Matjes, Maatjes, Pickled Herring or Soused Herring… a Rose By Any Other Name?

“Matjes are herrings caught before they have spawned. They are reputedly at their best in early summer when stalls appear on Amsterdam streets. Matjes made the Hansa.”

Jonathan Meades, A Plagiarist in the Kitchen

Every year at an uncle’s hotel in Switzerland we used to run a Swedish fortnight organised by a Swedish neighbour. Everything came in a big pantechnicon straight from Sweden, including the chef and the beer. It was incredibly poplular – quite an event in fact – with people even coming from the Swedish embassy a couple of hours away.

The main event was an impressive smörgåsbord, starting with mountains of gravad lax (dill-cured salmon) with mustard sauce, and proceeding through a selection of different types of pickled herrings and eels to reindeer and elk, meatballs and Jansson’s temptation (a mix of potatoes, onions and anchovies), and on to cinnamon buns (see note at the bottom of this post), ginger snap biscuits and finally a schnapps to wash it all down with.


Different sauces for pickled herring

My favourite of the whole display was the glassblowers’ herring (glasmastarsill) and the herring with mustard sauce (senapssill), and there was also a sherry-flavoured variety which was good.

herrings with mustard sauce
Herrings with mustard sauce.

Last week I was in Hamburg and I discovered that one of the foodie delicacies the city is known for is matjes – in other words pickled herring.

Herring for breakfast

My hotel was a fairly average business hotel opposite the main station, but the breakfast was one of the best anywhere and it included a selection of excellent matjes including the glassblowers’ version – I’m not sure if they actually call it ‘glassblowers’ but it tasted exactly the same, a perfect balance of sweet and sour. Lunch was an uncertain event so I gobbled it down appreciatively, even though it’s quite a strong taste early in the morning.

maatjes with currey sauce, beetroot, dill sauce, and with cucumber
Maatjes with curry sauce, beetroot, dill sauce, and with cucumber.

Herring for lunch or later

I think it makes a better lunch, partnered with a tempering German potato salad. It can also make an interesting starter – with two or three different varieties and chopped onion, sour cream, chopped egg, mature cheese (Västerbottensost if you are being a purist) and chives.

In The Netherlands they sometimes chop up the maatjes, mix with mustard, crème fraîche, chopped spring onions and serve on pieces of pumpernickel bread with drinks – highly recommended!

The best herring I have ever had was at Ed Red in Krakow, this was served with sour cream, crunchy buckwheat and spring onions. Wonderful!

Śledź maties
Śledź maties served with sour cream, crunchy buckwheat and spring onions at Ed Red in Krakow

What should you drink with matjes?

The best thing to drink with matjes is either akvavit, or a very good kümmel. Not, obviously, if you are eating them for breakfast though…


Where does the best pickled herring come from?

I shouldn’t have been surprised to find pickled herring turning up in another part of northern Europe, it’s an obvious and an effective way of preserving the young fish caught locally before spawning between the end of May and the beginning of July for consumption throughout a long winter. Pickled herring is served on Christmas Eve in Poland and the Ukraine, and Amsterdam was pretty much founded around the herring fishing industry.

In the UK pickled herring is often known as ‘soused herring’, and, when the herring is rolled up around a gherkin or an onion it is known as a ‘rollmop’.

However, R Howe, in his 1953 published book German Cooking says

“Herrings probably get the finest treatment in the world in Germany”

He could well be right. It would certainly be a close run thing between the Scandinavian and German varieties.

Buying pickled herring

You can buy pickled herring in UK supermarkets – Waitrose stocks Elsinor in two varieties: sweet and spicy; and dill marinade. And it also makes its own type pickled with onion available at the deli counter. Alternatively, having completed a stint in IKEA, if you can risk the impulse to put as much distance between yourself and the shop as possible, there is an excellent selection of authentic Swedish food at the counter just before the exit.

Making pickled herring

But if you have the time, the best solution is to make your own. Follow this link to see Hank Shaw’s excellent recipe for making Glassblowers’ herring.  Featured image courtesy of Elise Bauer.

A good herring read

Fancy becoming, really being able to imagine what must have been like to be a nineteenth century herring fisherman in Scotland? Read Neil Gunn’s The Silver Darlings, an adventure story, a love story, and a coming-of-age story all rolled into one.

Who likes herring best?

American barritone, Sherrill Milnes, chose herrings in sour cream as his Desert Island luxury.

Note: A good cinnamon buns recipe

*for a not-Swedish but to-die-for recipe for these go to Laurie Nguyen’s excellent blog. European readers can substitute Cisco shortening for butter.

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