Herring has been known as a staple food since 3,000 BCE and was known as ‘poor man’s food’ years ago. It is an important nutritional source containing Omega 3 fatty acids and Vitamin D, amongst others. The dish was originally made by Ashkenazi Jews but is now eaten all over the world by all faiths, cultures and anyone with a taste for the herring.
The Ashkenazi Jewish merchants “ruled” the herring trade and imported fish from the Scandinavian countries and Holland by bringing it in by rail to Germany, Poland and Russia.
This ‘poor man’s food’ became a delicacy to the rich when Edouard de Pomiane (French/polish gastronome in 1920) started writing about it and to this day it is a favourite amongst the Jewish people. Nowadays it is a firm favourite all over the world. The maagdenharing or maagdjesharing is known as the matjes herring in Germany. In Dutch it is called the “Hollandse Nieuwe” or the “maatjesharing”. The English refer to is as soused or mattie herrings and in Shetlandic it becomes matchie herrings! And the meaning of this name? It means maiden, because the female fish have not yet spawned!
It is habitually salted by the Dutch or the Germans – and not pickled immediately. This removes the water and preserves the fat fish to perfection – easy for storage and transport.
The fishing season starts with herring catch – when the female herrings are still immature and have not yet spawned, they are fat and plump. It is precisely this ‘green’ herring that the Ashkenazi Jews use to make the classic dish being discussed here. There is much debate about whether this is Russian or German in origin but the odds are stacked heavily in favour of the Russians.
Think about it, it must be made from salted matjes herrings and this is the fish that would have travelled most easily by rail to Russia. It lasts longer whilst preserving flavour too.
Dag Maluah is never made with rollmops. Never never with the Bismarck herring. It is a celebration of the noble herring, the best of the first herring catch!!! The best of the best.
To do all of this, one requires salt – at the time available in most of the coastal areas of Germany. What was needed for this simple harvest was the sea, water and sunshine. It is said that the Ashkenazi’s preferred the ‘bottom’ salt, not the top pure white salt, so it would have been the greyer salt at the bottom (which was rich in minerals and thus healthier) which was sent to Germany and the purer white everywhere else. But this is pure speculation and I have no proof of this. Sunshine may have been a bit difficult to find since the German coastline was not and is not known for its sunshine. lt was mined in the Middle Ages in Germany – this had to be a cumbersome process due to the transportation difficulties they must have encountered. It became an extremely precious commodity, as it still is today. In Northern Germany really good salt was mined in Lünebur, Lower Saxony, the Baltic Sea areas, Lübeck and so on. Nowadays it is imported from elsewhere.
Gabi Solomon is the one person I know that has mastered this dish and I have not found too many in my lifetime either. Not in South Africa, Germany or in Poland and since I have spent only a few days in Russia for work, I cannot give fair comment there. Why does nobody get it? When one tries to make this dish with any type of pickled herring it fails and it has to fail. It cannot be made with rollmops – it would do injury to both the rollmops and the matjes. Salted herrings that are relatively fresh are the best for this as they need not be soaked for too long. (The longer they have been salted, the longer they need to be soaked). Simple deduction.
Sunday, past was Robin’s birthday and she made this for us. I was in heaven and had to control myself (I tend to get overexcited about food) but luckily she did delicious things with other fish too and my mind was taken off them temporarily. Matthew Goldman, a famous writer and food expert, wrote a book called Jewish Food – a gem for any collection, where he refers to it as a Russian dish and tells how it is often served, layered for Shabbat meals in Russia – made then with onions, potatoes, eggs, beetroot and even mayonnaise.
SELEDKA POD SHUBOI – KATARINA
Often the pre-soaked matjes are layered and covered with onions, scallions, beets, potatoes and eggs and covered in mayonnaise topped with herbs. I don’t recommend it. There are many different versions – even in Russia!
Only Gabi’s version suits my palette and does justice to so supreme a product.
MATJES IN SAUERER SAHNE – GABI
The fat pre-soaked matjes are soaked, dried and sliced into neat edible sections. They are peppered lightly with finely chopped white onions, crisp peeled green “Granny Smith” apples and lathered in naturally soured cream overnight. Obviously in a refrigerator. This is the best matjes in fur coats recipe I have ever tasted as the simple ingredients serve so celebrate and not to dominate.
A recipe should serve only to enhance the principle ingredients.