Schmaltz herring and Matjes Herring by Claudia Roden

In Eastern Europe herring was the cheapest fish. It arrived presalted in barrels from Norway, Holland, England and Scotland. Jews were prominent in the herring trade, importing and transporting the fish by rail to Germany, Poland and Russia and selling it in stores and from pushcarts. This poor man's food — turned rich man's delicacy — was an all-important part of the diet of the Jews. In the 1920's the Polish-French gastronome Edouard de Pomiane wrote that the Jews of Poland ate a herring a day. According to the British columnist Chaim Bermant, in England it was much the same story. He reminisced in one of his articles, "On Sunday one had a pickled herring, on Monday soused herring, on Wednesday baked herring, on Thursday herring fried in oatmeal and Friday herring in sour cream."

Herring remains one of the great Jewish favorites. Fishmongers, delis and supermarkets in many areas of London offer a variety of pickled and marinated herrings and the salt-cured fish, which needs to be soaked and desalted before it can be prepared.

Schmaltz herring is cured by being covered with coarse salt and left with a weight on top for up to four days. Before it can be used, it needs to be soaked for as long as one or two days in a few changes of water to remove the salt. Matjes herring is preserved in brine and is relatively fresh, so it usually needs no more than one hour's soaking. My fishmonger gets matjes from Holland and skins and fillets it for me. They are my favorite, and particularly delicious when they have been soaked in milk instead of water.

Once filleted, skinned and soaked, herrings can be eaten as they are, raw, simply dressed with oil and a squeeze of lemon or smothered in sour cream or crème fraiche with a little lemon or a touch of sugar, accompanied by bread or a hot boiled potato. Salt herrings are usually eaten with onion rings. The onion's strong flavor can be muted by sprinkling with plenty of salt and letting the juices drain for one hour, or by pouring boiling water over them and adding a little lemon juice or vinegar. I can understand that you might easily become addicted to herring. You can keep desalted herring in a jar covered with olive oil. Cut them diagonally into two-inch (five-centimeter) pieces or leave them whole.

serves 6-8

Salt Herring advertisement

When you buy salt herring, find out from the merchant how much soaking it needs. Matjes need only 1 hour.

4 salt herrings, filleted and soaked as required
1 large onion, sliced
1 ½ cups white-wine or cider vinegar
8 black peppercorns
3 cloves (optional)
2 tablespoon of sugar
2 bay leaves.

Soak the herrings as necessary in cold water or milk and drain on a few layers of paper towels. Cut them diagonally into two-inch (five-cm) pieces and arrange in a ceramic dish or glass jar, alternating with a layer of onion. Boil the vinegar with the peppercorns, cloves, sugar and bay leaves for 5 minutes. Let it cool and pour over the herring. Refrigerate for two days before eating. It keeps for two weeks.


For a sweet-and-sour Polish version, add 8 oz. (250 gr.) sugar to the vinegar. You may also add 8 juniper berries or a few thin slices of ginger.

For a Lithuanian sour-cream dressing, add 1 cup (250 ml) sour cream to the cooled vinegar.



Barnes and nobles linkClaudia Roden. The Book of Jewish Food. copyright © 1996 Claudia Roden (New York: Alfred A. Knopf). Used by permission of the publisher.



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