#406 Soused Herrings

The herring and mackerel recipes in the Saltwater Fish section of the Fishchapter have been pretty hit and miss; from the sublime #386 Herrings in Oatmeal to the ridiculously rank #390 Isle of Man Herring Pie, so I was rather pleased that this is the final one of the book. That said, this one did not strike too much fear into me; rollmops are okay and this recipe was not a million miles away from them.


Pickled herrings are not really considered as an English food these days, more Scandinavian, yet they were enjoyed frequently, after all how else were those inlanders going to get to eat them prior o e invention of the train? Pickled fish were an essential part of a #334 Salmagundi as we discovered in (quite unexpectedly) the Poultrysection.

When it comes to eating soused herrings, Jane suggests eating them the Scandinavian way: ‘serving them with a bowl of cream, beaten with lemon juice, salt and pepper, and flavoured with chives…[and] with wholemeal or rye bread and butter’.

This recipe is for 6 people, but as you’ll see, it is very adaptable to any number for folk.

First, select 6 good-looking, plump, red-cheeked herring and ask the fishmonger to bone them, removing their heads. Once home, season the herrings with salt and pepper, roll them up tightly, and spear with cocktail sticks to secure them. Arrange the fillets in an appropriate ovenproof dish, masking sure they fit closely.

Next, pour over a quarter of a pint each of good malt vinegar and water. Halve 3 bay leaves and thinly slice 3 shallots(or a medium onion) and tuck between the fish. Add to that a deseeded and thinly-sliced red chili and level tablespoon of pickling spice.



Cover the dish with foil and bake at 160⁰C for 45 minutes and allow them to cool.

If you don’t want to serve the herring in their baking dish, move them to a more suitable serving dish and sieve over the pickling liquor.

#406 Soused Herrings. Well this was a middling recipe really, not inedible but not very exciting either. The well-flavoured pickling liquor was much better than the liquor used for rollmops. However, rollmops they were, which are never going to have me doing cartwheels. 4.5/10.


#395 Red Herrings


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:
  1. Choose those that are large and moist.
  2. Cut them open, and pour over them some boiling small beer.
  3. Let them soak half an hour, then drain and dry them.
  4. Make them just hot through before the fire, and rub them over with cold butter.
  5. 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!

#355 Devilled Herring or Mackerel

When I was in America there was one part of English Food I had to almost ignore: the Saltwater Fish section of the Fish chapter. This is because the seas surrounding the USA and the UK contain different species of fish. Mackerel and herring were particularly difficult to get hold of and when they were around they had been imported from Spain!

I thought I would get going with this simple recipe where the herring or mackerel are painted with a spicy mixture (the ‘devil’) and grilled. Devilling was a popular way of livening up almost any kind of food that really caught on during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. If you are not used to cooking fish, this would be a great place to start I think.

This recipe serves six, but it can easily be scaled up or down.

Get yourself 6 fresh herring or mackerel and ask the butcher to clean them reserving any roes should they have them. Roes are usually found around February time so there were none for me!

At home preheat the grill, then rinse the fish inside and out, pat them dry and make several diagonal cuts down the sides of each one then get to work on that devil. Mix together 3 tablespoons of Dijon mustard, 2 teaspoons of sunflower or groundnut oil, ¼ teaspoon of Cayenne pepper and a good pinch or two of salt.
 
Using a brush, paint both sides of the fish with the devil. If you do have roes, paint them too and slip them inside the fishes’ cavities. Roll them in dry breadcrumbs(you’ll need about 3 ½ ounces), then sprinkle with around 3 ½ fluid ounces of melted butter.

Line your grill pan with foil and the fish on it. Grill 6 minutes one side, then 6 minutes on the other, basting every now and again. The skin should blister and begin to blacken. Serve hot with lemon wedges and some sprigs of parsley.

#355 Devilled Herring or Mackerel. This was very good; the fish was perfectly cooked and the skin had gone nice and crispy. However, there was no way near enough of the devil mixture on the fish, in fact I hardly noticed it. If you try the recipe, I would double the amount of mustard and Cayenne pepper at least, or perhaps exchange the Dijon mustard for hot English mustard. Very succulent fish, but there was nothing devilish, and so because of this I am going to give it 5.5/10.

#334 Salmagundi for a Middle Dish at Supper

A salmagundi is essentially a rather grand salad which was popular in the 18th Century that has origins in the Elizabethan era. The idea being that the ingredients could be laid out for a ‘Middle Dish’ to produce a large sallet. The Salmagundi originated as a game dish called a salmi (click here for the recipe) popular since Medieval days.

