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Dutch Treat

As the North Sea catch hits the States, the traditional pairing of jarred herring and schnapps makes way for refinement

Katie Robbins
June 10, 2010
Ulterior Epicure; some rights reserved
Ulterior Epicure; some rights reserved
Ulterior Epicure; some rights reserved
Ulterior Epicure; some rights reserved

When he entered the New York dating scene after college, Yishai Lemberger set a basic criterion for what he was looking for in a match. “I would only date women who loved herring,” says the 36-year-old health-care consultant who, like many Jews of his generation, grew up eating the fish on Saturday mornings at shul.

Given the conventional image of herring as an old-fashioned food that comes pickled in jars, either in a sour cream or wine sauce with onions, Lemberger thought his dating pool would be limited. “You associate it with old Jewish men,” he says, those who indulge in a stereotypical kiddush meal with shots of schnapps and plates of schmaltz herring—a mature, particularly fatty filet, marinated in oil—on Tam Tams.

What Lemberger didn’t anticipate was the number of like-minded cured-fish lovers. “People came out of the closet,” Lemberger says. Friends brought him barrels of the small, pungent fish. Women cornered him at dinner parties to discuss their mutual passion, and men would sheepishly approach, saying, “I’m not asking you out, but let’s have some herring together.”

“Herring is like a lot of Jewish foods,” says Lemberger. “We used to apologize for it, and now we’re taking it on.”

Herring is back. In Orthodox communities, young people are embracing the schnapps-herring combination; do-it-yourself foodies are pickling their own or incorporating pre-cured filets into recipes; and the fish is gaining a foothold on restaurant menus around the country. Niki Russ Federman, a co-owner of New York’s Russ & Daughters, estimates that herring sales have increased 50 percent in the past several years, fueled in part by young people who Federman says have become “hip to herring.”

Herring is most popular in June, when Hollandse Nieuwe, the new catch from the North Sea, hits its prime. During these few weeks, Dutch matjes (maiden) herring reaches its optimal fat content, giving it a distinct buttery richness. Unlike other varieties, the young herring is only lightly cured and often eaten unadorned, making it a unique delicacy whose arrival is heralded as a national holiday in Holland. It has generated cultish anticipation in the United States in recent years. “It’s like cherry-blossom season,” says Federman. Russ & Daughters is one of the few places where the new catch is available locally.

“In this country, people have a preconception with herring,” says Federman. “They’ve tried herring from a jar from the supermarket, and that’s colored their opinion. But when they taste it from a purveyor like Russ & Daughters, where it’s freshly pickled, all done here, they change their minds.” In addition to the new catch, available through much of this month, Russ & Daughters also offers a wide variety of other herring preparations year round, including the briny, mature schmaltz, similar to the sort founder Joel Russ sold in his push cart on the Lower East Side; an oak-smoked herring from the coast of France; and a Swedish mustard-and-dill preparation.

Beyond its bold, tangy flavor, a unique blend of savory and sweet, herring has practical appeal as well. Like sardines and anchovies, the small fish is low in mercury and, according to the American Heart Association, it is one of the best sources for heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. The affordable fish is also considered environmentally sustainable—herring fisheries account for 11 out 84 fisheries that currently have the Marine Stewardship Council coveted “ecolabel” certification.

With this realization has come a new crop of small-batch herring purveyors, many of whom knew only the packaged varieties growing up.

Zachary Sherman, 26, loved eating herring after Shabbat services as a child in Los Angeles. “I took to herring both because of the taste,” he says. “But also it’s this thing the older guys eat.” When he moved to Brooklyn for college and tasted freshly made herring, his eyes were opened to the fish’s true potential. “It was a completely different ballgame,” Sherman recalls. “There was more intricate flavoring,” particularly, he says, with the matjes and schmaltz varieties he tried in Flatbush and Crown Heights. “It was a fresher taste with all fresh ingredients.”

Back in California in January 2009, Sherman was disappointed with the herring pickings. “There were so few options,” he says. “A few deli cases, but mostly pre-packaged.” So, he set out to create his own, buying 10 pounds of filets from the local fishmonger and using his background in chemistry to experiment until he came up with a schmaltz herring recipe, made with onions in an oil-based marinade, that was close to what he’d enjoyed in New York. When he received positive reviews from friends, Sherman added other flavors to his repertoire, including a spicy jalapeno and a classic creamed version. Buzz about his handcrafted herring grew, and in September 2009 Sherman went legit, launching Shmaltz King, which now sells nine varieties of herrings to synagogues, delis, and caterers around Los Angeles.

When herring is up to snuff, it complements the alcohol often paired with it; Sherman theorizes that in earlier eras the schnapps-herring combination was needed to mask the taste of inferior fish. “They need to wash it down with booze,” he says. “The worse the herring, the stronger the booze.”

Ari White, who runs a boutique kosher catering company in New York City called got cholent? Inc., is another young proponent of the pairing, whose complementariness he likens to that of peanut butter and jelly. But he sees herring more as an accompaniment to whisky (he refers to the fish as “a chaser”), and in his off hours runs the Facebook group Jewish Whisky Lovers Unite, a “virtual global Kiddush Club” that promotes discussion and whisky tastings.

White offers recommendations for whisky-herring pairings, including Laphroaig quarter cask or Caol Ila 12 to go with matjes herring and Dalwhinnie 15 with schmaltz. His efforts have also led him to pinpoint the best platform for the herring—pretzel chips, which he says don’t become soggy and “can stand up to the fish.”

Herring is also catching on in restaurants. In New York City, Schiller’s Liquor Bar and the beer bar Jimmy’s No. 43 get their herring from Russ & Daughters, according to Federman, while the Old Fashioned in Madison, Wisconsin, Church and State Bistro in Los Angeles, and the Meddlesome Moth in Dallas all have contemporary herring preparations on their menus. Some restaurants like the Golden Truffle in Costa Mesa, California, and Chicago’s the Publican even cure their own.

Part of the fish’s resurgence stems from its presence in multiple cuisines. “Herring is not just a Jewish thing. You talk to Scandinavians, and they say that’s our food culture,” says Federman. “Just like every culture has a dumpling or a pancake, every culture has a cured fish.” Much of Russ & Daughters’ business comes from people of Northern European ancestry, she reports. They are sure to be among patrons who order some of the 25,000 North Sea herring imported this time of year or who attend one of the herring festivals taking place this month around the New York. (Russ & Daughters is partnering with renowned chef Wylie Dufresne for a one-night only Herring Pairing on June 15. Herring revelry will also be felt at the Holland Herring Festival at the Grand Central Oyster Bar and Aquavit’s annual Herring Festival.)

For Federman, the resurgence of interest in herring is more than just a tasty trend. “It keeps the tradition alive and keeps people connected,” she says. “It’s symbolic of the way the world has gotten very small.”

Katie Robbins is a freelance writer who splits her time between California and New York.