Mad about Maatjes – a herring salad

In France you can buy and eat many things, but for foreigners there is always some speciality that is difficult to find.
Like Maatjes herring (or Matjes herring); fresh young herring that has only been treated with a light saline solution shortly after it has been taken out of the nets.
There are pots of herring in brine, sweet and sour, but that is not the same. ‘Maatjes’ herring is derived from ‘Maagden’ herring, or virgin herring as the new herring is caught before the females have eggs or the male have roe.
Each year, the Dutch association in Paris organises an evening with herring to celebrate the liberation of Leyden from the Spanish troops on October 3, 1574.
The ‘liberators’ arrived by ships over the flooded fields around the walled town and brought herring and white bread to the famished population.
It is one of the ‘founding’ moments (and part myth, there was no white bread in those days) of the Dutch state and its royalty as William of Orange led the revolt against the Spanish. He would found the still famous university of Leiden in the following year.
This year I was involved in the organisation and was in charge of obtaining and distributing three kilo of herring that arrived deep-frozen from a major herring firm via a KLM plane to Roissy airport and then went in a refrigerated truck to the freezer of a restaurant to be defrosted on the day of the party so that they would be fresh.

They are eaten raw, with some chopped onion and small glasses of a strong gin – Coorenwijn – to help the digestion, just as the Japanese use saké with sushi. After the party there was some herring left.

Back home the following evening I wondered what to do. We usually eat the herring by lifting it up holding its tail and then lowering the fish into the mouth.
But I needed a more balanced dinner with some vitamins. Therefore I added some beetroot and gherkin. This is anathema to some Dutch purists who even frown upon the chopped onion, but it made a very good and healthy main-course salad.

Raw herring is eaten in many countries around the North Sea, especially Denmark, north Germany, Sweden and Norway. The combination with beetroot has its origins in eastern Europe and is also part of the Jewish culinary tradition.

Fresh herring is rather fat, but these are the ‘good’ Omega-3 fats. There are also many vitamins in herring and the Dutch nutrition centre recommends to eat fatty fish such as herring at least twice a week. Herring, however, is also salty (because of the treatment with a saline solution) and contains, like sardines, a high concentration of purines. People who are sensitive to attacks of gout should limit their herring consumption.

Ingredients

  • Four herring
  • One cooked beetroot
  • Eight small gherkins or four large ones
  • Half a small onion

Steps

  1. Peel the beetroot, cut into slices and then into one-centimetre strips or smaller cubes.
  2. Slice the gherkins.
  3. Chop the onion.
  4. Slice the herring in small portions.
  5. Mix the ingredients together and transfer to a serving dish.

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