The Role of Herring in German Cuisine

Matjes Herring, Fresh from the Barrel
W. Meinhart GNU-FDL 1.2

Unlike in the US, Germans eat herring even today. Herring is most often salted and/or pickled and served as Matjes or Bismarck Herring. It is rolled to make Rollmops and served in "salad" with sour cream, pickles, and onions.

All areas of Germany have herring specialties. This stems from the introduction of salt conservation in the middle of the 10th century. Salting and then smoking the herring made it possible to transport the fish all the way to Italy and even over to the New World, where it was purchased as a food for enslaved people.

Herring is fished in the North Atlantic and Baltic Sea. The catch was either cleaned and salted at sea or brought ashore and brined or smoked. The herring trade was one of the main products of the Hanseatic League, the group of merchant cities and guilds, which was economically important in the 13th through 17th centuries. Hansestadt Lüneburg provided the salt and the coastal cities would pickle the fish in barrels and transport them throughout Europe.

Modern herring fisheries freeze the herring immediately on the boats and process them further onshore. This also helps kill the nematodes (worms) which grow in the fish stomach. Herring has been overfished in the past, beginning in the 15th century, but has made enough of a comeback that it is considered a sustainable fish by Greenpeace, at least when caught in certain areas.

Salted herring was a very important protein source during Christian fasts, which made up to a third of the calendar year (Lent, Advent, and Fridays).

Herring is divided into several different types, depending on the time of year and life cycle of the fish.

  • Matjesheringe or Fettheringe are herring caught in spring, when they start to put on fat reserves, up to 18% of their weight, which carries the most flavor. Matjes (pronounced "MAH - chess") are often sold fresh and called "grüner Hering."
  • "Matjes," or soused herring, are then pickled in a certain way. The enzymes of the stomach and pancreas are left in the fish, which is placed in a salt brine, and the enzymes from the innards help ferment the fish. This is called ripening or "Reifung der Matjes" and takes about five days. It makes the meat very tender and digestible. In May, there are "Matjes" festivals which celebrate the beginning of the season, although due to deep-freezing methods, "Matjes" can now be made year round.
  • "Grüner Heringe" are floured and fried in butter ("Müllerin Art"), then laid in a marinade of vinegar, water, sugar, onions, salt, pepper, bay and mustard seed and called "Bratheringe." The marinade helps dissolve the small bones. "Bratheringe" make up a simple supper when served cold with bread, "Bratkartoffeln" or "Pellkartoffeln."
  • "Vollheringe" are fish with roe or milt. They have a lower fat percentage and are traditionally used to make "Buckling," or salted, hot-smoked (60°C) fish similar to kippers. They are smoked with the guts removed but the head and roe or milt intact. The skin turns a red-gold color. They were a popular breakfast food in the early 1900s.
  • "Hohlheringe," "Ihlen" or "Schotten" are all names for fish which have spawned. The flesh is low fat and dry. These fish are best suited for marinades, such as in "Rollmops."
  • "Bismarkhering" are herring fillets which are marinated in a mixture of vinegar, oil, onions, mustard seed and bay leaf. These fillets are also used to make "Rollmops" and are called "Russen" in Austria. "Rollmöpse" (pl) are fillets rolled around a piece of pickle and onion or sauerkraut and laid in a similar marinade. They are a traditional hangover cure. They are a specialty of Berlin.
  • "Salzheringe" were the original way to preserve these fish through the ages. Cleaned and laid in salting barrels while still at sea, they are related to "Matjes." They should be soaked before eating, to remove some of the salt. These fish became an important part of the cuisine in the Middle Ages, as the art of salt preservation was improved.