Meals in those days were not served in courses, but all at once, with large dishes in the middle and smaller ones around the outside. The Salmagundi – sometimes spelt as Solomon-Gundy or salamongundi – would be part of a splendid centrepiece, with the meat and salad vegetables in many individual plates, in piles, or layered up. The most important thing about a Salmagundi is that the centre is raised higher than the rest so that upon the apex of the arrangement pickled herrings can sit. For some reason, this recipe appears in the Poultry section of the Meat, Poultry & Game chapter. Seeing as the only necessary ingredient is pickled herring, I would have expected it to be part of the Cured Fish section of the Fish chapter, though chicken or pullet – a castrated hen (can you castrate a hen? You know what I mean) – was ‘one of the most popular salmagundi ingredients’, says Grigson.
Here is one Hannah Glasse recipe that Jane Grigson quotes in English Food, I can’t find the source of it anywhere, Jane doesn’t say where she got it but it’s not in Glasse’s famous Art of Cookery:
In the top plate in the middle, which should stand higher than the rest, take a fine pickled herring, bone it, take off the head, and mince the rest fine. In the other plates round, put the following things in one, pare a cucumber and cut it very thin; in another, apples pared and cut small; in another, an onion peeled and cut small; in another two hard eggs chopped small, the whites in one, and the yolks in another; pickled gherkins in another cut small; in another, celery cut small; in another, pickled red cabbage chopped fine; take some watercresses clean washed and picked, stick them all about and between every plate and saucer, and throw nasturtium flowers about the cresses. You must have oil and vinegar, and lemon to eat with it. If it is prettily set out, it will make a pretty figure in the centre of the table, or you may lay them in heaps in a dish. If you have not the ingredients, set out your plates or saucers with just what you fancy, and in the room of a pickled herring you may mince anchovies.
Hannah Glasse: she was no looker, was she?

Other recipes include many other ingredients such as cold roasted veal, pork, duck, pigeon, oysters, lettuce (cut…as fine as a good big thread), samphire, peas, sorrel, spinach, chopped shallots and lemons, pickles, grated horseradish, a scattering of barberries, figs, oranges and lemons stuck on the top of a sugar loaf. The list goes on…
The secret to a good salmagundi, according to Jane Grigson, is in the layering of flavours, you need a good mixture of sharp, piquant things like the herring or gherkins as well as crisp salad vegetables and bland meats and eggs. The salmagundi often turned into a bit of a disaster, mainly because of the sentence: [I]f you have not the ingredients, set out your plates or saucers with just what you fancy… A housekeeper in a grand 18th Century larder would have had a plethora of wonderful pickled vegetables, preserved meats, plus whatever was growing in the kitchen garden at her disposal; housewives would not, and tended to make it after they’d cleaned-out their pantries. People were just being economical of course, but just what you fancy, does not translate as whatever’s in the back of the cupboard
When it came to making a salmagundi of my own I simply tried to take Jane’s advice and make a platter with a good mix of stuff and a decent olive oil and vinegar. I put an upturned bowl in the centre of a serving dish so that my pickled herring would be raised up and got to covering the whole thing in various bits and bobs. Here’s what I did:
#334 Salmagundi for a Middle Dish at Supper. I quite liked putting the salmagundi together and it was quite nice to look at and fun to eat. I think I got a good balance of the crisp, bland and piquant. It certainly made a nice change having an English salad that had a bit of thought put into it because usually they are a little sad. Shall I do it again? I think so – hopefully with a giant sugar loaf in the middle next time. 6.5/10.

#238 Grilled Bloaters

For all you heathens out there today is Good Friday. Which, of course, means that Jesus got killed or some such other scrape. I am obviously in the heathen camp. Anyway, the point of all this is one should eat fish on Good Friday. I assume this is because we are at the end of the 40-day fast we have all been on and fish was always allowed on fast days. These rules were bent rather a lot in days of yore: ducks, geese and beaver were all added to the list. So as it is Good Friday, here’s a fish recipe with some of the fish I had delivered from The Fish Society.

Bloaters are cured herrings, like kippers, only the cure is much more subtle. They are also gamier because they are cured whole and ungutted, causing them to bloat as they hot cure in the smokehouse. I’ve never had bloaters before, and was looking forward to trying them. This recipe seemed to most appropriate to begin with as I would get to taste pure unadulterated bloater.

The bloater before prep

Start by getting your grill very hot. Whilst you are waiting for it to hot up, gut the bloater by cutting down its belly, this is not a horrible experience as they are quite dry. If there are any roes Griggers says to keep them for another dish. Now cut the head off and make slashes down both flanks of the fish and spread over with softened butter. Now simply grill for three minutes per side so that the skins go all bubbly and crispy. Serve immediately with brown bread and butter and a lemon wedge.


