On a recent Friday night, several of us gathered at the Billingsgate Seafood School here in London for a workshop on herring. The school is a wonderful resource for people in the seafood trade and chefs in training as well as home cooks and consumers. Headed by C.J. Jackson, the school offers a bounty of classes, education on all things to do with seafood and tours of the fabulous market.
The event was co-hosted by Mike Warner, sustainable seafood consultant and fish whisperer extraordinaire. He showed us a wonderful film of when he joined the crew of a fishing boat from Felixstowe Ferry to catch herring. The boat went just outside the harbour, unfurled the gill nets and in ten minutes or so had caught a big load of herring. He and the captain then enjoyed the plump roe and freshly cooked filets of fish on the deck of the boat, making all our mouths water. The movie illustrated the incredible bounty of herring in the oceans around England. The theme for the evening then became why is this plentiful resource not valued more in this country and how can locally caught herring be more present in British diets?
England is an island nation that has been disconnected from all the seafood that is locally produced. About 70% of the seafood eaten here is imported and about 80% of the local catch is exported. Even kippers are imported from Norway, using the fattier herring caught up around that country. At the moment fishermen get so little per kilo for herring that it makes no sense to fish for it; current price is .40/pence per kilo. Much of it is used for bait for lobster traps or goes into pet food production. This lack of herring on menus and dinner plates is inconsistent with the current mantra of seasonal, sustainable and local that is now so relevant to our food systems.
It’s a more profitable catch during spawning season when the silver darlings are full of roe and come into shore. Their migration starts in Scotland in early July and gets to Suffolk in October on the east coast; the west coast population comes from Scotland down to Devon. Mike brought an antique herring book from the 1930’s with a map that shows the migration pattern that still applies today.
While we were learning all about herring, C.J. was bustling around the kitchen delivering the fish in all types of dishes: soused whole bodies were poached in cider with aromatic vegetables, pieces of cured filet topped creamy beet and potato salad, grilled flesh was served simply with a squeeze of fresh lemon and tender bits were sautéed in copious amounts of butter. Each bite of the different dishes proved the versatility and tastiness of this under-appreciated fish.
C.J. got a stove top smoker going and put a meaty silver darling in it. The smoke started to permeate the kitchen but in five minutes the fish was burnished and gorgeous, shot through with the wood smoke flavor, every bite better than the next.
Then Mike put together an easy dish of whole herring wrapped around lemon halves and cooked for about ten minutes at 190C. This proved another successful and delicious way to prepare this versatile fish.
One reason why herring may have fallen out of favour or been forgotten is that post WW2, when fishing boats began using diesel engines, the species was overfished and the population collapsed. A ban was put in place allowing for its recovery in the 1980’s but by then the traditional trade for herring had disappeared.
However the future is bright for England’s silver darlings. They are a superfood, full of Omega 3 oils, nutrients and vitamins. The method of fishing for them is virtually carbon neutral because of abundance and ease of catch. Boats use gill nets for this pelagic species, which is very low impact since there is limited by-catch. Furthermore, when new Brexit rules are put in place English fisherman will get back their territorial waters so the quotas will be fairer – but there will still be a need for European trading partners in order to be profitable.
Armed with all this good news and a few recipes from the Seafood School, we trudged off into the winter night, bellies full of herring and heads full of fishy knowledge.