Take the bait for a de­li­cious starter

Hen­nie Fisher gives in­sight into the ori­gins of his red her­ring cheese­cake

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IHAVE, on oc­ca­sion, been called upon to cook for rep­re­sen­ta­tives of one of the Nordic coun­tries à la mai­son. We gen­er­ally ar­rive at a menu for a din­ner party from an ini­tial num­ber of choices that I pro­vide, but in the case of this par­tic­u­lar client the lady of the house ini­tially in­sisted on mak­ing her own starter and re­quested that I plate it.

Even­tu­ally I scraped to­gether enough courage to of­fer to cre­ate my own ver­sion of their tra­di­tional starter, Mat­jes­sill Tarta, a pick­led her­ring cheese­cake.

The term red her­ring is an id­iomatic ex­pres­sion re­fer­ring to the rhetor­i­cal or lit­er­ary tac­tic of di­vert­ing at­ten­tion away from an item of sig­nif­i­cance, some­thing that the late Agatha Christie made good use of in her crime nov­els.

It stands to rea­son that the ori­gins of the ex­pres­sion had its base in the fact that her­ring has quite a pun­gent smell that could di­vert even the most ded­i­cated blood­hound from a wellestab­lished ol­fac­tory track.

Smoked her­ring is first soaked in brine with salt­pe­tre added, then hung to dry and then heav­ily smoked for a num­ber of days, prefer­ably over oak.

In the south of Scot­land they are re­ferred to as Glas­gow mag­is­trates and across the English Chan­nel they are called gendarmes. Kip­pers rep­re­sent the top­most ex­am­ple of cur­ing her­ring by cold smok­ing, while buck­ling is the name for hot smoked her­ring eaten with rye bread and but­ter and quite of­ten scram­bled eggs and fried pota­toes.

Roll­mopse (roll­mops in English) are her­rings with the heads re­moved and that have been gut­ted, split open, deboned and the dou­ble fil­lets rolled round a pick­led cu­cum­ber and placed in wine/vine­gar.

Bis­marck her­rings are fil­lets mar­i­nated in vine­gar with onion rings and sea­son­ing, more acidic than sweet pick­led her­rings.

Fi­nally there are Süstrom­ming: whole her­rings, fer­mented by the com­bined ac­tion of salt and nat­u­ral sum­mer heat. Char­lotte Cels­ing says in 1001 Foods You Must Try Be­fore You Die (Cassell Il­lus­trated, 2008) that nei­ther the name, which means sour her­ring, nor the pun­gent, cling­ing smell — rem­i­nis­cent of a mix be­tween rot­ten eggs and sewage — de­ters the faith­ful from this del­i­cacy.

Her­rings are oily fish but not so oily that they can­not be fried, so that one can do as the Scots do and coat them with oat­meal be­fore fry­ing them and then serv­ing them with boiled pota­toes (never fried). Or sim­ply eat them raw as the Dutch do (called Nieuwe har­ing), where fil­lets are placed straight into the mouth with or with­out ac­com­pa­ni­ments.

Her­ring is from the shal­low, tem­per­ate wa­ters of the North Pa­cific as well as the North At­lantic Ocean and the Baltic Sea. It was once such a big in­dus­try that many economies were partly driven by this nat­u­ral re­source. Then came the crash of the late 1960s — the 1971 catch­was only 20 000 met­ric tons in con­trast to the record of 2mil­lion met­ric tons in 1966.

For­tu­nately, a 25-year pol­icy of al­most no fish­ing got the stock on the road to re­cov­ery. With high lev­els of water pol­lu­tion one might re­con­sider eat­ing too many of these lit­tle de­lights, as Baltic her­ring slightly ex­ceeds the rec­om­mended lim­its with re­spect to PCB and dioxin, even though some stud­ies in­di­cate that the can­cer re­duc­ing ef­fects of Omega 3 fatty acids are sta­tis­ti­cally greater than the can­cer-caus­ing ef­fects.

De­spite these red her­rings that I’ve cast out, why don’t you try mak­ing a Mat­jes­sill Tarta as a starter, or even as the main in­gre­di­ent of a light lunch? It is ac­tu­ally quite de­li­cious.

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