Hollandse Nieuwe literally means Dutch New. It is a kind of herring that is available here from around the end of May each year. Many of you are probably aware of the traditional stereotype of clog wearing Dutchmen tilting their head back and shoving a raw herring down their throat. That stereotype is true, save for the clogs and the fact that the herring is not in fact quite raw as I will explain later. Even though the Dutch eat herring all year long, in part due to improved freezing technology, Hollandse Nieuwe can only be eaten from late May till mid July.

So what exactly is this Hollandse Nieuwe?

The herring species swimming in the North Sea and Baltic Sea, where most of the Hollandse Nieuwe is caught, lead a very destitute lifestyle in the winter. This is of course caused by lack of food and cold temperatures. The herring hardly feeds, and is on a serious Weight Watchers programme until spring comes. As soon as the days lengthen and the water temperature rises, an abundance of plankton and tiny crustaceans, which form the staple diet of our little silver friend appear. The fish scour the sea in huge schools and literally stuff their faces and gain weight. This occurs between early April and mid May. The fat content goes up from near zero to about 20% in that short period! They need that fat to be able to spawn in the summer and fall. It is this kind of happy and fat herring that is caught as Hollandse Nieuwe. A common misconception, also among the Dutch, is that Hollandse Nieuwe is young herring. This is clearly not true; the name refers specifically to rejuvenated herring after its winter fast.

Another name for Hollandse Nieuwe is 'maatjesharing'. I am not entirely sure of the etymology but I have come up with the following two possibilities (any input appreciated):

  • The word 'maat', meaning size in Dutch could refer to the fact that the herring is now 'up to size' and ready to eat.
  • Phonetically 'maat' bears a resemblance to the English verb: to mate. Since the herring fattens itself prior to mating this could be where the name comes from.
According to the Dutch guild of fishermen (in my loose translation):

'A good maatjesharing should have a relatively white meat, a fresh and crisp scent as well as a creamy and crisp flavour. The creaminess is derived from the fat content, which should be around the 20% mark. The meat must be tender yet solid!'

The Netherlands catches approximately 270.000 metric tonnes of herring each year. Only 30.000 of that are designated as Hollandse Nieuwe.

Haringkaken or 'Herring-jawing'

In 1380 a fellow named Willem Beukelszoon van Biervliet invented the process of haringkaken. This is a process of cleaning the fish, whereby a special knife is used to remove the gills, throat and innards of the herring with the exception of the pancreas. The pancreas plays an important role in ripening the Hollandse Nieuwe. This organ contains a number of natural enzymes used to digest food and convert food into fat. These enzymes determine the eventual flavour of the delicacy. The ripening is regulated by adding salt, the more salt added, the longer the fish can ripen. As I have said before Hollandse Nieuwe is not raw but is the result of this particular ripening process.

The herring caught on board Dutch freeze trawlers is directly cleaned and frozen. The ripening process is slowed by the low temperature and reduces the flavour impact of added salt. The same process is used for herring caught outside of the Hollandse Nieuwe season. For obvious reason it does not carry that designation though.

Would you like onions with that?

The handicraft of creating Hollandse Nieuwe has been around for over 600 years. Today the herring is frozen, this means that is much less salty than previously and guarantees a constant supply of quality herring the year round. In the olden days the fishmonger would dip the herring in milk to remove some of the saltiness. Some chopped onions were then added to retrieve the original flavour. This quick fix has stayed around; opinions vary greatly, however, on whether or not herring should be served with or without. I say: try both! I prefer it without onions myself.

Is Hollandse Nieuwe always the same?

No. There are many factors that contribute to the flavour. The fat content, cleaning moment, length of the ripening process are but some factors which influence the result. The Netherlands are a tiny country, yet there are clear regional differences and preferences with regard to herring. These are partly historic, the herring sold in the hinterland had to be salted more to preserve better. Vlaardingen used to be the major herring harbour in Holland, which means that the fish consumed in the region of Rotterdam was always less salted.

The regional differences:

  • Rotterdam - They prefer the less salted smaller herring, so called trotters. (9 to 10 in a kilogram)
  • Amsterdam - They eat the tender well ripened larger herring (6 to 7 in a kilogram). They often cut it in sections and accompany the treat with onions and gherkin pickles.
  • Groningen - Here they eat the coarser lightly salted herring (8 to a kilogram)
  • Noord Brabant - These guys eat the smaller yet more salty and well ripened kind. (10 to 11 in a kilogram)

So, who else beside the cloggies eats this stuff?

The Germans, they prefer the larger and saltier kind of herring. The fish they eat requires a 'strong bite'. Unlike the Dutch they don't eat it 'from the tail' but serve it on a plate with potatoes and salad.

The Scandinavians eat Baltic herring. They usually marinate the fish prior to consumption. In North-Sweden they have an even more peculiar way of serving it. They let the herring rot in a barrel accompanied by some herbs and spices. Needless to say it smells horrendously. Some restaurants refuse to serve the dish inside (why do they put it on the menu then?). The Swedes call this sur-strömming or Sour Herring, and serve it with bread and potatoes.

So this stuff is good, can I use it as a medicine?

It probably won't cure cancer, although fish lipids are supposed to be good in preventing even that. It is used in a number of remedies though. Some claim it cures hangover, others use it before a singing or speaking performance to loosen up the chords. According to lore herring also helps in clearing up the sinuses after a bout of the cold or flu. And it is supposed to prevent morning sickness in pregnant women. Go figure.

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