Lowlands-L Travel
Lowlands-L Travel : Places to Experience and Remember

Please Fasten Your Seat Belts!


Global Pilot
Places to See
Places to Meet
Places to Stay

Things to Do

Places to Eat

Things to Taste

Things to Buy

Things to Know

Things to Say

Other Sites

Home Base
Works Wanted
Offline Resources
The Crypt
Language Tips
Members’ Links
Lowlands Shops
   · Canada
   · Deutschland
   · France
   · 日本 Japan
   · United Kingdom
   · United States

Ameland Tour
The Abbotts
Belgian Fries
Berney Arms
East Frisian Tea
Gilmerton Cove
Heath Honey
Heath Torte
Holyrood Sundial
Kiekeberg Museum
Land Hadeln
North German Fish
Papeloze kerk
Pfaffenlose Kirche
Priestless Church
St. Jacob’s Path
Van Harinxa Canal
Western Australia

A Taste of the Lowlands

Sour, Salty, Smoky—

Northern Germany’s tasty trinity of fish

By Reinhard F. Hahn, Seattle, USA, ©July, 2007

In the olden days, זאָג זשע מיר, רביניו, דגים איס װאָס?
בֿײַ די גרױסע נגידים איז דגים אַ העכטעלע!
אָבער בײַ אונדז קבצנים, אױ, דלפֿנים! 
אײַז דגים אַן אױסגעװײקט הערינגל, נעבעך.

Zog zhe mir, Rebenyu, dogim iz vos? 
Bay di groyse negidim iz dogim a hecktele! 
Ober bay undz kbatsonim, oy, dalfonim! 
Iz dogim an oysgeveykt heringl, nebekh.

Tell me, dear Rabbi, what does dagim* mean?
For those great rich folks, dagim means “pike”!
But for us paupers, oh, for us beggars,
Dagim means just “miserable pickled herring.”

* Hebrew for “fish”

From the Yiddish folksong
Lomir ale zingen לאָמיר אַלע זינגען (Let’s all sing)
Northern Germany’s coastal waters used to be richly blessed with fish. Fishing crews did not need to venture out as far as they do today to bring home the types of seafood that Northerners considered staples. First and foremost among these staples was herring (Clupea harengus, German Hering, Low Saxon Heern). Specifically, there was Atlantic herring (Clupea harengus harengus, German Nordseehering, Low Saxon Noordseeheern) and Baltic herring (Clupea harengus membras, German Ostseehering, Low Saxon Oostseeheern). In those olden days, up until the 1960s, herring was considered poor people’s fish. But people loved it. They still do, though in these days of overfished and polluted oceans it is no longer so plentiful as to be poor people’s fare.
Medieval Hanseatic merchant cogs (Koggen) like this replica
at Kiel, transported preserved fish and other goods around
the Baltic Sea and parts of the North Sea as well.
(Courtesy VollwertBIT and Wikimedia Commons)

Herring and other types of migratory shoal fish come in seasonal gluts. Before the advent of refrigeration and artificial freezing this required other forms of preservation for the leaner days between gluts. One might argue that with regard to traditional fish preservation Northern Germany is situated in the middle of a cultural continuum with Denmark and the rest of Scandinavia to the north, Northern Poland and the Baltic States to the east, the Netherlands and parts of Belgium to the west, and the British Isles across the North Sea. Although within this continuum Northern Germany’s traditions are in some ways distinctive (and many North Germans disapprove even of small flavor differences in other countries, such as hints of sweetness in Scandinavian pickled herring), they are clearly related to those of its neighbors. This should come as no surprise considering not only geographical proximity but also the role herring played in the medieval Hanseatic Trading League’s international influence. In fact, it is believed that it was primarily trade of Baltic Sea herring that aided the League’s initial rise to power. Obviously, shipping of herring necessitated preservation. This involved drying, pickling and smoking. Pickling and smoking endured because of the resulting flavors that grew on people. Although most North Germans love to eat fresh fish, the flavors of pickled and smoked fish have conditioned their palates, and they will crave it especially in the form of snacks. Love of salty and smoky flavors goes beyond smoked fish, of course. North Germans love their sausages, bacons and hams at least as much as other North Europeans do, and they love pickled (both salt-pickled and vinegar-pickled) cucumbers as well.

