[from Manx Notes & Queries, 1904]

[Herring Recipes]


After having said so much about the herring and its history, folklore, and habitat, it will not he out of place to dedicate a few remarks to its philological side.

It is now accepted and sufficiently proved that the Romans were practically unacquainted with the herring as an article of food; and even granted they should have employed a few boats occasionally on the east coast of England, from the Wash down to the Thames, it was not likely that they would fit up a regular annual fleet of smacks for following the herring fishery on the coast of Norfolk on an economic basis. Their boats were otherwise employed for purposes of commerce and naval requirements, and it is not to be supposed that the British coast tribes dared, or had the means of getting together an efficient fishing fleet; and we must not forget the great peril and insecurity, even in Roman times, of the eastern and southern shore attached in any such attempt, due to the frequent piratical attacks and incursions which required the constant watch of the Count of the Saxon shore to stem the inroads of the streams of continental marauders.

It is only when the Anglo-Saxons had got a firm foothold on British soil that the herring fishery began slowly to develop, and Swinden 1 thinks that it must have been soon after the landing of Cedric in 495. Great Yarmouth is said to have been the resort of fishermen during the herring season, as early as the 6th Century, carried on by no other methods than drift nets. 2 In early times the fishery was principally confined to the great rivers and estuaries, such, for instance, as the Thames and the Severn, and probably it was then the Shad the natives fished. The shads differ from other members of the herring family in their habit of ascending in big shoals some of our rivers in the Spring in order to deposit their spawn in fresh water. They are similar in appearance to the common herring, and from their larger size are called by fishermen "The mother of herrings." "The king or queen of herrings." Before the erection of weirs at Worcester and other places, shad used to ascend the river about middle of April.

The Anglo-Saxon name sceadd is probably derived in the first instance from the Britons, and from the Irish scaoth, scaoith, =a swarm, multitude; Gaelic sgaoth -a, shoal. When the Britons became seafishers they encountered a smaller form, similar in appearance to their shad, which they called sgathan, ysqgaden, Welsh; sgadan, Irish and Gaelic; skeddan, Manx, or the little shad.

The Celtic fishermen have clung to the name sgadan, while the Angles, Saxons and Frisians, who bad been great sea-fishers long before the Britons ventured on high sea fishing, brought their native name with them, calling it haering, and=hâring =herring, pointing to heri=an army (in consequence of their appearance in great shoals or swarms).3

The herring does not descend beyond Normandy, and the French, Portuguese, Spanish, and Italians, adopted therefore the current Anglo-Saxon name.

Another name for the herring is sild, used specifically by the Norwegians, Swedes, Danes, and the Icelanders. They were the people who were supreme in the North Sea, the Skager Rack, the Cattegat, and the Sound; the Slavic nations who, in ancient times, held the whole coast line of the Baltic Sea, and who also pursued the herring fishery of the litoral fringe for their sustenance, borrowed their name from the Norsemen ; the Russian word for it is seld, sioldka ; Polish, sledz; and each of the leading seafaring nations kept a jealous guard on their respective fishing grounds. The Slavs would not infringe on Norse fishing grounds, nor would the latter, even in early medieaval times, permit an encroachment of either English, Scotch, Dutch, &c., within their zones for the purpose of fishing herring or cod, and the very name of sgadan, herring, and sild, expresses the privileged areas over which the respective nations held command, and challenged interference.

We thus see what an interesting light is thrown on the history and development of ancient fishing and fishery right, even by a philological examination of the various names for the herring.

1 See History and Antiquities of Great Yarmouth. -Swinden.

2 The oldest document relating to herring fishery dates from 709, and is found in the Chronicles of the Monastery of Evesham.

3 See Etymological Dictionary of the German language.-Friedr. Kluge Jena, 1859.


Fresh herring on the dish
Would leave no Roman epicure a wish,
When drest with all our garnishes of art."

-Manx poem

White and red herring has for centuries formed a staple mess of the masses. The general demand of Catholic Europe for it, during Lent and fasting days, laid the foundation of the Dutch Republic, whose wealth and development was built on the herring. They were the great curers and purveyors. But the exquisiteness of fresh herring was naturally known to the favoured few who happened to live about the great fishing ports. There is all the difference in the world between the taste of cured and fresh herring. The one, candidly, you may eat out of doctrinal duty to satisfy the Church, or constrained by poverty and necessity; 'the other, on the contrary, is a feast to allure a born epicure. Ask, I pray, a Manninagh, what he thinks of Manx freshly-caught skeddan. Brillat-Savarin missed much not to have tasted it at Peel, where, you know, you get the " lil silvern fellas," as in no other spot in the wide world, for deliciousness and delicacy of flavour. Hill,1 a fine English connoisseur, describes a method of dressing the fresh fish, which I offer to the housewives of Mona for trial:

" With a sharp penknife make three or four incisions across the fish on each side, cut an onion in thin slices, place both on the gridiron, and turn them occasionally till done. Have melted butter ready, in which two tablespoonfuls of mushroom catchup has been poured, and a little fresh mustard; eat your herrings hot, with the prescribed sauce, and you will ask yourself why people have made such a fuss about John Dories."

