In praise of the humble herring

The world's oldest woman spoke highly of their health benefits - and she should know. She died aged 115 this week, and put her longevity down to eating one of the pickled fish every day. Paul Vallely celebrates The King of the Sea
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"Your raiment, O herring,

displays the rainbow colours

of the setting sun,

the patina on old copper,

the golden-brown of Cordoba leather,

the autumnal tints

of sandalwood and saffron.

Your head, O herring,

flames like a golden helmet,

and your eyes,

are like black studs

in circlets of copper."

Thus waxes the French author Joris Karl Huysmans (1848-1907) in the Larousse Gastronomique. And if that sounds fanciful consider Mrs Hendrikje van Andel-Schipper. She was, until this week, the world's oldest person. She died in her sleep at 115, after eating a herring every day. It worked for her.

The humble herring is not a fish much in fashion. But for nigh on two millennia it has been the secret which sustained the peoples and empires of northern Europe. The cool temperate waters around our islands and the north-west coast of the continent have teemed in huge quantities with the silver sparkle of this steely, bluish-green-backed fish with the glistening silvery belly. The King of the Sea was the folk name for what may well be the most abundant fish species in the world. The herring has moved in great, wide, spawning shoals around our littoral waters, plundered by gulls and gannets, with the rhythm of each year. The Romans, a warm-watered Mediterranean type, had a blind spot for the fish. But when the Anglo-Saxons arrived, herring fishing began to develop. By the 6th century, drift nets were at work off Great Yarmouth, though fishing was then restricted to the great rivers and estuaries into which certain members of the herring family would ascend in big shoals to spawn in fresh water.

From that, the herring became an essential part in the diet of the peoples of northern Europe, and in the centuries that followed, it formed a staple food of the ordinary people. It entered into our mythology too, with folk tales of jewellers who wrought herrings from sterling silver to attract the itinerant shoals.

It played a huge part in the continent's religion. Medieval Catholic Europe's huge demand for it, during Lent and fasting days, laid the foundation of the Dutch empire. Amsterdam, it was said, was built on herring bones. So large were the quantities consumed that a 17th century French physician, observing increased levels of sexual ardour during Lent, blamed the poor fish. The herring, says Alan Davidson in The Oxford Companion to Food , is the fish which had the greatest influence on the economic and political history of Europe.

After the process of smoking fish was discovered in the 12th century the herring began to rival the cod for importance. In the days before refrigeration, the herring and the cod could be easily cured, and thus eaten far from the point of capture. The growth of the herring trade was one of the reasons for the foundation of the Hanseatic League, the first free-trade organisation in Europe. The merchants of the city of Hamburg, who had easy access to the salt mines of Kiel (salt being essential to the smoking process) forged an alliance with the merchants of Lubeck, who monopolised the rich herring stocks off the coast of Sweden.

The huge hauls of herring created great wealth for Danish, English, French and Dutch traders whose governments built and deployed great naval forces to protect them, creating the sea power which became the basis of the colonial era.

Such was the primacy of the herring, that there developed as many recipes for preparing it as there are days in the year. It was eaten raw, fresh, salted, cured, pickled and fermented. The Germans created the soused roll-mop. The Dutch came up with an enzyme-cured delicacy with raw, shredded onions. The English invented smoking then kippering. The Flemish dreamt up a salad of smoked herring and warm potato.

Great secrecy developed across Scandinavia about the best marinade with tarragon, cherry, sherry and curry as the defining extra ingredient. Mrs Beeton was even suggesting flavouring herring with cloves. In Sweden, herring is fermented to make surstrümming, which emits a strong, foul smell when the can is opened (the trick is to open the can under water, or eat the stuff outside). From early on, the recipes were highly sophisticated. One Manx recipe for minced herring pies includes almond paste, fish roes, dates, gooseberries, rose water and saffron.

But the shoals of the silver darlings were far from predictable. The ordinary folk of Europe got used to feast and famine. Chronicles from the Isle of Man record that in 1648, local people lived on herring, salt, butter and oatcakes. with water and butter milk to drink (beer and ale being available only on market days). But the year after, there came "a time of great dearth and scarsitie" during which many islanders died of starvation.

But in the annus mirabilis 1667, there was great rejoicing, when an immense herring shoal, such as had never been witnessed before, arrived. Bishop Wilson called his clergy to account for disgracing "their callinge ... by vendinge ayle and beer and keeping victuallinge houses" in which "many of the people became not only tipplers, but infamous for sottishness and drunkenness".

