Marinated or fried, humble herrings are the height of piscatorial good taste, says Simon Hopkinson
Buying something very cheap that is also very, very good never fails to thrill me. The idea makes me feel so privileged, knowing that while others are paying a fortune for something (maybe equally enjoyable) I, on the other hand, have found the goose that lays the golden egg. In fact, I suppose one's morning egg, bought the day before from a warm clutch from a country farm (more and more difficult to find these days, I know) slips very neatly into this category. For not much more than a quid, a dozen eggs laid by happy chickens - as far as a chicken can be seen as exactly "happy" - is as golden as hen eggs can get.

So, while thinking in this deliciously frugal vein, the fresh herring, for me, is every bit as delicious as the pearly white halibut steak; each possesses its own charm, flavour and texture, but one is really no better than the other. A new kind of snobbery among some British diners means fish such as halibut, turbot, sea bass and Dover sole seem to now be rated "better" than lowlier fry, such as herring, mackerel, whiting and gurnard. Of course, it is all to do with the cost involved, and also that terrible thing called fashion.

I mean, look at the monkfish story. Here is a fish such that if I were never to eat it again, it would bother me not one jot. There is nothing wrong with the monkfish - apart from it being, perhaps, one of the ugliest critters ever created - but until about 10 years ago, hardly anyone on these shores had ever heard of it. Legend has it, though, that morsels of monkfish masquerading as scampi (once sealed in by an armour of orange breadcrumbs) were sold by some of the more unscrupulous frozen-food merchants of the Sixties and Seventies. Of course, the French, Italians and Spanish have been eating monkfish for centuries - perhaps far longer, when one considers its primeval mug. But the moment it was "discovered" by interested chefs, it was suddenly embraced with open oven gloves. And just look at the price now! Clever little monkfish. Boring, tasteless, woolly and - once both fillets have been removed from one central cartilage - boneless little monkfish. For me, a couple of tiny tails deep fried on the bone is as good as it gets.

In sharp contrast, we have the hake - easily the most common of fish on Mr Taylor's market fish stall in Bury, Lancashire when I were a lad - there were piles and piles of them. (My Dad was often moved to quote his father when we had hake for tea: "I would like hake, steak and cake for my dinner please." He liked this little joke a lot, did Dad.) You can still find hake at Bury market and possibly in other parts of the north of England, but you never see it much anywhere else. I suspect that most of the hake caught off these shores goes straight off to Spain, where it is the national fish, merluza. Possibly one of the main reasons nobody buys it very much is because it is rarely as fresh as it could be. Yet I doubt this, when one considers quite how much stale fish is bought, cooked and eaten every day, from most British supermarket counters - which, as I have said over and over again, are generally a disgrace.

But to return to the herring. From spring to late summer is the time to eat it. We used to have herrings once a week for tea during this season, simply baked in the oven and eaten with brown bread and butter. I used to squirt a little Sarson's on mine, but then I liked vinegar so much as a child I would drink it neat from the bottle when no one was looking. But a squeeze of lemon was usually the thing to do. Yes, of course the bones used to worry me a little, but then all children are anxious over any sort of fish bone. Once I was guided by my learned parents as to how to rid the flesh of most of the whiskery bones (all parents knew how to fillet a whole fish at table then, I wonder how many do now?), the herring became my friend, and I looked forward to that weekly treat with relish.

The most exciting thing of all, however, was when each of my two herrings had a creamy, soft roe hidden in its tummy. This was an extra bonus to be sure. It was a nice touch of Mr Taylor's to slip these soft roes back into the herring's cavity, having gutted and cleaned them, but I suspect they were always done especially for Mum. Mr Taylor was mildly besotted with Mum, you see, and what better way to show his affection than with bonus herring roes.

Simple fried herrings in brown butter with vinegar

serves 2

4 herrings, gutted

salt and pepper

flour

50g butter

2-3tbsp good red or white wine vinegar

Salt and pepper the herrings both inside and out, and dredge well through some flour until thoroughly coated. Take a frying pan that will comfortably accommodate the herrings and heat the butter until it starts to froth. Carefully lay in the fishes and turn the heat down to moderate. Allow to sizzle for about 3 or 4 minutes, then turn over and do the other sides. Each surface should emerge golden and slightly crusted. Baste with the butter occasionally. Turn the heat up slightly now and spoon over the vinegar, which will froth up. Once the commotion has died down, spoon the resultant emulsion over the fish and transfer everything to a heated, oval platter. Eat with brown bread and butter, or parsleyed boiled potatoes.

