Friday, 9 December 2011

Friday Fasting, Hanseatic Hamburg and Gourock, united by Herring










I’m not really known for my cookery skills nor do I have any interest in the UK’s current love affair with middle class “foodie” bores, you know the ones, those awful TV chefs with the massive mock-rustic kitchens. Most of all, I dislike the absurd notion that having an interest in food somehow makes you more cultured or interesting. Newsflash…A liking for Pasta does not mean that you are intimate with the films of Fellini or the music of Verdi. Having said that, one food which I do eat plenty of is fish, especially smoked and pickled Herring served with vegetables and potatoes (especially on a Friday as part of my abstinence from meat). With the consumption of Herring comes a genuine and AUTHENTIC rich cultural and historic tradition which you won’t find among the Gastro-bores. The difference between Herring culture and the pseudo-Gourmet guff of the foodies is the fact that the tradition of catching and eating Herring is firmly rooted in the industrial working classes of Northern Europe and before that, it was popular among the peasants of rural Europe. (You’ll not find pickled or smoked herring on the menu a Gordon Ramsay’s.) It’s also worth contrasting the difference between the childish hysterics of Gordon Ramsey with the noble, dignified conduct of east coast Scottish trawler men out on the seas risking their lives. These men remain stoically calm despite the high risks involved in this type of work. If a trawler man has a bad day at work then there is the very real risk of death by drowning. However, if Gordon Ramsay has a bad day in the kitchen then worst case scenario, some bloated bourgeoisie won’t get fed, hardly the end of the world?


However, getting back to the noble Herring…Smoked Herring (Kippers) were once commonly enjoyed as treat; most popularly with the urban working-class population of Scotland before World War II. Today the eating of pickled Herring is still hugely popular in Germany, Holland, Belgium and in Sweden too. This is because of the Hanseatic League and their association with Herring. The Hanseatic League was founded in the twelfth century by an alliance between the northern towns of Hamburg and Luebeck. Luebeck’s fishing fleet had easy access to the herring spawning grounds off the lower coast of Sweden. A large portion of the diet of Northern European Catholics was made up of Herring since there were many fast days and the church forbade the eating of meat on Friday. Abstinence from meat during the fasts were rigidly observed at this time. (Oh how things have changed) As such, Luebeck was in a strong position to capitalize on the market in herring. Meanwhile, Hamburg had easy access to the salt produced in the salt mines at Kiel, and salting and drying of meat and fish made transport and distribution possible. It made sense then, for the merchants of these two towns to trade together. The trade between the merchant associations of Hamburg and Luebeck provided a model for the merchant associations of the other North German cities to follow and in 1201 joined the league.
Today, there are many different variations of pickled Herring which are popular in the Netherlands and Northern Germany such as Soused herring, Rollmops and Brathering but it’s not just the Dutch and Germans who love Herring, Scotland too has a long tradition of fishing and eating Herring.


Indeed, three hundred years ago, Herring was so plentiful here in the Firth of Clyde that some boats came from as far afield as the Isle of Man to fish these waters. In Gourock, local fishermen used mussels to bait their lines and the shells, discarded by generations of fishermen, formed a blue-black embankment along the shore. It is also thought that the first Red Herring ever cured in Great Britain was cured at Gourock in 1688. (The picture above is of a trawler of the coast of Gourock.) Also, Mallaig was once the busiest herring port in Europe and is famous for its traditionally smoked kippers, as well as Stornoway kippers and Loch Fyne kippers. In fact, the Scots were even involved in a battle for the fish. The Battle of the Herrings was a military action in France, just north of Orleans which took place in 1429. The cause of the battle was an attempt by the French to intercept and divert a supply convoy of Herring headed for English forces. The French were assisted by a Scottish Army in this battle.

So perhaps it would be good to restore the Friday Fast again and get back to eating the good old Herring, real Northern European “folk” food!

1 comment:

  1. Great post. And a great idea for fish Friday!

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