Several preserved fish products from Northern Germany are available elsewhere, mostly canned, pickled products also in sealed glass jars. However, connoiseurs of smoked fish turn their noses up at the thought of canned smoked fish. They would argue that only the “fresh” products will do. They have a point when it comes to products that are smoked not for the sake of durability but for the sake of flavor, products whose shelve lives aren’t all that long. It is these products that seafood-loving travelers ought to sample whilst being in coastal Germany. If you are one of them, make a point of visiting one of the better local delicatessen shops or fishmongers, or buy a couple of Fischbrötchen (fish sandwiches) in the deli section of a department store or at snack counters downtown, at railway stations or around any tourist hang-out. Why, most of these foods are so popular that you will find them even at fun fairs (US carnivals) and amusement parks.

Below I will introduce you to the stars of the cast.


Fish (mostly herring) is sour-marinated in vinegar-based liquid, much like the usual (non-salty) type of cucumbers are (the ones simply called “pickles” in North America).
Fischbrötchen with Bismarck herring, onions and pickled
cucumber (Courtesy Frank C. Müller and Wikimedia

BISMARCK HERRING is named after Otto von Bismarck (1815–1898), Germany’s first chancelor and initiator of the welfare state. Rumor has it that Bismarck, a North German aristocrat, was quite partial to this way of preparing herring. Bismarck herring (German Bismarckhering, Low Saxon Bismarckheern) is skin-on herring filet marinated in a solution containing water, white vinegar, oil, bay leaves, mustard seeds, Wenn Heringe genau so teuer wären wie Kaviar, würden ihn die Leute weitaus mehr schätzen. = People would appreciate herring far more if they were as expensive as caviar. - 
Otto von Bismarck (1815–1898)raw onion rings and salt, briefly boiled and then cooled. Some add a pinch of sugar, just enough to mellow the sour edge. Bismarck herring can be eaten as is, as a snack or as a part of a main meal. Alternatively, it can be served as a part of Fischbrötchen (fish sandwich), rolled up into rollmops, or diced as the key ingredient in herring salad. Austrians tend to refer to Bismarck herring (or to their close relatives) as Russen (“Russians”). Bismarck herring can be found in better delicatessen stores all over the world.

HERRING SALAD (German Heringsalat, Low Saxon Heernsalaad) comes in two basic varieties: white and red. It consists of diced Bismarck herring and diced pickled cucumber, sometimes diced cooked and pickled celeriac as well. Red herring salad has the addition of diced cooked and pickled beets. All this is tossed in mayonnaise. Using sour cream instead of mayonnaise results in what is considered Swedish or Scandinavian herring salad. Herring salad tends to be a part of buffets and is eaten as a side dish, as an hors d’euvre or on dark bread for lunch, for supper or as a snack. It can be bought ready made in virtually all North German food stores and is available wherever fish snacks are sold as well as at any restaurant that serves traditional local fare. Try it on Vollkornbrot, a dark whole grain bread baked at low temperature.
Rollmops (Courtesy RaBoe and Wikimedia Commons)

A ROLLMOPS is a rolled-up and stuffed herring filet, specifically one flap of filet per rollmops. Apparently there are two ways of making them. The first involves rolling and stuffing raw filets and then marinating them, sometimes only in a vinegar and salt solution. The second and more common way is using already marinated Bismarck herring, rolling, stuffing and then either further marinating or serving them. The stuffing (actually the stuff you roll the filet around) usually consists of pickled cucumber and onion, often with the addition of mustard seeds and ground black pepper. Some people use sauerkraut or sour-marinated shredded white cabbage as stuffings. In all cases, either tooth picks or special wooden skewers are used to secure the rolls as well as to hold them by, because rollmops is finger food. Traditionalists secure the rolls with twine as well (which is a bother if the twine isn’t removed before serving). Rollmops is now fairly well known in many parts of the world and is available in many non-European supermarkets and delicatessen stores.
Brathering Rollmops
(Adapted from Ekki01, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

