The humble herring and its importance to the nation’s fishing industry marks a milestone anniversary this year. Exactly 100 years ago, the UK’s herring fleet recorded its biggest ever annual catch with some 577,000 tonnes of the fish being landed at ports around the UK coastline.
The industry fell into decline after the boom year of 1913, but nowhere is the herring’s influence on north-east Scotland’s past celebrated more than at the country’s biggest maritime heritage festival.
In addition to a collection of colourful heritage vessels and demonstrations of nautical crafts and traditional skills, the Scottish Traditional Boat festival will be staging a food fayre and cookery demonstrations over the weekend. Seafood will feature strongly: Portsoy fish merchant AG Sutherland will be running its now legendary kipper barbecue right next to the harbour, and the food fayre will be sponsored by local producer Downies of Whitehills. Alan Downie, who heads up the firm, will also be taking part in the cookery demonstration and will be sharing his secrets to created perfect fish dishes.
Local food historian and long-time friend of the festival Liz Ashworth hopes that the thousands of visitors will join in the celebrations of the herring boom year. It is estimated that around 75% of the herring landed in 1913 by the UK’s fleet of 1485 steam drifters was exported, including 2.5 million barrels of salt cured herring.
Liz explains, “The high fat content of herring meant that, in order to preserve the fish, the herring had to be salted and packed into barrels, hence the salt herring, or salted and smoked, which gave us the kipper.
“Herring has played a very significant part in our history, not just in terms of the fishing industry, but in our social history too. The fleet followed the herring shoals all over the country, and with them went the herring quines.
“These girls were often barely into their teenage years and would spend months away from home working on the quayside where they would gut, salt and pack the fish into barrels. It was incredibly hard work, and the contribution these young women made to the success of the industry should not be forgotten.
“Herring is in season at different times of the year, and as luck would have it, the shoals arrive in the Moray Firth in June – just in time for the festival. There will be a number of cooking with seafood demonstrations at the food marquee, and a team of experts will be on hand to answer any questions about cooking with this very healthy fish.
“After falling to low levels in recent years, responsible fishing by Scottish boats has allowed stocks of herring to recover. Last year, Scottish boats landed 40,000 tonnes of North Sea herring, making it the second most valuable fishery for the fleet.
Here, Liz shares two of her favourite simple, traditional recipes for cooking with herring.
Soused is an old expression meaning that the fish has been cooked in a broth or marinade. This is my grandmother’s simple recipe for sousing and can be used for any oil rich fish. She always soused herring in the oven.
2 cups water
Generous glug of white wine or malt vinegar
Some peppercorns – red, green, black, white – a mix is good.
2 bay leaves,
4 large herring fillets- cut from tail to head into 8
- Turn on the oven to heat at Gas 4, 350F, Gas 180C
- Lay the herring on a plate skin side down and salt. Taking the tail first roll up with the skin on the outside.
- Place in a casserole dish add the other ingredients and cover with a lid.
- Put the dish onto a baking tray to catch any drips and bake in a heated oven until tender – this usually takes 45 minutes.
2 boned filleted herring
1 tablespoon medium oatmeal
1 teaspoon chopped fresh parsley
Add any other herbs or spices, such as basil, lemon thyme, chilli or cumin
Rapeseed oil – try one infused with lemon or rosemary
- Line a baking tray with foil and brush with oil.
- Lay two of the herring skin side up onto the tray. Mix the oatmeal with the parsley, other herbs or spices, season with a little sea salt and then divide between the two fillets.
- Top skin side up with the remaining fillets.
- Season with sea salt, drizzle with oil of your choice and bake at 350F, 180C, Gas 4 for 30 minutes till tender and cooked.
- Serve with new tatties and some new spring vegetables.
- It may seem a strange thing but rhubarb and ginger jam is brilliant with this – my grandmother’s family came from Orkney and perhaps that is why she introduced us to this favourite.
While Liz’s recipes are very traditional herring dishes with connections to the north east, Seafood Scotland has put together a more continental take on herring with this Mediterranean-inspired recipe.
Fresh herring in Amalfi lemon
455g herring fillets – must be very fresh as the fish is cooked by citrus juice rather than heat
4 bay leaves
6 lemons, preferably Amalfi or Sicilian
Sea salt and crushed black pepper
200ml olive oil
- Cut each fish fillet into three pieces. Arrange with the bay leaves in a single layer and large shallow dish as squeeze the juice of five of the lemons over the top. Thinly slice the remaining lemon and set aside.
- Season and then cover loosely with cling film and allow to marinate in the refrigerator for at least 12 hours.
- Remove the fish from the marinade and transfer to a serving dish. Pour over the olive oil and garnish with the remaining thinly sliced lemon.
- Serve as a starter with focaccia.