For those who are curious about ancient cookery, and the fancies of the English gentry in the times of the merry monarch,

I have copied a recipe "to make minced herring pies"2

" Take salt herrings, being watered, crush them between your hands and you shall loose the fish from the skin, take off the skin whole and lay them in a dish; then have a pound of almond paste ready, mince the herrings and stamp them with the almond paste, two of the melts or roes, five or six dates, some grated manchet, sugar, sack, rose water and saffron; make the composition somewhat stiff, and fill the skins, put butter in the bottom of your pye, lay on the herring, and on them dates, gooseberries, currants, barbaries, and butter; close it up and bake it; being baked, liquor it with butter, verjuyce, and sugar."


"Bone them and mince them, being finely cleansed, with two or three pleasant pears, raisins of the sun, some currants, dates, sugar, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, pepper, and butter; mingle all together, fill your pies, and being baked, liquor them with verjuyce, claret, or white wine."

It may tempt some fair reader to prepare it afresh and report.

THE HERRING PIE made 1734,3 in the Georgian period, has rather degenerated from its high ancestral lineage:

" Take about eight middle-sized herrings (the soft roes are the best), slit them down the backs, and, taking out the bones, rub them over with pepper and salt, mince onions, leeks, and apples, and scrape in lemon peel; strew over them some nutmeg, finely grated, half-a-pound of currants, and mix a pound of butter with a little flour; and place it above-and beneath in thin slices."

Here is a more homely way from 1788, for making a herring pie 4

" Scale, gut, and wash them very clean, cut off the heads, fins, and tail. Make a crust, cover your dish, then season your herrings with beaten mace, pepper, and salt; put a little butter in the bottom of your dish, then a row of herrings, pare some apples and put them in thin slices all over, take the peel off some onions and cut them in slices all over thick, lay a little butter on the top, put in a little water, lay on the lid; bake it well."

Herring pies are forgotten now, but old tastes may revive;

STEWING OF HERRING seems to have come in early in the eighteenth century. I have a preparation from 1714,5 evidently intended for the rich : -

" First broil them very brown, then have ready some white wine made hot with an anchovy, a blade of mace, and a bit of onion, with a little whole pepper all stewed is the wine; then cut off the heads of the fish and bruise them in the wine and spice, and take them out again before you put in your herrings; let them stew over coals, in a dish that they may lie at length in; lot them stow on both sides, till they are enough at the bone; take them out and shake up the sauce with butter and flour."

POTTAGE OF RED HERRING is mentioned in 1730 6 : -

" First make a stock of meager soup with herbs, roots, and bread, and season it with the same seasoning, but not too much salt; take six red herrings, and broil them and beat them in a mortar; put to them some of your stock and strain and force them through your strainer; make a ragoust of old onions, strain them into the rest; take a little celery and endive, a little spinach, sorrel, and parsley; mince them and pass them in brown butter thickened till very tender; put all together and stove it up; put in fry'd French manchet, dish it up, and broil some more red herrings and lay them round your dish; and garnish with sliced lemon and scalded spinach."

Vincente La Chapelle, " Chief Cook to the Right Honourable the Earl of Chesterfield," published in 1744, " The Modern Cook." It is a treasure-house of noble recipes brought together from every corner of Europe, but amongst the many kinds of fish mentioned in it, the herring alone has no place. It was no doubt too vulgar a thing for the palate of Chesterfield to be patronised.

We get an early recipe to bake herrings 7 :

"Take 30 herrings, scale them, cut off their heads and pull out their roes, and wash them very clean, and lap them to drain four or five hours, and roll them in a dry cloth. Season them with pepper and salt, and lay them in a long venison pot at full length. When you have laid one row, shred a large onion very small and mix with a little cloves, mace, and ginger cut small, strew it all over the herrings; and then another row of herrings and seasoning, and so do till all is in the pot. Let it stand seasoning an hour before it is put in the oven, then put in a quart of claret and tie it over with paper, and bake with house- . hold bread."

Here is also a recipe from 1749 8:"Season them with a little mace and cloves beat, a very little beaten pepper and salt; lay them in a deep pan, lay two or three bay leaves between each lay; then put in half vinegar and half water, or rap vinegar. Cover it close with a brown paper and send it to the oven to bake; let it stand till cold, and then pour off that pickle and put fresh vinegar and water, and send them to the Oven again to bake."

Among the great number of schemes for establishing companies in London in 1720, that for the British fishery was not the least considerable. The Society of the Free British Fishery was renewed in 1723, and subsequently an Act of Parliament was obtained, in 23 Geo. II., for the "encouragement of the British white herring fishery " ; the charter of incorporation passed the great seal on 12th April, 1750, Frederic, Prince of Wales, being nominated its first governor. The Society had apartments in the Royal Exchange.

