Scottish Salt Herring

Ark of taste
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In the late 19th century, Scotland became the world’s largest producer of salt herring. About ninety per cent of the cured fish was exported – shipped in wooden barrels – mostly to Eastern Europe, Russia, Scandinavia and Germany where the Scottish cure was highly esteemed.

Though this export trade declined in the 20th century, the cure continued to be popular in the areas around the Scottish coast where herring continued to be salted in barrels for domestic use. It remained an important – and much relished – item of the people’s diet. The curing method handed down from one generation to the next was the most practical solution of preserving the highly perishable herring. Large quantities of herring were only caught at certain times of the year.
The pickling method, which the Scots curers perfected, was a major factor in the success of the cure. Originally, it was a rough-and-ready sprinkling of ungutted herrings with salt to preserve them for a few months to be used as winter food. But In the 19th century, Scots curers perfected their cure: gutting and washing the best quality herring before carefully packing, head to tail, in barrels with salt sprinkled between the layers giving them a long shelf life. Government regulations and inspections, plus branding, ensured a high quality cure.

There are fewer retail outlets today selling salt herring than there were twenty years ago so it is often hard to find. On the other hand there are still domestic curers, particularly in the crofting areas where the cure is highly esteemed and a ‘Tatties an Herrin’ dinner cause for special celebration. Always, of course, this depends on the availability of high quality herring.

It is in danger of possible extinction due to a decline the crofting tradition coupled with a decline in herring catches. Where this has happened there has been a decline in the amount of salt herring cured. An influential factor in the second half of the 20th century was the ban on fishing for herring. The fishing industry had developed such a successful method of catching whole shoals of herring that the herring was in danger of extinction. Conservation measures were necessary to protect stocks and herring was much less plentiful than in previous times. The technique dying out as they are scooping up herring in factory ships to make animal feed for mass production. The herring itself is not in danger at the moment and if and when it is it will be these ships scooping it for feed and not the fishermen’s share. The technique is definitely in danger as very few are salting it now.

The most popular dish in the Highlands and Islands is ‘Tatties an Herrin’. Its charm depends on the sharp contrast of tangy salt fish and bland ‘floury’ potatoes such as Golden Wonders. Tatties and herring, once drained, were traditionally dished¬-up into an 18-inch, shallow, square dish, used for the purpose, called a clar in Gaelic. The potatoes, when cool enough, were then picked up in one hand while the other hand took a pinch of piquant salt herring to eat with every mouthful of potato.

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Fish, sea food and fish products

Nominated by:Catherine Brown