Casting for a Global Herring Market
By JOHN TAGLIABUE
The answer may seem self-evident, but not to the Dutch, who are trying to manage the same marketing feat with Hollandse Nieuwe (pronounced HO-land-suh NYEW-uh), or new herring, which arrives in local waters in the month of June. Traditions surrounding its appearance are as venerable as those of the French. Throughout the Netherlands, people throw new-herring parties, sharing the fish with neighbors and friends.
For as long as anyone in this seaside resort, now a district of The Hague, can remember, the first barrel of new herring has been sold at public auction. This year the barrel, with 45 filleted herring, went for $70,000, or $1,555 for each herring, to Makro, a chain of discount retailers, which sent them to a local restaurant. The money goes to charity, said Makro’s managing director, Jean-Pierre Bienfait, every bit a Dutchman despite his French name, adding, “Obviously, it’s very symbolic for the new harvest.”
So important are herring to Scheveningen that the town’s coat of arms features three herring, each wearing a golden crown. In the old days the herring boats went out for the first catch decorated with flags, so now in mid-June the town decks itself out around the fishing harbor for Flag Day, with old Dutch games like stilt-walking and can-throwing, townsfolk dressed in traditional dress and puppet shows in the old local dialect.
The fish is eaten raw and slightly salted, in a bow to a tradition that long predates refrigeration. At booths around the harbor the herring fillets, first dipped in chopped onion, are lifted high while the diners snap their heads back like sword swallowers, then slip the herring down their throats, flushing it all down with shot glasses of ice-cold Korenwijn, a Dutch spirit distilled from malt and beer.
Though prized at home, the new herring is increasingly shipped abroad, mostly to Germany, where herring is consumed in immense amounts, but about five tons goes to the United States every year, to restaurants around New York, like the Oyster Bar at Grand Central Terminal.
But if the world is being urged to try Dutch new herring, some here in the Netherlands itself, particularly among the younger generation, are demurring.
Explaining why he did not share in the new-herring euphoria, Bart Kalshoven, 34, a shoe company executive, said, “First, it’s fish: smelly and raw.”
Herring has deep roots in Dutch tradition, he conceded, noting that when the city of Leiden was besieged by the Spanish in the 1500s, the townsfolk were saved from hunger by eating herring. But the Dutch fishing industry, he said, “is driven to marketing.”
“It’s like Beaujolais nouveau, the biggest fraud ever,” he said.
Mariska Moor, 31, was having lunch with two friends from the municipal housing authority, where they all worked. Of the three, only Ms. Moor said she had ever sampled herring. This year, her family attended a herring party organized by a local TV station in large tents.
Although she insisted that “herring is still very much a tradition among the young,” her colleague, Lucy Saunders, 29, who was born in the Netherlands of English parents, said, “We Brits find it a bit weird to eat raw fish.”
Dutch herring fishermen sound like master wine tasters discussing vintages. “There are good years and bad years,” said Floris Kuyt, 62, a retired ship’s captain who went to sea when he was 14 and whose family has produced herring captains for as long as anyone can recall. While 2009 was “a good year but not excellent,” he said, 2008 had been “an excellent year.”
“The quality is based on the winter before,” he said, “which influences the quality of the herring.”
Mr. Kuyt’s 150-foot boat, the Wiron 2, still goes out for herring, though his son Dirk is now captain. He fishes the waters of the North Sea, between the Shetland Islands and Norway, as Dutch fishermen have for generations, though now they employ sonar.
If Dutch youth shy from herring, Mr. Kuyt said, “the problem is that herring is old-fashioned.” Moreover, he said, fishing communities like Scheveningen overdosed on herring in the past. At sea, the fishermen lived on herring.
“On Saturday afternoon, when my father came home from the sea, we ate cooked fish for lunch, in the evening fried fish and leftovers on Sunday,” said Mr. Kuyt, who was the skipper of a fishing boat by the time he was 29. “That’s why I look like I do,” he said with a laugh, rubbing the smooth skin of his cheek.
“Either you like it,” he said, “or you don’t like it.”
Over at Jac. Den Dulk & Zonen, one of the biggest herring processors, Gerbrand J. W. Voerman, the export manager, agreed that Dutch youth had a problem with herring. “The heavy users are in their 40s,” he said. “The young are used to fast food; they have to learn about it.”
But Mr. Voerman says the new herring campaign is actually working better than the one for Beaujolais nouveau. “There is something emotional about it. Sometimes I’m in the train, and I’ll hear people talking about herring and there will be a glow in their eye. Either you love it, or you hate it.”
That glow was in the eye of Martin Van Vianen, 69, a retired soccer player, as he came out of a local fish store with a package of new herring. “I recall as a kid how the ships would go out flying their flags,” he said. “The eating habits of the young are different,” he said. “Now they have Italian restaurants, Indonesian, Japanese.”
Mr. Voerman, the herring exporter, is not fazed. “Sushi is getting popular,” he said. “We sometimes call it Dutch sushi.”