With European Cup soccer matches just begun, one of my favourite Dutch traditions has had to take a back seat to the flag-hanging that’s going on around here.
Every year around the beginning of June, a small pot of fish gets auctioned off for charity, marking the start of the herring season. This year’s pot, which contains 45 herring, got around 95 000 euros, one of the highest on record, but it went almost unnoticed – at least in comparison to years past – amid the excitement of football.
Where I come from, the opening of a season generally gives you permission to kill an animal, but here, it means you can eat it. “New” herring are caught between mid-May and the end of June, salted, and left to ripen with their pancreases intact. At that time of year, the fish is at its fattest, and least fishy, taste. Before May, they’re not fat enough to be caught, and after June, the presence of eggs or sperm in the fish create a stronger, fishier flavour.
The first herring of the year really is special. It tastes subtle and soft, a bit like good butter with the texture of fish... it slides gracefully down the throat without even needing to be chewed. There are long lineups at herring stands, and the filets are usually served with a free glass of corenwijn – a kind of schnapps. If you’re outside of Amsterdam, you’ll be presented with a fish with its tail still on and be expected to eat it whole, but here in Mokum (slang for Amsterdam), the story goes that the bankers and traders of the Dutch East India Company, or the VOC, didn’t want to muck up their papers with fingers soiled during the eating of herring, so they started ordering it sliced, and ate it with a fork. Today, you’ll get a toothpick adorned with a Dutch flag instead, which I think is much better than a fork.
In fact, you’ll recognize a herring stand from a great distance because of all the (larger, proper) flags it bears. In a country that rarely shows its patriotism (only on Queen’s Day and football matches, of course), they tend to stand out.
Anytime of year, the sight of those herring stand flags is welcome, but especially now. It’s a tradition that I hope never disappears, and my stomach hopes so too.