Silver Darlings are hallmark of fishing heritage
A small silver creature is swimming back into the hearts – and stomachs – of a seaside town where it once fed a fishing boom.
The humble herring is woven into the history of Great Yarmouth, where millions of them were hauled ashore by a fleet of “drifter” boats that filled the harbour. By the early 20th century the fishing grounds off Great Yarmouth were the most productive in the world and the port was the most important in the country.
That fleet is now down to a handful, but the fish – known as Silver Darlings – are again proving a popular, healthy dish that provides an authentic taste of the area's seafaring heritage.
Visitors and locals alike savour them at special festivals and events staged during the year, harking back to the 1100s when the port was home to a herring fair attracting merchants from all over Europe.
Fisherman Paul Williams is one of the remaining herring fishermen, who nets, catches, smokes them into kippers, and sells them – four or six for £1 depending on supplies – at the family's wet fish shop in town.
A lot of people enjoyed them as a local delicacy, and they were bought by local hotels for the breakfast menu, he said:
“Most of our customers are 50-plus, but youngsters also tuck into them at festivals where they outsell burgers twice over.
“We just need to find more ways of promoting them,” added Mr Williams, whose father worked on the drifters. His favourite way of enjoying a herring is “fried in dripping with salt, vinegar and bread” and he added: “Great Yarmouth herring taste the best.”
Herring were championed by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver on his Friday Night Feast TV show, when he encouraged people to “ditch the cod and embrace the humble herring” which was tasty and rich in healthy Omega 3 oil, but had fallen out of fashion. He came up with three ways of eating herring in linguine, tacos or picked as a starter or main course salad.
The Prom Hotel, Great Yarmouth, believes there is genuine interest in the revival of the historic herring and is planning a cooking and comedy fundraising event for a local charity this summer. Herring will feature in all the dishes.
James Docwra, operations manager, said: "We would love to see Yarmouth as closely associated with the herring as Cromer is with its lovely crabs, and we hope that our summer event will become an annual fixture in the town's culinary calendar."
Herring features on the menu at Great Yarmouth's renowned Seafood Restaurant on North Quay. Owner for the past 36 years Miriam Kikis said: “Herring is a wonderful nutritious food filled with vitamins and oils that are good for your heart and brain, but fashion changes and it is not in big demand which is a shame.”
She loves herring and serves it pan-fried with lemon, or with mustard and says herring roe on toast with capers is a tasty starter.
Stocks of herring were now huge compared with 20 years ago, said Mr Williams, so there was plenty of scope to feed any increase in demand.
But due to the drop in demand for the human dinner table much of catch currently goes to zoos to feed penguins or as bait for other fishing.
Greater Yarmouth Tourism and Business Improvement Area Limited is campaigning to bring in more visitors to the area by promoting its attractions and events, which include a Maritime Festival where herring sizzle on the quayside barbecues.
GYTABIA cafe and restaurant group chairman Tony Smith said: “Herring have been part of local life for centuries - not just as a food, but as an important part of the tourism economy because landlords' letting seasons were lengthened when the Scottish fishergirls arrived after the summer holidaymakers went home.
“We would encourage visitors to sample our local seafood as part of their trip to get a flavour of the area's past, and present.”
May – date to be finalised - Herring Charity Evening, The Prom Hotel, Great Yarmouth
August 7 - Caister Lifeboat day Lifeboat station 10am-4.30pm
August 28 - Hemsby Herring Festival, Hemsby Lifeboat station 10am-4pm
September 10-11 - Maritime Festival 10am onwards at the quayside, where Great Yarmouth's last surviving herring drifter is moored as a museum.
October 24 - Herring Fair at the Time and Tide Museum, Great Yarmouth which tells the history of the town and its fishing history in converted herring smokehouses.
Great Yarmouth's herring heritage goes back to just after the the Norman Conquest in 1066.
Its herring heydays were in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when a 1000-plus strong fleet of “drifter” boats landed a record 544m fish in 1913. 90pc was exported to Russia and Germany.
In 1912 Yarmouth bloater was on the menu of the doomed Titanic
Legend has it that the harbour was so full with vessels you could walk from one side of the river to the other on their decks.
The fleet arrived in the autumn, as the shoals of fish moved from off Scotland to spawn in the southern North Sea. As well as generating work for 10,000 men the herring season drew an army of 5,000 Scottish fishergirls who could gut 30 fish a minute.
The fishery dwindled after the second world war, as overfished stocks declined.
Hopes of a breakthrough into a new mass market in 1955 when Birds Eye pioneered the frozen fish finger at Yarmouth were dashed when the herring lost out to cod in public trials.
Herring are plankton feeders who share waters with basking sharks and are a part of the food chain eaten by bigger fish, seals – and us.
Drifters use nets that hang in the water like giant tennis nets to catch their prey.
Red Herrings are not just a turn of phrase. They are herring that have been salted for three days and smoked for more than 10 days. Their strong smell was used to get hunting hounds off the scent of their prey, leading to the phrase's use as a misleading piece of information.
Kippers are herring split from head to tail, gutted, salted or pickled and cold-smoked over smouldering wood chips for 2-3 days.
Bloaters are cured whole herring smoked for five days.
The tails of three silver herrings – linked to the heads and bodies or three golden royal lions – feature on the Great Yarmouth coat of arms.
Herring pass wind – there is a sound recording of it in the Time and Tide Museum in Great Yarmouth, which tells the story of the fishing industry and the town in a converted herring smokehouse.