Take the bait for a delicious starter
Hennie Fisher gives insight into the origins of his red herring cheesecake
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.