#238 Grilled Bloaters. These were very nice indeed. The cure as expected was much more subtle and less salty than kippers, which meant you could eat more; always a good thing in my book. They are also much less fishy and pungent, so I am surprised that they have gone out of favour somewhat as they are much less of an acquired taste than kippers. Anywho, if you have never tried them (and few have) this is definitely the best place to start. 7/10

#159 Creamed Roe Loaves

Here at Grigson Towers, we don’t like to let anything go to waste, and our tasty fishes are certainly something that should be at treated with a huge amount of respect. So do your bit by making your mackerel (or herring) go further by asking your friendly fishmonger to fish out the fishes’ roes when he guts them. After all you have paid for them anyway.

There’s quite a few roe recipes in English Food and I’ve tried them, so I thought I’d better get started. This one seemed straight-forward and is very similar (and cheaper!) to the oyster loaves recipe, so I was sort of on familiar ground. The good thing about this recipe is that you can reduce the amounts accordingly depending upon how many roes you have – in fact I only had enough to make one!

FYI: In case you didn’t know (and don’t let this put you off) the soft roe of a fish is the sperm, and therefore from a male fish. They’ve gone out of favour, with some fishmongers just throwing them away instead of selling them! Another thing we need to try and bring back, people!

Prepare 8 small rolls of bread just like for the oyster loaves. To make the filling, soften 3 shallots or 3 tablespoons of onion in butter over a low heat. Add ½ pint of double cream and cook until it thickens. Cut the roes into one centimetre cubes and place them in the cream and allow them to poach gently – this only takes a few minutes. Add parsley and chives and season with salt, black pepper and Cayenne pepper, plus a squeeze of lemon juice to cut through the creaminess. Spoon the mixture into the hollow loaves and serve immediately.

#159 Creamed Roe Loaves – 7.5/10. I really enjoyed my first foray into roe gastronomy, though a dated dish, you could modernise it easily by serving it on toast instead, or something. They are very soft and have a very delicate flavour. Try them, don’t fear the fish sperm – you’ll like the flavour and texture – and, after all, you’ll happily eat fish eggs (or bird eggs), so what’s the difference?

#133 Welsh Supper Herrings

After the creamy and rich oyster loaves last night, I thought I’d go for something a little bit more fresh-tasting and the Welsh Supper Herrings seemed to fit the bill. I chose herring because, like oysters, I’d never knowingly tried them except, of course, in the form of kippers. Herring are quite cheap as are most of the other ingredients so it didn’t break the bank. The odd ingredient here is the Bramley apple, but apparently it’s a traditional thing, herring and apple. First I’d heard.

Gut, clean, descale, behead and fillet a pound of herring – ask your fishmonger to do this, I tried to fillet them myself and was reasonably successful but was a bit of a ballache. Now mix an ounce of softened butter with a tablespoon of mustard made up from mustard powder (Why? Because Griggers says so, that’s why). Spread the butter over the cut side of the fish fillets and roll them up.

Next get to work on peeling and then finely slicing a pound and a half of firm potatoes – Jane recommends using a mandolin for this. Please, please, please be very careful here – I managed to slice a piece of my thumb off doing this last night so watch out. You have been warned. Don’t go suing me if you open a vein… Plunge the potatoes into boiling salted water for a minute she says – though I would do them for 2 or maybe even three (see below). Then slice a large onion and two Bramley (or other cooking) apples that have been peeled and cored. No need for the mandolin for those. Use a little more softened butter to grease a pie dish and make a layer using half the potatoes, then half the apples and half the onions, seasoning as you go with salt and pepper. Next, the rolled up herring fillets and sprinkle them with half a teaspoon of dried sage (Why not fresh? Because Griggers says so, that’s why). Then add the remaining apple, onion and potato, adding a brief painting on of melted butter to the last layer of spuds. Pour boiling water so it comes around half way up the dish. Bake for around half an hour until the potatoes are cooked.


#133 Welsh Supper Herrings – 3.5/10. Not sure if this was a bad dish or a bad recipe for a good dish. The potatoes, apples and onions were very nice – the apples especially lifted it, but the potatoes were not cooked after half an hour even though I blanched them in the boiling water. They were done after an hour, but unfortunately this meant that the herrings had cooked down into a mush not unlike cat food. So pretty disappointing seeing as I almost sacrificed a digit for it. Hey-ho, such is the nature of this undertaking…