Lunch in Sweden, and there are five kinds of herring on the table. The bright-tasting matjes (soused herring); a dish of fried, preserved fish; sliced fillets in a horseradish cream with snipped chives; a rough pâté and another in a marinade of lemon, allspice and dill. All of them interesting, and just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this versatile fish.
The classic herring recipes here at home are fewer, though no less delicious, but the herring is a good little fish to grill or fry, cheap, flavoursome and quick to cook. Their pervasive smell means they are probably best grilled outdoors. My own preference is to let them cook in an aromatic liquid or to bake them in butter. Their flesh is fine and will cook quickly, so five minutes in a court-bouillon of water, white wine, fine rings of onion, peppercorns and parsley results in a classic that can be served chilled with brown bread and butter. You can gild the lily with coriander seeds and paper-thin slices of carrot, or take the Asian route with lemon grass and lime leaves, ginger and galangal, all of which neatly slice through the rich oily flesh of the fish.
The downside of the herring is the presence of the pesky hairlike pin bones that tend to escape even the most diligent and sympathetic fishmonger's eye. Their whiskery texture will ruin any pâté. The only answer is to stand – or, better, sit – going meticulously through the fillets, picking them out one by one. It's a boring task, but necessary.
Most of the herring in this country is sold processed in some way or another, either as a deliciously astringent rollmop or a bronzed kipper, but good fishmongers often have fresh ones for sale with their silver, black and mauve skin and fine, thin scales. I can live without gutting and scaling so I ask the fishmonger to oblige. I have decided to make a sort of buttery pâté, more like a rillette really, but rather than make it of spreadable consistency as you might pork or duck, I loosen the mixture with a tangle of pickled shredded carrot and sweet pickled sushi ginger. Rich but light, it works, though the temptation to spread it on hot toast and, later, crispbread rather than eat it as a salad becomes irresistible.
While I have fresh herring fillets in the kitchen, I make them into a filling for pastry, mixing the raw, skinned fish with crème fraîche and thyme then rolling them in pastry. The skin comes away as easily as peeling Sellotape off a Christmas present. The result was a savoury palmier, and irresistible it was, too. Yet another example of how you can rarely fail with fish and pastry.
The reason marinated herrings, or rollmops, work so well is the acidic bath of vinegar and spices that cuts through their über-oily flesh. Herring is best when used in this way, which is why crème fraîche works and sweet double cream doesn't, and why these little fishes respond so well to the presence of brined capers, lemon juice and white-wine vinegar. Thank you, Sweden, for rekindling my love of the herring, and happy Knutsdagen to you.
carrot 1 large
lemon juice of ½
white-wine vinegar 1 tbsp
pickled sushi ginger 10g
dill a small bunch
herrings 500g, raw, pin boned
bay leaves 2
rye bread toasted, to serve
Coarsely grate the carrot to give 3 heaped tablespoons and put in a mixing bowl with the lemon juice and the vinegar. Tear or cut the pickled ginger into small pieces and add to the carrot, together with a tablespoon of juice from the packet. Finely chop the dill and stir in with a little salt and black pepper.
Lay the herring fillets in a baking dish or roasting tin, add the butter, a bay leaf or two, and bake for half an hour or so, until soft and tender cooked. Let the fish cool a little then, using a couple of forks, pull the fish from its skin.
Fold the fish and the butter from the baking tin into the grated carrot, taking great care not to over-mix. Check the seasoning – it should be buttery but fresh and crisp. Serve with hot rye toast.
The fine whiskerlike pin bones which lie throughout the flesh of a herring are fiddly to remove, but it is an essential task. Your fishmonger will bone the herring for you if you ask them nicely, but removing these fiddly little bones is a task for a quiet few minutes at home. Some people find tweezers useful here. Makes 12-14.
onion 1, medium
thyme 6 small sprigs
butter a thick slice
raw herrings 300g, filleted
crème fraîche 6 tbsp
puff pastry 370g
egg a little, beaten
Peel and finely dice the onion. Strip the leaves from the thyme branches. Warm the butter in a high-sided frying pan, add the onion and thyme then cook on a moderate heat for about 10 minutes, until pale and soft.
With the help of a sharp knife, peel the fish from its skin, then break or slice into small pieces, discarding any fine bones and skin as you go. Stir the fish into the onion and thyme, fold in the crème fraîche, season with salt and black pepper and set aside.
Set the oven at 200C/gas mark 6. On a lightly floured board, roll the puff pastry into a rectangle measuring 38 x 28cm. With the short side facing you, spread the filling over the pastry, leaving a small rim of pastry around the edges. Brush the rim with a little beaten egg, then roll the pastry and filling away from you into a long sausage shape, pressing the rim to seal along its length.
Brush the outside of the roll with the egg, then slice into 12-14 pieces. Place them, close but not touching, on a baking sheet, press each down lightly with the back of a spoon to flatten slightly, then bake for 20 minutes or so, until puffed and pale gold.
Email Nigel at firstname.lastname@example.org