Rigby’s Encyclopaedia of the Herring

A work in progress with no end in sight

OATMEAL

The classic way with fried herring, together with recipe variations and some thoughts on just why oatmeal provides the perfect coating

OATMEAL

Herrings fried in oatmeal – a marriage made in Heaven and/or Scotland.

Batter would be a stand-off between competing oils. Breadcrumbs are inoffensive, but bring little more than texture. Oatmeal is definite.

It has the character to match a fresh herring without in any way diminishing or distracting from theflavour. It soaks up the oils of the fish and the fat of the pan and gives you a texture that plays off the sweet softness of the flesh.

In The Scots Kitchen (1929) F Marian McNeill simply lists fresh herring, oatmeal, pepper, salt and dripping, specifying an ounce each of oatmeal and dripping for every two fish.

Two or three slashes either side of a seasoned, gutted and trimmed whole herring, tossed in the oatmeal, placed in the frying pan when the dripping is smoking hot and fried for between 5 and 7 minutes either side. She serves it garnished with lemon but notes that, In Buchan, vinegar and oatcakes are considered the perfect accompaniment to this dish.

Theodora Fitzgibbon in Traditional Scottish Cookery (1980) specifies a coarse oatmeal and keeps everything else the same, apart from suggesting the use of a plastic bag for oatmeal tossing and dispensing with the slashed sides.

She sticks with the lemon wedges and adds parsley to the garnish, but makes the case for a fine grade pinhead oatmeal, which imparts a particularly nutty and delicious character.

As an alternative, Fitzgibbon suggests painting the sides of the herring with English mustard before coating it with oatmeal. It was 1980 and she also allows the possibility of cooking oil.

I’d stick with dripping and, personally, I like what rolled oats bring to the table, but if you can find fresh herring at your fishmonger these days, there’s joy in trying out all the possibilities.

Herring fried in oatmeal has a long history throughout Britain and Ireland, but the recipe is almost certainly Scottish in origin. I am drawn, however, to the recipe in Rick Stein’s English Seafood Cookery (1988) – in particular to the addition of bacon.

He bones the fish; I quite like as it comes; in later versions he cuts the bacon into lardons and shifts from lard to sunflower oil. Fair play. If you’re writing recipe books the public always wants something new, even if you hit gold dust on the first pass.

And you have to say, the recipe book buying public may have moved away from lard and dripping, however wrong-headed this might be.

Fried before the herring, bacon adds a little magic to the fat, which the oatmeal picks up on. There is a simple elegance in Stein’s recipe, which I do not always match. Sometimes more is more.

With the fats all taken up by the oatmeal, you can afford a bit of butter on added potatoes… a little mustard, crème fraîche and chives… some fresh tomatoes to advertise the health benefits of it all… Why not?