n the olden days, 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, GermanHering, Low SaxonHeern). Specifically, there was Atlantic herring (Clupea harengus harengus, GermanNordseehering, Low SaxonNoordseeheern) and Baltic herring (Clupea harengus membras, GermanOstseehering, Low SaxonOostseeheern). 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.
Hanseatic merchant cogs (Koggen) like this replica
transported preserved fish and other goods around
the Baltic Sea and parts of the North Sea as well.
VollwertBIT and Wikimedia
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
they are clearly related to those of its neighbors. This should come as no
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
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
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).
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 (GermanBismarckhering, Low SaxonBismarckheern) is skin-on herring filet marinated in a solution containing water, white vinegar,
oil, bay leaves, mustard seeds, 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 (GermanHeringsalat, Low SaxonHeernsalaad) comes in two basic varieties: white and red. It consists of diced Bismarck
herring and diced pickled cucumber, sometimes diced cooked and pickled celeriac
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.
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
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
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
BRATHERING (pronounced ['brα:t.he:rιŋ], Low SaxonBraadheern) 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.
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
leftover herring is allowed to cool and is then marinated in the said solution.
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
you can buy it ready made, but this rarely does it for those that remember
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
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
the olden days.
there used to be significant mines of good, clean salt in the area around Lunenburg
(GermanLüneburg, Low SaxonLüünborg). This led to the establishment of the Ancient Salt Road (GermanAlte Salzstraße, Low SaxonOle 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
League’s center on the Baltic Sea coast.
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 (GermanMatjeshering, Low SaxonMatjesheern), which is also known as matjes filet (German, Low SaxonMatjesfilet), 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,
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).
Sunday morning Fish Market is a time-honored
institution, and smoked eel vendor Günther Burmeister is
an ever entertaining institution within it.
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, GermanMakrele, Low SaxonMakreel) and halibut (Hippoglossus hippoglossus, German, Low SaxonHeilbutt).
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),
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.
(Low Saxon Bückel, Pöökling or
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,
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
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
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
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,
in chunks of filet, is
unique to Northern Germany but are nowadays more commonly found in the eastern
(where they have the following names: Swedishskarpsill, vassbuk, brisling, Kashubian mùtka, Polishszprot, Lithuanian kilkė, šprotas, Latvian brētliņ, šprote, Livonian brēţļi, Estoniankilu, sprott, Finnishkilohaili, Russianшпрот). Nevertheless, for some reason they are best known as SMOKED
SPRAT or Kieler Sprotten
brislinger, “Kiel sprat”) after today’s capital of Schleswig-Holstein, Germany’s northernmost state.
put too much stock in the name, though! Those smoky beauties used
from Kiel’s main station. Rather than in Kiel they used to be produced in
SaxonEckernföör, DanishEgernførde, 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, DanishKielerfjord). 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
so they can be eaten. Traditionally, smoked sprat are shipped tightly packed
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
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!
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
SaxonAal), 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
skin turns rather dark and leathery in the process and is considered inedible
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
perspiration and lip gloss.
Some people buy fresh (“green”)
eel and cook it. Also, Aalspieß
(literally “eel skewer,” basically
eel shish kebab)
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,
originally not one of its ingredients, but many people now add smoked eel to
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
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 hereto 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)
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
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?