The herring, says Rolt,9 is become so much in vogue, since the establishment of the new fishery, that it is allowed at the politest society, in imitation of the signal honour done it at the table of his Majesty. The great popularity of the herring, either boiled, baked, broiled, fried, pickled potted, or made into pies, or as stuffing, thus properly dates from the moment King George II. began to patronize it, to encourage the British white herring fishery; it was honourably received into all good English households, and Penelope Bradshaw hastens, in her " Family Jewel,"10 to give us, in 1754, " receipts or various ways of dressing Pickled Herrings, as British pickled Herrings are now brought to the best of Tables." One way is, "to cut it into slices (after skinning and dividing it), and to eat between bread and butter, or minced and mixed with a salad of any kind, or else made into a Salomongundy, with chicken, rabbit, or veal, they eat very well with green peas, Windsor beans, kidney beans, or Potatoes, if, after these are drained off when boiled, a pickled herring or more be thrown into the same water and then taken out, after the water has bubbled up a minute. Herring-pickle may be used for that of anchovy; and a little of this pickle thrown into the butter, made as sauce for eels, takes off from their lusciousness."

Then follows a receipt for making Pickled Herring Soup, which I will pass over.

To Stuff a Fillet of Veal, or Calf's Heart with Pickled Herrings:- " Take 2 herrings, skin, bone, and wash them in several waters, chop them very small, with a quarter of a pound of suet, add a handful of bread grated fine and the like quantity of parsley, cut very small, throw in a little thyme, nutmeg, and pepper to your taste, and mix all together with 2. eggs."

Stuffing of Pickled Herrings for a Roast Turkey: - " Wash in several waters 2 pickled herrings, which afterwards skin and take the bone out carefully; take half a pound of suet and two large handfuls of bread grated, chop the herrings, suet and bread (separately) very small, beat all these together in a marble mortar, with the white of an egg, after throwing in a little nutmeg and white pepper."

Pickled Herring Pudding for a Hare:- " Take ½lb. of the lean of fine veal, which clear of the skin and strings, 2 pickled herrings, which wash in 2 or 3 waters, then skin, and clear them of the bones; a ¼1b. of suet, two handfuls of bread grated fine, and a handful of parsley; chop all the above separately, then mix them, throwing in half a nutmeg grated, a little thyme, sweet-majoram, and one egg, beat the whole together in a marble mortar."

The later recipes, down to Elizabeth Raffald (see her " Experienced English House Keeper "), viz., to the end of the 18th Century, are more or less repetitions of the previous ways; many in time dropped out, and we hear principally but of methods to boil, fry, bake, and pot them.

The French 11 have their

Harengs frais à la sauce à la moutarde,
Harengs frais en matelote, an fenouil,
Harengs sees on hors-d'oeuvre,

and very good things they are.

I have troubled to delve a little into the cookery-quarries of the past to show my fair readers how the herring was culinarily handled by their forebears. Perhaps they may resuscitate same of the old recipes. Cooks are not negligible quantities in one's life. All honour and praise to them. They are the sweet-mouthed bees, ever mindful of our comforts; the " Lares " of our domestic hearth, who preside over our palate and bodily welfare, pouring out cheerful sun-glints into our homes, and no little happiness on poor, plagued mankind in general-from the King down to the humble thrall. The herring is and continues, ever since first meshed in the salt sea, one of our sweetest favourite morselsa little fish, to boot, which, in centuries past, has had a great share both in making and unmaking nations.

A Manx song runs

" Cha nel veg gull-rish praaseyn as skeddan "
(There is nothing like potatoes and herring).

The primitive and chosen way of the old Manx to take it was: To put mashed potatoes in a long wooden tray, a cup of butter placed besides, into which all dipped, and in that manner the boiled herring and all were eaten with the fingers.

I have now come to the end of my pleasant journey, and so good-bye, and: Semper floreat et crescat Harengus Monensis -applaudite ! C. ROEDER.


1 The Epicure's Almanac," by Benson E. Hill, London, 1841.

2 " The Accomplisht Cook, or the Art and Mystery of Cookery, approved by the fifty-five years' experience and industry of Robert May, in his attendance on several Persons of Great Honour," London, 1678.

3 " The Family Dictionary, or Household Companion," by the late Wm. Salmon, M.D. ; London, 1734. ,The Art of Cookery made plain and easy," by Mrs Glasse; London, 1788.

4 " A Collection of Receipts in Cookery, Physick and Surgery," by several hands; London, 1714.

5 "A Complete Practical Cook, or New System of the Whole Art and Mystery of Cooking," by Charles Carter; London, 1730.

7 " The Compleat Housewife, or Accomplish'd Gentlewoman's Companion," by E. Smith; London, 1744.

8 " The London and Country Cook," by Charles Carter, Cook to his Grace the Duke of Argyle; London, 1749.

9 "A New Dictionary of Trade and Commerce," by Mr Rolt; folio, 2nd edition. London, 1761.

10 "The Family Jewel and Compleat Housewife's Companion," by Mrs Penelope Bradshaw, Housekeeper forty years to a Noble Family of Great Table, but proper Oeconomy; 3rd edition. London, 1754.

11 See: Baron Brisse, " la Cuisine à 1'usage des menages bourgeois," etc. ; Paris.


Back index next


Any comments, errors or omissions gratefully received The Editor
HTML Transcription © F.Coakley , 2004