An Old Tradition for Something Nieuwe

by Andrea Duty

In Amsterdam, a visitor quickly grows accustomed to the winding canals, the throngs of bikes, the inevitable coffee shops loaded with tourists…and lekker—a word so pervasive that it had been seared into my memory by the end of my first day in Holland. When I learned that lekker literally means “tasty” or “luscious,” I was a tad confused—the Netherlands, after all, aren’t exactly known for gastronomy. Be that as it may, the Dutch are proud of their cuisine—happily touting the superiority of their beer, poffertjes (mini pancake-like snacks topped with butter and powdered sugar) and stroopwafels (thin waffle cookies with a chewy caramel filling). But the food considered most lekker of all is Hollandse nieuwe, the season’s first herring.

For more than 600 years, herring has been a staple of the Dutch diet. The fish was, and is, plentiful and easy to catch, relatively inexpensive and loaded with fat and nutrients. Over the centuries, such practicality turned to preference, and locals now eagerly anticipate the official arrival of herring season each June, when the schools are at their best. Vlaagetjesdag, or Flag Day, is celebrated throughout the country, but the biggest festival has been held in a seaside village just outside of The Hague for more than 60 years. Here, townspeople and tourists gather in Dutch costume amid music, games and handicrafts in wait for the fleet returning with the first of the season’s silvery swimmers. 

Soon, everyone knows the quality of the entire haul: the weight, the size, the fat content and the sheer number of herring about to hit the market. Traditionally, the captain of the first ship to arrive in port had the honor of presenting a crate of herring to the queen. Today, the first barrel is auctioned off for charity. In 2012, a barrel of just 45 fish heralded the season by selling for a record €95,000 (approximately $130,000). 

Next, the catch is off to market, where it’s prepared in much the same way as in medieval ages. The head is removed and the body gutted, but the pancreas left intact (along with a long soak in a brine bath, the pancreas aids in preservation and helps develop the signature flavor of the flesh). The fillets are then left to mature in small, wooden barrels for several months. Finally, it’s time to eat. 

If you’re outside Amsterdam, the preferred technique involves plucking the fish by the tail, tilting your head back and lowering the body into your mouth. Inside Amsterdam, however, this maneuver is considered gauche at best. Here, you’ll find canal-side stands selling dainty paper plates of herring cut into bite-sized pieces. Locals seem unanimous in their adoration of the accompanying pickles and chopped onions, while the uninitiated sometimes edge in with a more tame herring broodje, or sandwich. Either way, the snack comes with a toothpick topped with a Dutch flag, tiny and proud.

I sampled my first Hollandse nieuwe at Stubbe’s—widely regarded as the best herring stand in Amsterdam. I skirted a few bikes and elbowed my way to a spot at a standing table. The man behind the counter pointed to a bread roll and nodded, but I shook my head in the direction of my neighbors, who had the real deal. I wanted to taste the full flavor of the herring. The vendor smiled in approval and placed the shimmering fish before me. I speared a slice, tossed it back and chewed. The flesh was slightly firm, buttery and faintly sweet—in a word, lekker.