Around here spring is all about sweet peas and strawberries, but in the Netherlands the season’s first taste is herring, or, rather, nieuwe maatjes herring. Nieuwe is Dutch for new, and maatjes, says Sandy Ingber, executive chef of the Grand Central Oyster Bar—which has been air-expressing the annual arrival of nieuwe maatjes in from the North Sea for more than 30 years—is their word for virginal.
Yes, these silvery little fishes—sniffed at here, but eaten with gusto in Holland, Sweden, Iceland and other countries bordering the North Atlantic and the Baltic Sea—sparkle with the purity of their briny home, but the real appeal is intense flavor. As the weather warms, explains Ingber, herring load up on plankton, their oily little bodies becoming up to 16 percent fat. And fat, as herring enthusiasts know, equals flavor.
Each year the Oyster Bar celebrates with a fishy festival—this year’s is June 9—and several weeks of Dutch herring fillets on the menu, served, as per tradition, with hard-boiled egg, sweet onion and chive salad. At the other end of the culinary spectrum Aquavit, the city’s first name in Scandinavian cuisine, reels in the season with Herring Week, an all-you-can-eat buffet of the tiny fish and other Swedish specialties June 15 to June 21.
Some might even be local: The little fish have been caught around these parts, too—though, unlike our Dutch forbears, a New York fisherman might just call them bait.
Photo courtesy of Grand Central Oyster Bar.