Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Festival Brings Out Love of Herring in Us All

I spent last weekend in Helsinki, the capital of Finland. I know many of you thought that the capital was Kalinka-Stockmann but you're wrong -- it won't be the capital of Finland for years.

While I was there, I stumbled onto one of those great accidents of time and circumstance -- the annual herring festival. Though I have never been attracted to a plate of cold, pickled, raw fish served with boiled potatoes, it seems I am in the minority. The festival attracted large crowds of enthusiastic fish fans on a blustery, chilly day.

We headed down to the Helsinki harbor to a charming gathering of small fishing vessels, each one turned into a floating stall selling, strangely, herrings and, stranger still, brown bread. Helsinki is not alone in this strange obsession. The French port of Dieppe is known as the capital of Clupeidae since each Nov. 11 the herring is celebrated there. Herring even made an impact on English literature. Take Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night," for example: "A plague o' these pickle herring!"

Herring is the common name for several types of fish with a single short dorsal fin in the middle of the back and a belly fin. Besides fresh and salted herring, the products of this industry include red herring, which has been smoked until it hardens; kippered herring, which is slightly salted and partly smoked; bloaters, large herring that are heavily salted and partly smoked; and canned sardines.

If cooking a whole herring, it should be washed rapidly and dried. Small incisions should be made every 1 to 2 centimeters along its back to permit egress for fat, as it is a fatty fish, and to facilitate cooking. It can be marinated, fried, poached, grilled, cooked in the oven or braised with cream sauce or mustard sauce and accompanied by seasonal vegetables like cabbage, leeks or potatoes. Selyodka Pod Shuboi, or herring under a fur coat, is a famous and delicious Russian dish. It features chopped herring fillets, potatoes, eggs and mayonnaise.

You can buy pickled herring and herring in jars at most supermarkets and many produkty stores. Fresh and salted herring also are widely available in Moscow. Every suburb has at least one ribka, or fish shop. Many sell good fish, especially herring. At my ribka they sell 1.6-kilogram tins of Dunaiskaya Selyod, or Danube herring for 28,600 rubles ($4.87). "Fresh" herring for 16,100 rubles per kilogram and 260-gram plastic tubs of herrings in marinade or dill sauce for 6,630 rubles are also available.

The best time for herring is autumn when it is heavy with milt or roe. From January on, their flesh is drier after mating. Fresh herring will be firm, with shiny scales and bright red eyes and gills. Fresh herring does not travel well, and loss of scales is a sign that it has begun to spoil.