BRATHERING (pronounced ['brα:t.he:rιŋ], Low Saxon Braadheern) is pan-fried herring that is allowed to cool and is then marinated in a solution containing water, white vinegar, oil, bay leaves, mustard seeds, raw onion rings and salt, briefly boiled and then cooled before it is used as a marinate. In traditional home cooking, fresh herring is gutted and cleaned and is then prepared à la meunière: salted, dredged in flour and then pan-fried until golden and crispy on both sides. Usually, this is then a part of a meal, called grüner Hering in German and gröne Heern in Low Saxon, meaning “green herring” where “green” stands not for color but for “fresh.” (Eating the fried soft and hard roe is the highlight for many people.) The leftover herring is allowed to cool and is then A man who could not marry off his ugly daughter visited Rabbi Shimmel of Cracow. “My heart is heavy,” he told the Rev, “because God has given me an ugly daughter.”
“How ugly?” the Seer asked.
“If she were lying on a plate with a herring, you wouldn't be able to tell the difference.”
The Seer of Cracow thought for a long time and finally asked, “What kind of herring?”
The man, taken aback by the query, thought quickly and said, “Er--Bismarck.”
“Too bad,” the Rabbi said. “If it was Maatjes, she'd have a better chance.”
Woody Allen, Getting Even
marinated in the said solution. You may begin eating it no earlier than after twelve hours of marinating, and it keeps for up to two weeks. The fried skin comes out wrinkly, and most of the bones turn soft and can be eaten. Originally, this was something that was prepared only in homes. These days you can buy it ready made, but this rarely does it for those that remember their mothers “special” and thus “best” brathering. Some people use brathering to make rollmops.


Availability of salt is usually not a big problem in coastal areas, for all you needed to do was harvest salt from evaporated sea water. It is a problem if there aren’t enough sunny days in a row, as is usually the case in coastal Germany. In inland areas there are salt deposits in the ground, deep in the ground, and it used to be mined in the Middle Ages. Its relative rarity and transporting it over long distances made salt a very precious commodity in the olden days. In Northern Germany, there used to be significant mines of good, clean salt in the area around Lunenburg (German Lüneburg, Low Saxon Lüünborg). This led to the establishment of the Ancient Salt Road (German Alte Salzstraße, Low Saxon Ole Sultstraat), one of Europe’s ancient roads, from Lunenburg on the Heath to Lübeck (of Thomas Mann fame), originally a Slavic settlement and later the medieval Hanseatic Trading League’s center on the Baltic Sea coast.
Matjes herring
Matjes herring, one slightly smoked and the other marinated
in red wine (Adapted from Sebastian Wallroth, public domain,
courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

All smoked fish dishes of Northern Germany belong to the salty category as well. The only well-known member of this category that is not smoked is the MATJES HERRING (German Matjeshering, Low Saxon Matjesheern), which is also known as matjes filet (German, Low Saxon Matjesfilet), oftentimes simply called “Matjes.” And this particular treat is not North German in origin. Originally it was developed in the Netherlands where it remains an important snack. If you have ever seen Dutch people stand at street vendors’ stands (haringstalletjes) dangling floppy fish filets above their waiting mouths and then popping them in ... Well, be advised that you’ve just witnessed someone getting a matjes fix.
Dutch maatjes and its German derivative Matjes are supposed to go back to Dutch maagdenharing or maagdjesharing, literally “girls’ herring” in the sense of “virgin herring,” which referred to the first herring catch of the season, hence the alternative Dutch name “Hollandish new (herring)” (Hollandse nieuwe). This may also be the reason why North Germans (who usually do not perform the lower - the - herring - into - the - hatch trick) love to eat their matjes with the year’s first crop of young potatoes and green beans.
     Matjes or a close relative of it is known in parts of Britain where it is called “soused herring.” In Scots and in Scottish English it tends to be called “mattie (herring),” which goes back to either Dutch or Low Saxon, minus the -s, which had been interpreted as a plural indicator. In Shetlandic, the word matchie denotes an immature female herring.

Herring for matjes production are caught young, well before their spawning season. They are partly gutted and then pickled in brine for five days, preferably in oak casks. North German matjes are decidedly more salty than their Dutch counterparts, which is why most people soak them in water or milk before serving substantial amounts of them. Matjes are sometimes served with Lapskaus (lobscouse). There is also matjes salad (German Matjessalat, Low Saxon Matjessalaad) consisting of diced matjes, pickled cucumber, apple and onion, with or without a dressing based on heavy cream and mayonnaise. (There are regional variants of it.) Being one of Holland’s most important gifts to Northern Germany aside from dike building, land reclamation, windmill construction and exotic spices, matjes is so important to many that, as in the Netherlands, they have annual matjes festivals, such as that in Glückstadt (Danish Lykstad) on the Elbe (Glückstädter Matjeswochen). Dutch and North German matjes are available canned in some overseas delicatessen stores.

