Each spring a festival in the port of Scheveningen heralds the arrival of the new season's herring.
"Met of zonder?" ("With or without?") is the question the vendor first asks, the reference being chopped raw onions. You are standing beneath the flapping awning and Dutch flags of a street-side van that advertises 'nieuwe haring' (new herring). "Met," you say, and over the counter comes a fillet of raw herring, complete with tail, laid on a polystyrene platter, along with a large spoonful of chopped onions. The herring is shiny, pearly silver and pinkish, like a dawn sky over the North Sea.
Pick up the herring by the tail, wiggle it in the onion, then tip your head back and lower the fillet straight into your mouth to savor its delicate oily freshness. The Dutch go wild for this snack, especially in summer, when the new season's herrings are young and tender. You can buy raw herrings at any time of the year from the specialist street-side stalls (haringstalletjes) found everywhere in the city and even from the supermarkets, but as the year advances the herrings become fatter, larger and greasier.
Behind their counters, the fishmongers prepare the herrings with astonishing speed, working with short, hyper-sharp knives to skin and fillet the fish (they are gutted onboard the trawlers). They prepare the fillets by storing them in a light brine called pekel (from which our word 'pickle' is derived). Some street vendors attract passerby with little more than a barrel of nieuwe haring in its pekel and a container filled with chopped raw onion. "Met of zonder?"
When to go: Early June is best, and you might catch the arrival of the new season's herring; Vlaggetjesdag (Little Flag Day or Pennant Day) usually takes place on the second Saturday of June. The new herring season lasts about two months (June – July), but herring can be found year-round and The Hague is an interesting place to visit in any season.
Planning: The Hague is 50km southeast of Amsterdam and 40km southeast of Schipol international airport. The port and seaside resort of Scheveningen is 5km from the center of The Hague — an elegant, vibrant city with good hotels, restaurants, museums and shopping.
Websites: www.denhaag.com, www.vlaggetjesdag.com
Each year excitement mounts as June approaches. Any day, when the herring have grown to the optimum size and fat content, an official announcement will permit the sale of the first new season's herring — de eerste vaatje Hollandse Nieuwe.
People folk to The Hague's port of Scheveningen to feast at the herring stalls, and the first barrel brought onshore is auctioned for a colossal sum of more than 50,000 euros (US$68,000 in recent years), which is donated to charity.
On the first Saturday of the season the festival known as Vlaggetjesdag is held in Scheveningen to celebrate the official arrival of the new herring. Boats are bedecked with flags and thousands of people gather to enjoy entertainment, exhibitions of maritime crafts and seafood.