If you would have told me a month ago that I would try pickled herring, I would have laughed in your face. I would have told you that, no, I’m not a crazy person who likes to subject herself to the torture of eating such a disgusting, revolting food and that I’d rather spend my time eating pastries (see my post on pastries for context). The only type of pickled food I would choose to eat would be actual pickles and only if they’re dill. However, I tried pickled herring and … and I didn’t hate it.
Apparently over a thousand years ago, Vikings would preserve the herring they’d find in abundance in the fjords in salt and vinegar. This was pre-refrigeration so, even though I hate vinegar with a PASSION, I’m going to cut them some slack. Herring was a huge part of their diet back in the Viking Age, through the medieval period and beyond. We know because there are plenty of pictures (one featured here) of fisherman scooping herring out of the water in heaps. And today, Danes keep herring in their diet, serving it out of tradition and, for some, taste.
I tried pickled herring first at my visiting host family’s house. It was my first time meeting them so I didn’t want to turn it down when they offered it to me. Plus, I was truly curious about the taste. My Dad, a huge advocate for pickled herring (and olives and sardines and many other “gross” foods), has been slurping pickled herring from the jar my entire life. It hasn’t EVER appeared appetizing. I’d look at those poor, silvery dead fish floating in that mysterious liquid and think, nope, never trying that …
and then I try it with my Danish family (sorry, Dad) …
Kirsten and Jens, my visiting host family, served it on rye bread — brown and dry but a complement to the meaty fish — with a layer of a white cream (perhaps mayonnaise?). I took a bite fully expecting to spit it out and then I kept chewing … and then I finished my piece … and then I go in for seconds … who is this crazy person and what have you done with the vinegar-hating person who usually inhabits my body and controls my tastebuds?!
The pickled herring was sweeter than I expected and the vinegar was not present. It was a bit sour in flavor and meaty in texture. The fish were small and grey and part of me felt guilty for consuming an entire life form in a single bite.
Tip: Eat this fish with BEER. Please, I’m begging you. It’s apparently the best way to consume herring as the hoppy, liquid gold balances out the sourness of the fish.
My second herring experience was, fitting, with my dad. I was lucky enough to have my family in Copenhagen during the second travel week. I was even luckier to have my Dad, who was traveling to Scotland for work, have his layover in Copenhagen. This meant that I got a morning with my Dad all to myself. So, naturally, I took him to eat some herring.
We walked along the Nyhavn canal, asking every shop that was open to serve us herring. “Herring?” they responded. “That’s a lunch dish! It’s still morning!” as people sat along the canal drinking pints of beer … but eventually, we got our herring. I told my Dad that I would sit out on this herring eating experience, and I would let him enjoy the dish all by himself.
My Dad told me that this was the best herring he had ever had. His face just lit up eating herring — a food that his dad loved before him. Seeing him happy as he ate it made me love the food (even if I wasn’t the biggest fan of the taste). He said that eating herring with me, sitting on an outdoor patio chair along the colorful Nyhavn buildings, made his trip. And honestly, mine too …
Denmark Must-Do? If you like fish, I say yes, why not try pickled herring. If you don’t like fish, know that it will be a bit fishy, slimy and likely very cold. Not enough beer could wash down that flavor … BUT if you often enjoy fishing pickled herring from glass jars filled with liquid (as my Dad does), then trying this food in Denmark is most definitely a must do.