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Matjes or à la matjes?

The Christmas Eve is just around the corner, so let's start with the herring, a young, virgin one - matjes...Except that in Poland we rather eat fakes, meaning old herrings "à la matjes".


The Christmas Eve is just around the corner, so let's start with the herring, a young, virgin one - matjes...Except that in Poland we rather eat fakes, meaning old herrings "à la matjes".

For many years "Cuisines of the World" have been providing Polish restaurants with the genuine Dutch matjes in several flavours: natural (brine, oil), Nordic (with spices) and marinated in Sherry wine. It is also offered in our delis. Unfortunately, we rarely meet clients who understand how unique product is the matjes.

Atlantic herring (Clupea harengus) is an exceptionally clean and healthy fish living in shoals in the depths of cold water to a depth of even 250m and eating plankton, mostly small crustaceans and fish larvae. During the day it comes down to the seabed, at the night it comes closer to the surface and mostly then it falls in the fishing net. It usually reaches 30 cm in length, lives even 20-25 years and matures sexually at the age of 2-6 years and then reproduces, also in the depths, but rather over the shallows. Why? Because its roe, especially veneered with male milt, becomes heavy and sticky, sinks to the seabed and adheres to it. The eggs are tiny, porridge-like (the female lays from 10-100 thousand eggs, depending on her age and condition) and if it fell too deep, the same pressure of the water column would have to crush it. After hatching and transforming of larvae (3-6 mm), tiny herrings accumulate and stay in the shallows to 6 months, then flee to deeper waters, where they mature. In winter herrings are lean, but with spring, especially when it is sunny, there is a lot of plankton and the fish quickly fatten up in preparation for spawning.

Matjes is not a separate species of herring, only its juvenile form, less than one year old, caught before the first spawning, and so at a virginal state. The word comes from the Dutch 'maagden haring', which means 'herring pristine, virgin'. Only about 3% of the total caught herrings are matjes meeting this condition.

The matjes season is short, it lasts only a month (from late May to early July), because the fish has already accumulated enough fat (minimum 16% of its weight), but cannot yet produce roe or dandelion to spawn. The date of commencement of the fishing season for matjes is traditionally determined usually as the Saturday before Pentecost. In July matjes ends, as there is already in too many roe and milt in the fish and their meat changes its taste. They are still being fished but not for matjes, only for standard salted herring (with dry salt), for rollmops, for pickling, smoking, etc.

The secret of the true matjes is not only fishing time and maturity, but even more the way of treatment, which has been developed for centuries and rests a mystery. It starts with gutting, leaving pancreas inside the carcass, where it rapidly autolyses, so that the enzymes penetrate and saturate the meat of herring giving it a mellow and slightly spicy taste. That autolysation of pancreas gave it its name, as 'pancreas' in Greek means 'the same meat'.

Then the herring is frozen for 24 hours at -20 degrees C to kill any parasites, in particular nematodes of the genus Anisakis (EU requirement), then it is macerated in liquid 9% saline for about 5 days, usually in oak barrels. Thanks to the use of saline instead of dry salt, matjes do not need to be soaked afterwards, since it is much less salty than older herrings treated with dry salt, which percentage at the tissue reaches 20%. But this means that matjes is perishable and can be eaten fresh only in the fishing season. In Poland we do not catch matjes and it is not available on the market.

The final stage of matjes treatment is filleting. Head, skin and spine are removed form the severed fish but both fillets are still joined at the end by the tail. Matjes has pink meat inside and silvery skin outside. It can be eaten directly like that, preferably dipped with chopped onion. The Dutch prefer to hold it by the tail and bite off one piece after another, eating matjes in such a way is a centuries-old tradition. Matjes has delicate meat, with unrivalled, pain and fresh taste with no vinegar, oil, preservatives, it is rich in potassium, vitamins A, D, E and easily digestible protein, as well as unsaturated omega-3 fatty acids. The Dutch say matjes is the best way to get sober and the best cure for hangover.

The pioneering method of salting herring in oak barrels on ships is traditionally attributed to the fisherman of Biervliet named Willem Beukels, who lived in the fourteenth century. Thanks to the massive salting of herrings, the Netherlands became the first 'herring superpower' in Europe, and then Dutch crews with such provisions headed to the colonial conquest of other continents. It is also since then that the tradition of eating matjes goes back. Their fishing and method of production remain the specialty of Dutch. As of 2015, maatjasharing is also registered in the European Union within the TSG certification. Already because of that we are mostly stuck with counterfeit while the genuine matjes remains a rare, local, seasonal, and therefore accordingly expensive delicacy (in the Netherlands it costs 2-3 euros a piece) with reserved and not really fully recognized recipe.