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Is there anything more Dutch than herring? This favorite fish is a staple of the Dutch diet, yet many foreigners know little about it. Ever since moving to the Hague, I was lucky enough to experience Vlaggetjesdag, an amazing yearly celebration of herring season in the Netherlands. I’ll be discussing Vlaggetjesdag, Dutch herring, and the amazing cultural legacy of Hollandse Nieuwe Haring.
Herring in the Netherlands 101
Herring is a small fish that is found in the North Sea. It’s been consumed for thousands of years in the Netherlands. They’re high in fat as well as omega-3 fatty acids. Herring is a popular Dutch snack that is consumed raw (that is not a typo).
Nowadays, the herring is mostly caught closer to Denmark and they’re a favorite of fishermen as their schools are numerous; making them easy to fish. That said, overfishing has been an issue, however quotas have been implemented to ensure these delicious fish are here for years to come.
In practically every single Dutch town or city, you’ll find a fish stand that sells herring. Its said that herring’s popularity is a result of Zeeuwse fisherman William Beukelzoon who is said to have invented the method of removing the gills and guts to ensure that the herring tastes better and keeps longer.
During the same period, the Dutch started smoking and salting the fish, which allowed the fish to keep through winter. Luckily, the process was improved at some point and the brine recipe used for herring in modern times was invented in this period.
How to eat a herring: the Dutch way
There’s a couple of ways, however the most “Dutch” way is raw and whole. People often add raw onions and gherkins to it! The stand owner will clean the fish for you. Then, you’ll hold the tail in your mouth, tilt your head back, and lower it into your mouth. The texture can put some people off, however most are surprised by how delicious it is.
You can also get it just cut and cleaned while raw. This is my preferred way of eating herring as it’s less fishy and the raw onions certainly help. (Hint: you can use the Dutch flag to shovel onions onto your fish!) Herring isn’t very fishy, so even non-fish lovers (like myself) might love it.
Where to learn about herring fishing
As a self-professed history geek, I actually loved the Muzee Scheveningen. This small museum housed in a former school close to Scheveningen village discusses early life in Scheveningen, Scheveningen traditions, and shows the process of catching herring throughout history. The best part is that former fishermen volunteer with the museum who are happy to discuss their previous careers.
Hollandse Nieuwe Haring
The best time to eat herring is during herring season. Herring season typically starts in May and usually lasts the summer (August). Look for signs promoting Hollandse Nieuwe Haring at the local fish stand and you’re likely to be in luck. If you’re wondering why people are so excited about Hollandse Nieuwe Haring, it’s because these is herring at its best.
Not all herring is Hollandse Nieuwe. In order to be labeled as such, it must be at least three years old with a certain range of fat (typically 15-20%) and caught in the right period. The fishing markets determine when the season will start based on the availability of the right kind of herring. After this, the fish is frozen (as required by law), salted, and brined. Then, it’s ready to be eaten.
Vlaggetjesdag in Scheveningen
History of Vlaggetjesdag
Historically, Vlaggetjesdag took place close to the Pentecost as it was the day when the fishing ships would go out to catch herring. The harbor would be decorated with flags and the fish would depart. In the 20th century, herring fishing changed dramatically with the advent of modern fishing techniques. (Historically, nets and mittens would be used.)
As a result, Vlaggetjesdag changed dramatically. In 1947, Vlaggetjesdag as we know it today was created in Scheveningen with the hope of selling more herring. To attract attention, one of the fishermen decided to decorate his ship in Dutch flags–and many others were inspired by this patriotic act.
Traditions of Vlaggetjesdag
For those not aware of this, Scheveningen has been long linked to the sea. This fishing village turned beach resort still has a charming town where you can get a glimpse into life just a hundred years ago. Today, Scheveningen celebrates the beginning of fishing season with decorating the entire village with flags. The best day to experience this atmosphere is on Vlaggetjesdag.
Notably so, the first barrel of herring must be auctioned. This is typically done in Scheveningen. I missed the auction this year, however the proceeds of this barrel containing just 45 herrings go to charity. This auction marks the beginning of Hollandse Nieuwe season–and you should expect lines around the country.
On Vlaggetjesdag, it’s typical for there to be different competitions and craft booths showing off old traditions, such as net mending. On the night before, they often have a herring party where visitors can get a free herring!
Clothing of Scheveningen
It used to be quite typical for people from all around the Netherlands to dress in traditional clothes from their region. Unfortunately, these regional traditions are fading away as modern fashion grows in popularity.
Many attribute this decline to the evacuation of Scheveningen during World War II due to the Nazi invasion. In the post war period, more women become less bonded to their Scheveningen identity and today, there’s a dwindling number of women who keep this tradition alive.
One unique feature of the Scheveningense klederdracht for women is the “main iron” or head iron (Oorijzer). This metal headband, often made of metal or gold, is helped to keep the hats in place. There are variations by region of the Netherlands, however you can tell by the shape of the pins. (Scheveningen has a shape resembling a shell.)
As with other parts of the Netherlands, many stories of a woman’s life can be told by her clothing. For instance, women will change out the colors of specific items as well as adopt a hat with thicker materials if she’s in mourning. Vlaggetjesdag is a great day to see the traditional clothing of Scheveningen worn by locals in public. (Ask before you take photos!)
Tips for attending Vlaggetjesdag in Scheveningen
Be sure to take out some cash. Vlaggetjesdag is free to attend, but the fish is generally not free. Most of the stands around Scheveningen village and the harbor were cash only. There’s an ATM near the Albert Heijn in the village, so be sure to take out cash before you go.
If you’re interested in practicing your Dutch, I’d say that Vlaggetjesdag is a great time to do so. To be fair, I didn’t hear any other languages besides Dutch at this event, so although Dutch people certainly speak English well, this event tends to be more Dutch-oriented.
One of the delicacies that you can find that is slightly harder to find is smoked eel! Eel has a complex and delicate flavor, so be sure to try it if you see a stand (as we did). I’d recommend bringing extra (at least 10-20 euros) extra to buy fresh fish from the fishermen as well as bags….
If you’re in the mood for a beer, look out for the booth from Scheveningen brewery, the local craft beer. I’m a huge fan of their beers!
Finding bike parking will be tricky although we found some bike parking along Keizerstraat. It’s possible to take the tram although expect significant crowds.
It is impossible to walk through Vlaggetjesdag without finding a herring stand. Most of the stands were dotting the Scheveningen harbor as well as Keizerstraat, the main street of Scheveningen village. Do not eat before you come!
A couple of hours should be enough to experience Vlaggetjesdag at its best and I hope that you have the opportunity to experience this unique Dutch tradition.