying, but boy was it interesting. Herring is mild; it offers the suggestion of the ocean, rather than the watery, salty punch of, say, an oyster. For those sensitive to textures, I would recommend steering clear: the process of brining makes the fish soft, almost like a soufflé, only a slight firmness separating it from a paste. The crunch of the onion and pickle provides a nice counterpoint, the onion’s sweetness being a key binder. Occasionally, small bones barely thicker than a hair could be detected; these can be swallowed or spat out, like watermelon seeds.
Overall, I would rate my experience positive (is eating a sandwich an experience?) and one that I would recommend to others. I probably wouldn’t eat it again, but there is no greater pleasure in life than putting something truly strange into your mouth and discovering it’s not terrible. One final, parting suggestion if I may? Chewing gum or breath mints are non-negotiable, which I discovered to my detriment: my herring sandwich stayed with me long after the final mouthful.