Eating In

A real taste of the sea

Forget hoary folk tales and savour plump herring at its best, says Felipe Fernández-Armesto

This article is taken from the May 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

‘‘With bleeding hands and broken fingernails,” Alexander von Humboldt failed to complete the ascent of Chimborazo in 1802. Simon Bolívar heard God’s voice on another attempted climb in 1823. The following year, when Heinrich Heine was in the Harzberg, “a pile of braised veal, which resembled Chimborazo in miniature” sated him physically, without satisfying the romantic yearning the mountain had come to symbolise.

The völkisch dinner included green parsley soup and livid, violet cabbage. Heine liked the savoury course best: “a sort of smoked herring, called Bücking, from the inventor, Wilhelm Bücking,” whom Charles V honoured on a pilgrimage to his grave. “How exquisitely such dishes taste,” the poet added, “when we know their historical associations!”

Many supposed historical associations are spurious or dodgy. Hamburgers owe nothing to Hamburg

Some people like eating so little for its own sake that they must enhance the experience with ancillary frippery, such as musical accompaniments, rites and codes of etiquette, or elaborate table-settings. Even I, who worship food, can’t eat in peace except off damask, precisely set with heavy silver cutlery, like thick braid on soldiers’ shoulders. For the sake of my food history book royalties, I hope Heine’s source of extra delight is widely shared, and that erudition equips palates for pleasure.

But I wonder. Many supposed historical associations are spurious or dodgy. Hamburgers owe nothing to Hamburg. Caesar Salad may be named after César Ritz or Cesare Cardini, who had a prohibition-busting restaurant in Tijuana in the Twenties, or neither. Will you get less enjoyment from chicken Marengo if you think it is named after the homonymous city in Iowa, rather than Napoleon’s horse? Both attributions are false.

On the other hand, you may like mayonnaise more if you know about the siege of Mahón. Might aleatory knowledge improve your sandwich? Or could breakfast benefit from acquaintance with Lemuel Benedict, who combined poached eggs and vinegar in a hangover-remedy at the Waldorf in 1894?

Is Peach Melba mellifluous because it evokes a diva? Does oil history lubricate your Oysters Rockefeller or Waterloo make your Wellington taste less like a boot?

I’m disinclined to eat Hershey Bars or margarine, but their links with American wars and French imperialism might titillate some palates: Hershey perfected the cloying consistency to make his chocolate melt-proof in tropical ration-kits; margarine appeared in response to Napoleon III’s competition for a cheap fat-product for his navy during the great global lipids-shortage of the mid-nineteenth century.

Heine’s first English translator, Francis Storr (who was better at classical Greek than German) doubted the accuracy of the poet’s information about his herring, suggesting that it got its name from a corruption of Bock — German for a comparably stinking billy-goat. The amateur etymologists were wrong.

Heine’s Bücking, like “buckling” in English, was named for the probably legendary Willem Beuckel, whom Dutch lore credited with the smoking and salting process that was the foundation of Zeeland’s first great international commerce in the late middle ages. Past generations knew the difference between a buckling and a bloater (herrings, respectively, smoked whole and gutted first). Arthur Askey favoured the latter:

I love a bloater for my tea,

And if no bloater do I see —

Ah! That is such a blow t’me.

Both kinds, like kippers, make good pâté, and grill well.

In some ways Beuckel’s was a deplorable invention because — after half a millennium of consequences — pickling, salting, kippering, canning and bottling have almost driven fresh herrings out of the market.

In May, I depart from my usual Spanish repertoire to cook them Scottish-fashion, in oatmeal

In May, however, the North Sea variety grows plump and succulent. If I can get them “caller, bonnie and halesome”, I depart from my usual Spanish repertoire to cook them Scottish-fashion, in oatmeal, for northerners know herring best: buckling, bloater, or Bismarck, the grandest herrings are boreal.

Officious recipe-writers may urge marinading fresh fillets in fussy tinctures, or coating them in milk; but a mix of coarsely and finely ground oatmeal should stick to the fish unaided, with a bit of pressure from strong fingers, before frying gently in a little butter. The oats add crunch and absorb fat.

“Caller herrin’s no got lightlie,” as Carolina Oliphant, Heine’s contemporary, sang, but is worth fishers’ and shoppers’ efforts. Pleasure in the dish may grow if you associate it with Oliphant’s role in perpetuating romantic Jacobitism in nineteenth- century Britain, or with elite poetesses’ passion for aping popular song.

Or, in search of remoter connotations, you could dream back to Beuckel and the origins of the Dutch Golden Age, or even to the role of the herring in guiding medieval Norse migrations and viking raids. And, unlike Heine, you would probably be right.

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