Scheveningen — The Dutch consume tens of millions of the raw, salty delicacy each year: the "maatjes" herring whose seasonal arrival kicked off Tuesday as pundits promised an exceptionally tasty batch.
"The quality of the maatje is excellent this year," fish expert Peter Koelewijn told AFP while sampling the new arrivals at a symbolic auction in the seaside suburb of Scheveningen.
"Its fat content is particularly high: 26.3 percent compared to the usual 16 percent," he smacked.
Thousands of Dutch are expected to descend on Scheveningen beach on Saturday to celebrate the 2009 maatje season.
A five kilogram (11 pounds) barrel containing 45 herrings was sold for 66,000 euros at an annual charity auction for the benefit of destitute children. Last year, it fetched 55,000 euros (92,000 dollars).
"The herrings could grow well because the sea is rich in plankton thanks to the good weather we’ve enjoyed in recent weeks," added Koelewijn.
The "maatje", derived from the Dutch word for virginal but also known as the Hollandse Nieuwe, is fished in the North Sea for just over a month every year from the end of May to the beginning of July.
The fish only qualify for the maatje tag in the short period that "they’ve become fat and tender enough but before they start reproducing" and developing roe, said Nico de Jong, director of the Dutch Herring Wholesale Association.
A maatje must contain at least 16 percent fat.
Leaner herrings caught during the rest of the year are smoked, made into rollmops or frozen, mainly for exports — notably to Africa.
The hand-sized maatje is prepared to a unique Dutch recipe: gutted and cleaned straight from the net with only the pancreas left intact to provide the enzymes needed for curing.
They are salted in a barrel for one to four days, depending on their size, and are then frozen to stop further maturation.
"A good herring has a salt content of about two percent," said de Jong.
The fish are traditionally eaten held by the tail with the consumer tilting his head back and chomping away. Some put the fish on a bread roll with finely diced onion, though this practice is frowned upon by connoisseurs.
"In the past, the herrings were salted for conservation and onions were added to make them more digestible," said Koelewijn. But despite the advent of the freezer, the recipe has changed little through to today.
In 2009, the EU-imposed herring fishing quota dropped 15 percent from last year to 171,000 tons, of which 45,000 tons for the Netherlands.
This was due to a decline in the young herring population, "but won’t have an impact on the number of Hollandse Nieuwe," said de Jong.
Like every other year, some 30,000 tons of herring, about 200 million fish, are made into maatjes of which 16 million Dutch consume some 12,000 tons.
About 15,000 tons are exported to Germany and 3,000 to Belgium.
Ironically, less than five percent of maatjes consumed in the Netherlands are caught by Dutch fishermen, the rest come from Norwegian, Swedish, Scottish and Danish boats.
A large portion of herring are made into maatjes in Scandinavia, "but always in the Dutch method under Dutch supervision", said Koelewijn.