Fillets d'harengs, pommes a l'huile

serves 4-6

This dish is a staple of the Parisian bistro and brasserie, but can also be found on the menu of any self-respecting northern-French-coast fish restaurant. It is a great favourite of mine and I never seem to tire of eating it. I may well have given you a recipe for it before, but without an important additional variation. As the herring fillets which are used to make this dish are not readily available in the UK (although you can order them - as well as all manner of other fine wet fish and shellfish - from Simon Thomas at the Bibendum Crustacea Van, London SW3, 0171-589 0864), I have recently made it most successfully using filleted kippers or, indeed, kipper fillets, though the quality of their cure can sometimes disappoint. Once either choice is submerged in oil, they will keep in the fridge for a few weeks, improving and softening as they mature.

2 x 200g packets French smoked herring fillets ("saur" is the word to look for on the packet)

150ml sunflower oil

150ml light olive oil

2 medium carrots, peeled and very thinly sliced

2 small onions, peeled and very thinly sliced

4-5 sprigs fresh thyme

4 bay leaves

1tsp peppercorns

1/2tsp dried chilli flakes (optional)

Cut the herring fillets into 2in pieces and put onto a plate. Mix together the two oils in a measuring jug. Take a roomy preserving jar or lidded plastic box and pour in a layer of oil. Scatter in some of the vegetables, herbs and spices, and add a layer of herring. Keep doing this until all the ingredients are exhausted. However, do make sure that the herrings are covered in oil. Seal the container and allow to macerate for at least one week in the fridge before using.

To serve, boil or steam 5-6 medium-sized, waxy fleshed potatoes in their skins. Once cool enough to handle, but still fairly hot, peel and thickly slice onto warm plates, lay over several pieces of herring and the vegetables, and then spoon over some of the oil so that it soaks into the potatoes. Sprinkle with a little chopped parsley. I like to add a few drops of red wine vinegar to each serving, for a touch of acidity, but this is not traditional.

Soft roes on toast

serves 2

The greatest late-night snack - at least, for those who breathe lightly in bed.

4 herring roes, fresh, if at all possible

salt and cayenne pepper butter

2 thick pieces of freshly buttered toast

squeeze of lemon juice

Put the roes into a bowl and pour boiling water over them from the kettle. Drain immediately and season with salt. Roll in flour and dust with cayenne pepper. Cook them carefully and briefly, in plenty of hot and frothy butter, for a couple of minutes until lightly crusted all over. Transfer on to the toast, adding some of the butter from the pan, too, if you like (I do!) and finish with a squeeze of lemon juice.

Sweet and sour rollmops

serves 4

A jar of rollmops from a reputable maker is, for me, one of the finest instant snacks or first courses there is. Although many brands can be unacceptably sharp (made so by the use of a harsh spirit vinegar), many of the ones you can buy today have a good pedigree, particularly those from Scandinavian countries. But to pickle your own is surely one of the simplest things it is possible to make in the domestic kitchen. Once in their marinade, allow a few days before you decide to eat them.

40g Maldon sea salt

400ml cold water

4 large herrings, beheaded and filleted by the fishmonger

For the marinade

200ml sweet white wine

200ml white wine or tarragon vinegar

a few white and black peppercorns

several crushed juniper berries

2-3 bay leaves

5-6 tiny dried chillies (hot ones)

1/2tsp coriander seeds

1/2tsp fennel seeds

1 small onion, peeled, cut in half and thickly sliced

2 large dill pickles, cut in half lengthways, then into thick slivers

Whisk together the salt and cold water in a bowl. Immerse the herring fillets in this brine, cover and leave there for 2 hours in a cool place. Put all the ingredients for the marinade into a stainless-steel or other non-reactive pan and bring to the boil. Switch off the heat and leave until cold.

Once the herrings have done their time in brine, lift out the fillets and discard the brine. Lay them skin-side down on a chopping board, place two pieces of dill pickle and a few slices of onion at one end, and roll them up carefully, finally securing the parcel with a cocktail stick. Arrange each rollmop in a deep-sided porcelain dish and pour over the cold marinade, bits and all. Cover with clingfilm or foil and put into the fridge. Leave there for 4-5 days, turning them once a day, so that each piece is fully soaked with juice. If you like, serve these with soured cream and slices of pumpernickel.

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