Pickled herring

Every Friday, when I was a child, just before lunch, a small, blue Bedford van would pull up in our neighbourhood and the man who drove it, would open the two back doors and then shout, ‘Fresh herring, fresh herring.’

It was as sure as clockwork and people did set their watch by him, because when he hit the neighbourhood it was an hour from lunchtime and herring was on the menu. Strangely, herring disappeared from my diet since I moved from that town in Donegal in the north west of Ireland.

Of course, back then, in the 1960s, most Irish families ate fish on a Friday, particularly since it was a requirement of your pastoral duty as a Roman Catholic, to abstain from eating red meat. Herring was a good choice because it was cheap, readily available, nutritious and tasty.

It was about that time, too, that tastes were changing, particularly those of younger generations now exposed and completely susceptible to slick marketing and tv commercials. It wasn’t long before we all wanted to eat hamburgers, like they have in the movies or curries, particularly the kind that came in a packet and all you did was add the boiling water. But most of all, come Friday fish day, we demanded fish fingers, outraged and indignant that no-one had ever told us about these anatomical aberrations that were, clearly, tastier than a sea fresh herring, hopping on the griddle.herring1

Strangely, although I went through my own phase of digital piscine rebellion, I never lost my yearning for fresh fish, in whatever shape or size. Now, I live on an island and you might think, for that reason, there’s plenty of fish available and eaten. Sadly, not enough of either, since the bulk of the fish caught in Ireland gets exported and much of the rest gets served for high dining in fancy restaurants or deep fried in batter by fish and chip shops.

The herring, unfortunately, lost favour with the Irish diner, largely because they almost disappeared from local fishmongers and that, in turn, because of EU quotas and over-fishing.

Of course, I’ve eaten plenty of herring since but usually of the ‘Bismarck’ variety, i.e. pickled and wrapped around a pickled gherkin or Scandinavian style in a dill and mustard marinade.

So whenever my local fishmonger has fresh herring in stock, I’m first in line and at 3 for a €1, well, I bought six and decided to pickle them. And while I was there, I grabbed a couple of mackerel fillets.



  • six herring, gutted and filleted
  • 1 cup of rice vinegar
  • 1 tblsp sugar (or, as I use, a half tblsp of light, agave nectar)
  • 2 cloves
  • 1, finely chopped, onion
  • 1 tspn ground white pepper, or half a spoon of white pepper corns
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 tspn of allspice, whole  IMG_3936

First, you have to fillet the herring. Cut off the head and tail then slit the fish open, along the belly from neck to tail. Clean out the guts, then flatten the herring out, flesh down and rub the handle of your knife along the spine. Turn it ove, again, skin side down and the backbone should detach, easily.

Rub the fillets with sea salt and soak, preferably overnight, in cold water. Take the soaked fish fillets and wash off the salt. Mix the vinegar, onion and spices in a bowl. Cut the herring into bite size pieces and place in the mixture. I like to eat them on a bed of lettuce with some fresh cucumber and olives and a glass of crisp, dry, white wine.


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