Rigby’s Encyclopaedia of the Herring

A work in progress with no end in sight

RED HERRING

Not just a euphemism for a false trail, but a kind of smoked herring that has probably served as a euphemism for a false trail since at least the C16th

RED HERRING

Red Herring is a whole fish, heavily salted and heavily cold-smoked. The standard smoking is for seven weeks, although there have always been variations in the cure. The highly-cured reddest was originally described as baconed red herring. It can last over a year in the hottest climates

Yarmouth was famous for its red herring production, which is celebrated in Nashes Lenten Stuffe (1599), a comic text which, as well as providing a scurrilously anti-papist origin story for the cure, structures itself around endless diversions.

Red herring as a metaphor for a false trail seems, therefore, to go back that far at least – although some suggest its first use in a news story by William Cobbett in the early C19th. Red herrings having a strong smell, could have been (and quite possibly once were) used to distract hounds from a pursuit.

Once a culinary mainstay in Britain, the major markets for it today are in Southern Europe, where it has been exported since medieval times and the West Indies, where it used to be exported as cheap food for the slave plantations.

It is still exported to West Africa, to which it was probably originally exported as part of the first leg of the slave trading triangle – the second leg being slaves, the third, coming back to Britain being sugar and rum.

Advice on Cooking

In A Plain Cookery Book for the Working Classes (1852), Charles Elmé Francatelli, Late Maître d’Hôtel and Chief Cook to Her Majesty the Queen, offers the following advice on red herring:

The cheaper sort of red herrings are always too salt, and unpleasantly strong-flavoured, and are therefore an indifferent kind of food, unless due precaution is taken to soak them in water for an hour before they are cooked. First, soak the red herrings in water for an hour; wipe and split them down the back; toast or broil them on both sides for two or three minutes, and having placed them on a dish, put a bit of butter and some chopped onion upon each herring; pour a little vinegar over all, and this will make a cheap and savoury dish to be eaten with well-boiled potatoes.

A Jamaican Recipe

1/2 lb red herring

2 tablespoons light oil

1/2 cup diced onions

1/2 cup diced tomatoes

Finely chopped hot chilli to taste (Scotch bonnet)

A little oil

1 clove garlic

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh thyme

1/2 tablespoon lemon juice

2 spring onions, thinly sliced.

Boil the red herring for 5 minutes and drain; ‘pick up’ (break or chop into small pieces); sauté the onions until translucent; add tomatoes, chilli, garlic and thyme and sauté for a further minute; add the red herring and cook for a 5 minutes; stir in lemon juice and green onions.

Serve immediately or at room temperature with Jamaican water crackers, fried green plantains, yams, dumplings and/or boiled bananas.