Yet by 1711 so grave was the failure of the herring that the bishop inserted into the litany a prayer to be read in all the churches on the island "that it may please God to restore and continue to us the blessings of the sea". The people were plunged into such want and penury that they began smuggling potatoes from North Meols and Ormskirk on the mainland. But that is another story.

By the Victorian era, kippers a curing process which had been invented in the 1840s by John Woodger, of Seahouses in Northumberland, brought the demise of the red herring, a tougher and drier victual whose success had been that it transported well inland and abroad. (And was also allegedly useful for dragging across a fox trail to deceive the hounds.)

Kippers became so popular all over the world that herring fishing developed into a huge industry in Britain. In parts of the country, as many as a quarter of the population were engaged in catching, curing and distribution. The railways even ran herring trains. Bloater, whole, ungutted smoked herring with a slightly gamey taste, became a great delicacy in the gentry's crustless tea-time sandwiches.

But it remained primarily the food of the poor. Before the Second World War, herring were still so plentiful they were sold from barrows in the street, six for a penny. So, in the age of post-war affluence, herring, in all their forms, went seriously out of fashion. The humble herring was a symbol of a past that people were trying to leave behind.

In Britain, the fishing industry last year had a bumper harvest for herring, and the amounts landed have been increasing year on year for years. Yet almost all the catch goes to industrial processing for fish and animal food. It is often entirely absent from supermarkets and frequently not even there on the slabs of our few fishmongers.

Indeed, search the internet and many of the references to the fish are overwhelmingly dismissive or jocular, as with the recent publicity for Dr Bob Batty, a scientist from Nottingham Trent University, who was awarded an Ig Nobel Prize (the satirical equivalent of the Nobel awards for science which makes people laugh) for research which suggested herring communicate with one another by farting.

But in the 19th and even into the early 20th century, herring fishing a`n curing providsed an a travelling industry for the fishermen and women of Scotland and northern England, catching, pickleing and packing th silver darlings in barrels for export.

But the reason the world's oldest woman may have had the longest laugh, of course, is that herring is very good for you. Lean fish such as sea bass, cod, haddock, hake, halibut and sole, have a fat content of less than 2.5 per cent, herring, mackerel, sardines, tuna and salmon, with a fat content of about 12 per cent, are high in omega-3 oils.

These polyunsaturated fatty acids benefit the cardiac muscles in the heart and reduce the chance of a heart attack. Indeed, one doctor's surgery in Orkney recently prescribed herring to a man with a dodgy ticker. Omega-3 oils also reduce the chance of a miscarriage in expectant mothers and may well have other beneficial effects. "This is an absolutely crazy situation, when good edible fish is being processed instead of being presented to the human food chain," says Mike Smylie, a maritime historian and author of Herring, A History of the Silver Darlings.

Some chefs are beginning to rerecognise this, too. "Look for plumpness, oiliness, a silvery golden colour and a good smokey smell in a kipper," says the blessed Delia. Rick Stein, the television chef, has come up with a trendy recipe for herring with a caper and tomato salsa which is good (and so is his version of the traditional Scottish dish of herring in oatmeal which he fries in bacon fat and garnishes with streaky bacon, cut into thin strips, less good for you, but delicious).

Mike Smylie himself, who was named as BBC Radio 4 Food & Farming Awards Food Campaigner 2005 for his pains, says fresh herring with black pepper and lime crust is delicious. He says: "The salmon might be the prince, and the cod the pretender, but as the saying goes, of all the fish in the sea, the herring is king'."

And that is not all. Professor Michael Crawford, the director of the Institute of Brain Chemistry and Human Nutrition at London Metropolitan University, has now discovered that one omega-3 acid, called docosahexaenoic acid, is so essential that without it, operation of the brain and the eyes begin to slow. These fatty acids also can help arrest the progress of other brain malfunctionings such as multiple sclerosis and Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease.

There is more. Mike Smylie, who has the online nickname Kipperman, says research by the US government's National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism suggested a relationship between fish-eating and aggression. Dr Joseph Hibbeln said that, with low levels of Omega-3 in the body, there is a corresponding low level of cortisone releasing factor (CRF) which tends to trigger of aggressive behaviour.

Fatty acids play a role in psychiatric disorders, impacting on symptoms of bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and levels of attempted suicide. People who eat more fish are less hostile and aggressive. And countries in which people eat more fish have lower levels of depression. It is only a matter of time before the government makes the herring compulsory. Do not say you have not been warned.