Today, February 28th …
“Up in the morning, and had some red Herrings to our breakfast”, wrote Samuel Pepys on this day in 1660.
Herring and cod had been extraordinarily important commodities for centuries. They were easily preserved, and they were especially valuable for the many meatless days decreed by the Church. There were imperial as well as economic implications: the search for them was a powerful motivator of exploration and discovery, and the expansion of the fishing industry underpinned the development of naval seapower.
Unlike cod, herring is too oily to simply air-dry, so it is smoke-dried and salted to varying degrees which determine the end-product.
Bloater: a whole herring, only lightly salted and smoked, and must be eaten within a couple of days.
Kipper: split, gutted and smoked.
Buckling: gutted, beheaded, salted and hot smoked so that it is also ‘cooked’.
White herring: salted but not smoked.
Red Herring: heavily salted and given a long smoking – which gives it the red colour, prolonged keeping powers, and a spectacularly strong smell – a smell strong enough to put any hunting animal off any scent - that has given us the metaphorical use of the phrase.
Northern Europeans of course prefer their herrings pickled, but if salted, smoked, or pickled does not suit your historical tastebuds, there is always always pie. Sweet pie. Pies were early cans: a thick, unbreached crust would keep the contents edible for a frighteningly long time, and this was a popular way – for the wealthy – of serving herrings. A famous cookbook of Pepys’ time was by Robert May (1660) and he included this interesting recipe where the herring skin is refilled with the ‘enhanced’ flesh, before being put in the pastry ‘coffin’.
To make minced Herring Pies.
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 milts or rows, 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 pie, lay on the herring, and on them dates and gooseberries, currants, barberries, and butter, close it up and bake it, being baked with butter, verjuyce, and sugar.
Tomorrow: Rice pudding to complain about