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First catch your herring. There are still plenty of them about: in Holland and Scandinavia, fresh and pickled herring remain ubiquitous – there is a very palatable brand of cured herrings in a certain well-known furniture store – and elsewhere in Europe a cured herring is not hard to find. In Britain we still have our kippers, though they are sadly less common than previously. A good fresh herring, however, is more elusive.
They are bony swine, herrings, but we used to put up with that. They were a staple of our childhood diet, rolled in porridge and fried in butter, as my mother had not grasped that there was a difference between oat flakes and oatmeal. We picked our way through the bones gladly enough and, as far as the soft roes were concerned, we didn’t know what we were missing, since they were spirited away for our parents’ dinner when we were tucked up in bed.
If you do chance across fresh herrings and a willing filleter (or relish the task yourself), then good home-pickled herring is hard to beat. Freshly done at home they will be firmer and more vibrant than most commercial varieties. That said, I always have a tub of bought-in herring in the fridge at home. They come in rather handy when one fancies a little something but dinner is some time away and one happens to have a bottle of a nice biting Riesling open in the fridge.
I occasionally enjoy a bit of herring with an oyster or two, a good saline reminder of the North Sea, or simply with soured cream and dark rye bread. This dish, which marries the marine with the earthy, robust sweetness of beetroot, works exceptionally well. If a good herring is harder to find than of yore, locating odd, “speciality” beetroots has become a lot easier.
Pickled herring and beetroot
The herrings can be pickled a week in advance, though I fear the beetroot will suffer if it has to sit in a fridge. Serves 8.
12 herring fillets
150g coarse sea salt
1 tsp black peppercorns
1 tsp mustard seeds
1 red chilli
50g caster sugar
3 bay leaves
3-4 sprigs fresh thyme
500ml white wine
750g golden, Chioggia or Cheltenham beetroot
Maldon smoked salt
50ml soured cream
2 large banana shallots
A few leaves fresh mint
Dried chilli flakes
White wine vinegar
● To pickle the herrings, first combine 100g of the salt in 100ml of water in a saucepan and bring to the boil to dissolve. Add this solution to 400ml more cold water and, once cooled, add the herring fillets to the mixture to brine overnight.
● The next day, combine the remaining 50g of salt with the peppercorns, mustard seeds, sugar, sliced red chilli, thyme, bay leaves and the white wine, bring to the boil and then leave to cool.
● Lift the herrings out of their first brine mixture, dry them on some kitchen paper and then place in a single layer in a rectangular dish. Once cold, pour the pickle over the herrings and leave for 48 hours. The herrings will keep for 5-7 days without deterioration in the pickle.
● Place the beets in the top half of a steamer with ample salt in the water below and steam them for an hour and a half or until tender. While still warm, twist the beets in a piece of kitchen paper to remove their skins and trim tops and bottoms with a small knife.
● Cut the beets into thick (half centimetre) slices and arrange on a large serving plate. Season the beets with the smoked salt, a twist of coarsely ground white pepper and a few drops of white wine vinegar.
● Lift the herrings out of their pickle and pat dry before cutting into squares and arranging on top of the beetroot. Dilute the soured cream with a little cold water and dribble that over the herring and beets. Slice the peeled shallots very thinly and sprinkle over the ensemble. Dribble a little olive oil over all and finish with a few torn mint leaves and a pinch of the chilli flakes.
Rowley’s drinking choice
There are some who will be fed up with my constant recommendations for Riesling in these pages – but a fine Mosel Spätlese, its acidity complementing the herring, is the perfect accompaniment.
Rowley Leigh is the chef at Le Café Anglais