In more recent times, another salt-pickled fish product has been anchovis substitute made from sprat (Sprattus sprattus).

Eel vendor
Hamburg’s Sunday morning Fish Market is a time-honored
institution, and smoked eel vendor Günther Burmeister is
an ever entertaining institution within it.
(Courtesy Johannes Liebmann and Wikipedia Commons)

Smoking meats for preservation is of course a very old technique that most probably began when our prehistoric ancestors hung pieces of meat and fish between their cooking fires and the smoke holes in their houses. Soon they must have discovered that salting the meat and fish before smoking them preserved the food even better and at the same time improved the flavor. It is impossible to think of North German cuisine without smoked meat and fish. Westphalian smoked ham is considered the best there is, and smoked fish from coastal areas are well-loved even in Southern Germany. Best known are smoked herring, sprat and eel. But there are other, by no means less tasty sorts of smoked fish, such as mackerel (Scomber scombrus, German Makrele, Low Saxon Makreel) and halibut (Hippoglossus hippoglossus, German, Low Saxon Heilbutt). The traditional and still preferred North German fish smoking method uses a type of smoker known as Altonaer Ofen (Altona Oven, named after a city that is now a part of Hamburg). Traditionally, beech wood fire is used for the cooking process, and alder wood fire then gives the fish its delicate flavor and golden color. These days health department regulations require smoking to be at a minimum of 60°C (140°F), but I believe that in the past lower temperatures were preferred. Also, gas fire smokers are frequently used these days, and sticklers would argue that this results in inferior products.
(Adapted from Christopher Bertram, Wikimedia Commons)

BÜCKLING (Low Saxon Bückel, Pöökling or Pökel) —a name derived from the equivalent of “pickled herring” is essentially herring that is first pickled in brine and is then smoked. Also, in the past it was smoked complete with its innards, while nowadays it is first gutted, mostly for reasons of health safety. But it is still smoked mit Kopp un Steert (“with head and tail”), as it is termed in Low Saxon, though headless specimens are now becoming more frequent. Bückling is often translated as “kipper” in English. While the British kipper is certainly a close relative of the bückling, there are significant differences in flavor and texture between them, and the bückling is not smoked and served butterflied like its British cousin. However, like kipper, bückling used to be a common breakfast food, though in most homes it is served for lunch or supper these days, often on buttered bread in the style of Danish smørrebrød (to which North Germans can relate very well). Bückling connoiseurs tend to expect that hard or soft row not be removed with gutting. Nowadays bückling is available canned (for the international market often labeled “kipper” in English), but most people that know “fresh” bückling turn their noses up at that. So if you are a seafood lover, don’t miss the opportunity to taste the real thing when you visit Northern Germany! If you like it, try some smoked mackerel as well. It is very tasty but can not be eaten in large quantities because of its more significant fat contents (mostly good Omega-3 fatty acids though they are). Smoked halibut, which comes in chunks of filet, is very tasty, too, as no doubt you can imagine.
Kiel sprats (Courtesy of Garitzko, Wikimedia Commons)

