It’s June, so it’s got to be herring!

Bismarck and Matjes

Bismarck and Matjes herring rolls, with the all-important liquid lubrication.

Here at Helsing’s kitchen we are feeling very mittel-European. That’s because it is the season for that very essence of middle-European food: herring. Even down at our local beach bar, which is very much a chips-beer-and-bratwurst kind of place, you can always get a herring roll. It’s a fast-food staple as much loved as burgers and currywurst in this part of the world. The herring that goes into the roll is what we know in English as soused herring. But, it gets more complicated. Our beach bar serves two kinds of herring roll: Matjes herring or Bismarck herring. The Matjes herring is slightly saltier and is served with onion rings. The Bismarck herring is less salty and is served with onion and pickled cucumber.  

Herring season begins in the middle of June and lasts for about three months. The herring called Matjes comes from the German word “Maedchen”, meaning “girl”, or the Dutch “Miesjes” with the same meaning, where it is eaten as much as in Germany.  There is a science behind what allows a herring to qualify as a fit-for-the-table Matjes. The ideal Matjes are three to five years old and  put on body fat before reproducing. Too skinny won’t do as the fish has to have at least 12 percent body fat. The fish start to get fatter in the middle of May when warmer waters mean more food and they are mainly fished in the North Sea, off the north coast of Scotland or in Norwegian waters.

Bismarck herrings are supposed to have been a favourite of the German chancellor Otto von Bismarck and are less salty than Matjes. In the DDR, where mention of previous German chancellors was undesirable for obvious reasons, they were called the more politically-correct Delikateßhering.

One half of Team Helsing, from the north of England, had never eaten herring before today. The other half, from the south of England, had eaten them, but knew them as something special to be bought in a delicatessen, definitely a kind of Delikateßhering. And the results of our taste test between the Bismarck and the Matjes? Both equally delicious but a little different. A very light snack, with the Matjes being slightly saltier, but the Bismarck nicely flavoured with pickled cucumber. Both highly recommended, with a glass of white, condensation running down the glass is essential.


Harald’s bar: the beloved fish roll, with fried fish, tartar sauce and egg as the third variation.

This is something to assemble, not a recipe:

Find your bread, find your herring, find your onion rings and pickled cucumber, and put together. Serve with a citrusy white – a New Zealand white would be ideal.


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