Mild, clean, and bright in flavor, with a buttery soft texture, new catch Holland herring are so beloved by the Dutch that there's an annual celebration held in the Hague, known as "Flag Day," to mark the beginning of the season in June.
In the past, these special herring were hard to find in the US—this 1981 article from The New York Times notes they were only available at Grand Central Oyster Bar in New York City. But Russ & Daughters has been importing them directly for years now, and you can purchase them at any one of their brick-and-mortar locations or online ($65 for a platter of 10 fish), as well as at Shelsky's of Brooklyn.
If you enjoy raw fatty tuna of the kind you might eat at a pricey sushi bar, new catch Holland herring offers many of the same pleasures: soft, luscious meat with none of the fishiness that you might associate with herring. It’s a fish for fish-lovers and fish-haters alike.
What Is New Catch Holland Herring?
In Dutch, new catch Holland herring are known as Hollandse Nieuwe, or occasionally Hollandse maatjesharing (it is known as and sold under the name Holländischer Matjes in Germany), and they're protected under the European Union’s traditional specialties guaranteed quality scheme, which regulates how the herring fillets are produced and what kind of herring can be used in the preparation.
Matjes and maatje are derived from the word maagdje, which translates to "virgin," and are used to specify young, immature herring, ones that are of a specific size, are at least three years old, and yet have not fully developed their sexual organs. They should have a fat content of at least 16%, which only occurs after they start eating plankton in the spring, so the herring season spans May through August.
Aside from the physical characteristics of the herring themselves, what defines new catch Holland herring is the way they are processed. Instead of being gutted, the fish are de-headed or "gibbed," which means the gills, and most of the internal organs are removed, but the pancreas is left behind (if a fish is gibbed, the head will not still be attached to the fillets).
It's the presence of the pancreas that makes new catch herring unique. Enzymes within the pancreas begin to break down the protein in the fish flesh immediately through autolytic conversion, which accounts for the herring’s buttery texture. If left unchecked, that ripening will lead the fish to rot, so once they’re cleaned, the fish are lightly salted, which slows down the rate at which the flesh breaks down. They’re then allowed to ripen anywhere from four hours to four days, depending on their size and other considerations, such as the percentage of fat in the meat.
How to Eat New Catch Holland Herring
The herring are typically served as close to whole as possible. The two fillets of the fish are still attached at the tail, and the whole thing is served on a plate. If you order the herring at Grand Central Oyster Bar, they artfully splay the two fillets out in a “V,” and serve chopped hard-boiled egg, diced onion, and minced chives as a garnish.
But there's a more traditional way of eating the fish, one documented in one of my favorite posts in this website’s history, which was written by Max Falkowitz in 2013 to warn everyone of the impending end of that year’s new catch Holland herring season. For the sake of posterity, we’ve transferred the images that illustrate the traditional way of eating new catch Holland herring, as demonstrated by Robyn Lee, to this post.
First, you roll the fillets in chopped onion and/or chopped pickles. Then, you hold it above your head by its tail, and tilt your head back.
Then you lower the fillets into your open mouth.
If there’s a picture of happiness on the internet, that’s it.
You can also eat it on a bun, like a deliciously buttery hot dog, or in fish salad-type preparations, if you like. But it truly is one of those rare delicacies that deserves to be eaten all on its own, with just the right amount of garnish.