Sprat (Sprattus sprattus) are not unique to Northern Germany but are nowadays more commonly found in the eastern regions of the Baltic Sea (where they have the following names: Swedish skarpsill, vassbuk, brisling, Kashubian mùtka, Polish szprot, Lithuanian kilkė, šprotas, Latvian brētliņ, šprote, Livonian brēţļi, Estonian kilu, sprott, Finnish kilohaili, Russian шпрот). Nevertheless, for some reason they are best known as SMOKED SPRAT or Kieler Sprotten (Danish Kieler brislinger, “Kiel sprat”) after today’s capital of Schleswig-Holstein, Germany’s northernmost state. Don’t put too much stock in the name, though! Those smoky beauties used to be shipped from Kiel’s main station. Rather than in Kiel they used to be produced in Eckernförde (Low Saxon Eckernföör, Danish Egernførde, Ekernførde, originally Egernfjord), about 25 km (15.5 miles) northwest of Kiel. These days, only those smoked sprat may bear the brandname echte Kieler Sprotten (“genuine Kiel sprat”) that are produced within the vicinity of the Bay of Kiel (Kieler Bucht, Danish Kielerfjord). However, most of the fish that is used now comes from the North Sea, since Baltic Sea sprat (Sprattus sprattus balticus) are no longer very plentiful in western regions. Sprat are smoked like bückling (mentioned above), only for shorter periods due to their smaller size. While the fish can grow up to 20 cm (8") in length, only those that are 10 cm (4") or less in length are used for smoking. They tend to be smoked whole (mit Kopp un Steert). Most people eat all but their heads, but hardcore sprat lovers eat their heads as well. The bones are small and soft; so they can be eaten. Traditionally, smoked sprat are shipped tightly packed in wooden boxes, these days in cans as well. Canned smoked sprat are available in many overseas locations as well, though most of those come from Russia or the Baltic States. Sprat must not be compared with sardines or pilchards (Sardina pilchardus). Their flavor and consistency are very different, more closely related to those of herring. In fact, juvenile herring are sometimes substituted for sprat. And, whatever you do, do not confuse Kieler Sprotten with the chocolate treat that bears the same name!
Eel vendor
Smoked eel (Adapted from Tasja, Wikimedia Commons)

The idea of eating eel is not everyone’s idea of fun (or kashruth), though due to the growing popularity of sushi more and more people now partake of eel (unagi, Anguilla japonica) prepared in the Japanese way. If you eat eel or are not afraid of trying it, by all means try freshly SMOKED EEL when you visit Northern Germany. Yes, it is available in cans, but that isn’t quite the same. It is European eel (Anguilla anguilla, German, Low Saxon Aal), usually of substantial length (up to 60 or even 90 cm or two to three feet), smoked much like herring and other fish described above. It is then called Räucheraal in German and Rökeraal in Low Saxon. Its skin turns rather dark and leathery in the process and is considered inedible by most. Many North Germans simply love it. It can be found not only everywhere seafood is sold but also at fun fairs where you can see people walking about chomping on smoked eel as though it was candy cane. If you do try it, be warned, though, and eat it in moderation! As I know from experience, eating just one bite too many may well result in you never eating it again for the rest of your life. It may be good eats, but light eats it sure ain’t. Mind you, the shiny chins and glistening lips of those eel chompers have nothing to do with perspiration and lip gloss.

Some people buy fresh (“green”) eel and cook it. Also, Aalspieß (literally “eel skewer,” basically eel shish kebab) is popular in some quarters. An old-time dish is eel soup (German Aalsuppe, Low Saxon Aalsupp) which is best known for Hamburg (German Hamburger Aalsuppe, Low Saxon Hamborger Aalsupp), though there are varieties of it in Holstein, Bremen, Mecklenburg and also in the Netherlands. Strange though this may seem considering the name, eel was originally not one of its ingredients, but many people now add smoked eel to it because of the name. Again, there are gezillions of recipes of it, and, as usual, everyone swears that their version is the best and most authentic. Oh, sure! Try it anyway if you’re game. Either order it in a traditional type of North German restaurant or cook it yourself if you don’t venture beyond your own kitchen. Click here to read the recipe “my” Aunty Clara left us. Hers is a more traditional recipe. Add smoked eel to it at the end if you wish. Don’t try it if the combination of sweet and sour with smoky (meat and dried fruit) does not appeal to you.

Bon voyage and good eatin’!

P.S.: I omitted one member of the cast, deliberately so. Schillerlocke (“Schiller’s curl”), which used to be particularly popular among children, is smoked flank of spiny dogfish (or piked dogfish, Squalus acanthias), a type of shark commonly used under the name “rock salmon” in British fish and chips shops, in France as saumonette (“small salmon”) and in Northern Belgium as zeepaling (“sea eel”). It has been used for many other purposes as well. It is now named on the IUCN Red List of threatened species. So leave the poor sharkies alone, won’t you?

 Back to “Places to See”
 Back to Germany
 Back to Europe

Other sites

 Rehbehn & Kruse (Genuine Kieler Sprotten and other products, German only)

© 2007, Lowlands-L · ISSN 189-5582 · LCSN 96-4226 · All international rights reserved.
Lowlands-L Online Shops: Canada · Deutschland · France · 日本 · UK · USA