Here’s a recipe – or, rather an entry with advice – from English Food that I thought I would never get to cook for two reasons. The first was that I suspected that Jane was having a little joke at our expense and that her entry on red herrings was actually a red herring in itself! Having only ever used the expression and never laying eyes on the food, the penny did not drop for a good while that the saying must have come from somewhere. So, after looking in a few other books I decided red herrings were, in fact, real.
The Red Herring Freehouse, Great Yarmouth
According to Jane’s entry, they are made in Great Yarmouth, and although they have fallen out of favour her in the UK, they are shipped over to the Caribbean in their droves where they are still a very popular food, indeed, a staple food:
Once they were slave food, now they are a food for the poor, a cheap, storable, provider of protein.
So if they are made in abundance on the south coast of England, a few must escape the net and show up in England itself, right? First I looked online, then in Afro-Caribbean shops in Manchester. Not a whiff. Then, when I lived in America, I detected a scent; apparently they are widely available in Afro-Caribbean stores. Well, not in any of the ones I looked in!
I was ready to give up hope, but then, when I returned to Manchester after my two-year hiatus, I eventually found somewhere that sold them, and that place was an online store called the Smelly Alley Fish Company, Reading. Hooray!
I ordered four and eagerly awaited their arrival. In the meantime I had to work out what to do with them.
Before I tackle any recipes, I’d better tell you what a red herring actually is.
A red herring is a heavily brined and smoked whole herring, rather like a bloater, except it is brined for at least a week, dried, and then cold smoked for at least four weeks. It is this extreme curing that gives both its red coloration and its unbelievably long shelf life so that it can easily survive long journeys and the humidity of the Caribbean.
The red herring cure originated in Scotland, but the herring fished in the North Sea were fatty; making them delicious, but decreasing their shelf life. However, the herring caught off the south coast of England at Great Yarmouth had little fat, and therefore were perfect for trade, eventually outcompeting Scotland.
Red herrings were a staple food for poor people living inland during the Middle Ages, especially during Lenten days, and predated the kipper, which is a relatively new invention.
I love Dorothy Hartley’s description of them from her 1954 classic Food in England:
Red Herrings are a form of super-salted bloater, very popular on the western seaboard, specially [sic] in Ireland. They produce a terrible thirst – all artists seem to like them: I cannot account for this. Rudyard Kipling makes his “Hal o’ the Draft” cook salt herrings in the Cathedral, but he provides the only corroborative authority that I can produce for this notable dietetic discovery.
Note: At Hogmanay, if the [sic] Glasgow friend wishes you well, he slips a red herring down his sleeve into the palm of his hand as he grasps it.
Next New Year’s Eve, I shall try that trick.
Now we know what a red herring is, why is it used in the famous idiom? Red herrings were used as a method of training hunting hounds. A false trail using the pungent red herring would be laid so that the training hound or hounds could be taught to ignore the obvious strong scent and pick up the faint and subtle scent of their hare or fox quarry. Hence, when someone is falsely distracted from their path or purpose, they have been given a red herring. Every day’s school day.
So what do you do with your red herring, once you have found it? Well, here are Jane Grigson’s instructions, which as per the rules of the game, I must follow:
If you ever manage to buy some, soak them well in water or milk. Then grill them or toast them in front of the fire, basting them with butter or olive oil. Serve them with scrambled eggs or potatoes mashed with plenty of butter. Or think of them as anchovies, to be used as a relish rather than a main food.
All good so far, but they are so dry, I wasn’t sure how long to soak them for. Hours? Days? I needed more instruction.
In Good Things in England (1932), Florence White gives us an 1823 Great Yarmouth recipe:
Choose those that are large and moist.
Cut them open, and pour over them some boiling small beer.
Let them soak half an hour, then drain and dry them.
Make them just hot through before the fire, and rub them over with cold butter.
Serve with egg sauce or buttered eggs; mashed potatoes should also be sent up with them.
All well and good, but mine were not moist, but as dry and hard as if mummified.
Here’s a recipe from a lady called Meg Dodd’s, via The Scots Kitchen: Its Lore & Recipes (1929) by F Marian McNeill:
Skin, open, and trim red herring. If old and dry, pour some hot small beer or water over them and let them steep a half-hour, or longer if hard. Broil them over a clear fire at a considerable distance, or before the fire; rub them with good oil or fresh butter while broiling, and rub on a little more when they are served. Serve them very hot with cold butter, or with melted butter and mustard, and mashed potatoes or parsnips.
And finally, from the Smelly Alley Fish Company’s own website:
To cook them, soak for 48 hours, then fry with tomatoes – a great breakfast! They are great as they are (they don’t need to be cooked), and as they are very salty, you might need a pint of beer to drink with them.
I took Jane’s instruction and soaked them in milk, in the end, overnight. The next morning, the house awoke to the pungent smell of soaked red herrings. I fished them out of their now rufous milky marinade and grilled them smeared in butter, serving them with eggs for breakfast.
They were still pretty dry after all that soaking, though the roes found inside were nice and soft, and quite possibly the saltiest things I have ever eaten in my life. Trying to eat the flesh of the herring was tricky as it could not be parted easily from the bones. I had, as warned, a huge thirst, and the smell of red herring had still permeated my little terrace a week later.
#395 Red Herrings. What to say of red herrings!? Well they did taste good, but they were so unbelievably strong in flavour, and so difficult to eat (think fish jerky) I barely ate half of one. I think I need to revisit them following advice from those other recipes. A slow simmer in some hot milk might be a good idea, to help rehydrate the fish, or give a two-day cold soaking, but I think that it might be best cut with plenty of butter as potted red herrings or something like that. I have two left, so shall keep you posted on that one. Score? 7/10 I think, because the flavour was great, given even its pungency, it just needs taming!