Each year in early June, a supply of the delicacy called "New Catch Dutch Herring" reaches New York, lasting only a few precious weeks. The journey begins at a festival in the harbor town of Scheveningen, near The Hague, on Vlaggetjesdag (Flag Day) – the Dutch festival in late May that kicks off the new herring season. Bright costumes and folk-dancing ensue.
The fish are particularly coveted at this stage because they are at their optimum fat content – somewhere between 16 and 25 percent – for the year. (In winter, it bottoms out around 5 percent). Hollandse Nieuwe (in Dutch) is a matjes ("maiden," or young) herring, cured raw with only salt. It's milder in flavor and more delicate than, say, schmaltz herring (a classic salt-cure preparation) or one of the sweeter varieties (which are pickled with vinegar and sugar). The flavor is closer to a Spanish mackerel sashimi, with an elegant, briny flavor and supple, buttery texture.
During a recent trip to Stockholm, this author developed a bit of a herring habit, beelining upon his return for Russ & Daughters, the purveyor of all things cured and fishy on New York City's Lower East Side since 1914. A couple of the new catch – which had just gone on sale – were purchased, taken immediately home, and consumed straight-up with only the raw onion provided by the shop. Traditionally, you hold the fillet by its tail, tilt your head back, and drop the thing into your mouth. (And that's just how it happened.)
There are, of course, less SeaWorld-like ways to enjoy it. Josh Russ Tupper, a fourth-generation owner of Russ & Daughters, offered some of his favorites: "They're really nice sliced up and served on a cracker," he says. "I like to put pieces on german potato salad. We make a sandwich – herring, challah roll, onion, and cornichons – it's like a herring dog."
Tupper sees the appeal of foods like this as coming from multiple directions: "It's nostalgic for a lot of different people. It's sustainable and not terribly expensive," he says. "Plus, small fish like mackerel and herring are particularly healthy – low in heavy metals and high in omega-3's."
The humble herring is having something of a moment. Don't miss out – supplies should only last into August.
More Information: $4.49 each or $39.95 for a tray of 10 pieces from Russ & Daughters. Delivery is available nationwide; 212-475-4880 or russanddaughters.com.