Author Jordan Heller Illustration Graham Roumieu
It’s an early June afternoon in Scheveningen, the seaside fishing district of the Hague, and the promenade along the harbor is teeming with a colorful mix of shanty choirs singing ancient songs of the sea, local families, gaggles of tourists strolling the docks with cameras at the ready and flocks of herring connoisseurs awaiting the arrival of the first fillets of summer—what has come to be affectionately called “Dutch sushi.”
Hollandse Nieuwe, or new herring, is a Dutch delicacy fished out of the North Sea in and around the month of June—the first time every year that schools of these oily, silver swimmers are fat enough to eat. The townsfolk have made a custom of the fish’s harvest and consumption, with the official start of herring season marked by a public auction of the first barrel.
This year’s first keg, which contained just 45 herring, sold for 58,000 euros (nearly $70,000, which works out to roughly $1,500 for each fish).
“The first auction is very symbolic,” says Dutch Fish Marketing Board spokeswoman Lisette Wassenaar, adding that this year’s herring has been tasted by culinary experts and a chef and been given a qualified approval.
“It is very good but a little less fatty than last year,” Wassenaar adds, which perhaps accounts for why 2009’s first keg fetched a higher price at 66,000 euros. (The record, set in 2006, is a whopping 75,000 euros.) That may seem extravagant, but proceeds from the first barrel go to charity, and subsequent barrels fetch much less. More modest herring lovers can enjoy a single fillet of the raw fish, lightly salted and dipped in chopped onions, and wash it down with an ice-cold shot of korenwijn, a traditional Dutch malt wine. Total cost? Ten dollars.