Middle Ages: Herring is the North Atlantic’s lucky fish

Middle Ages: Herring is the North Atlantic’s lucky fish

I’m not exactly superstitious, but I like to follow tradition, especially to find new traditions that have some kind of auspicious meaning. The New Year always sends me on the hunt for those kinds of traditions. Several years ago, I was looking for a special dinner for New Year’s Eve. While I love black-eyed peas, pork and collard greens, one of the more commonly known lucky meals to serve, I wanted some more fish. I was happy to find a variant of this dish that replaces pork with fish – specifically fish with skins.

The silvery scales of fish skin resemble slightly shiny coins and are believed to symbolize prosperity in the coming year. One of the most traditional fish to eat on New Year is herring. This comes from the Scandinavian culture, where herring was often eaten New Year in the hope that next year’s catch would be plentiful. It can be eaten fresh, but is more commonly pickled in a variety of sauces such as wine, mustard, cream sauce or dill or smoked. Kippers are another manufacture of herring that simply refers to them being cut using a butterfly method.

Atlantic herring (Clupea harengus) is one of the most common native fish off our coast. They are shiny, silvery, narrow-bodied fish that do not grow much longer than a foot. They swim in large shoals that can hold billions of fish. These schools typically migrate from coastal areas in the summer to areas further south and offshore, such as Georges Bank, in the winter. They are filter feeders and feed on plankton, making them an important part of the marine food chain. Herring has long been a valuable species in Maine. Historically, the large quantities of small herring, also known as sardines, have supplied the many canneries that existed along the coast. This was below the peak of fishing and was a time when people were heavy consumers of these oil-filled small fish. At their highest, Maine canneries employed thousands of people in over 50 canneries. Traditionally, herring were caught in dams where a vodka net was placed at the mouth of a cove to catch the shoal fish. In the 1960s, large foreign fishing boats came to the Atlantic coast and caught herring using modern electronic technology that helped them find and catch large herring shoals. This resulted in a population collapse in the 1970s. In time, the canneries along the Maine coast closed one by one. As a result, many New Englanders’ knowledge and taste for canned fish.

Now we are thinking primarily of herring as bait for the lobster fishery. Larger boats fish for herring using a net they pull through the water, known as an intermediate trawl or purse seine, which they use to surround a school of fish. Herring fishing is heavily regulated to protect the stock and has therefore been very limited in recent years. This has been a challenge for the lobster fishery. For example, landings in 2016 totaled over £ 78 million compared to landings in 2020 of just over £ 11 million. Nevertheless, they remain a very valuable species among Maine fisheries and are a sustainable choice for consumers due to the strict management of the fishery.

Herring is not only a sustainable choice, but is also a healthy one. They are a high source of vitamin B12, vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids. The benefits are even greater if you eat the skin, which is part of fish that is all too often ignored (and one that might bring you good luck in the new year). If you are trying to make a meal out of them, I highly recommend replacing smoked herring with pork, lentils with black-eyed peas and kale with collard greens.

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