I grew up near a seaside town in North Devon, United Kingdom. So I am no stranger to wet fish shops and fish stands that are dotted along the harbour front: the aroma of salt, vinegar, and fresh seafood wafting into the balmy summer evenings air. When I moved to the Netherlands over 15 years ago, memories of my childhood were easy to reminisce, but with a difference. The affair that the Dutch have with seafood outweighs that of my experience of a tiny seaside town in North Devon.
A Little Bit of History
Fishing formed a very important part of the economic transformation of the the Netherlands during the 15th & 16th century. It reached its peak during the mid 17th century, when an average 33,000 tons of herring were fished from the north sea annually.
With a visit to the Dutch seaside, you will notice that fish has a significant and totally different presence. It’s much easier to find a fish eatery than any other mainstream fast food outlet, which is great news. The fish is freshly cooked to order, and let’s face it, much better for you than fast food.
I took a visit to the well known Visafslagweg, Scheveningen. Situated behind the dijk, at the south end of Scheveningen and in front of the commercial harbour. Here you will find a melting pot, between the commercial fishing industry and domestic consumption. Be warned, if you visit here on a weekend, or at any time during the summer, expect hordes of people thronging around the many fish shops for a look at the wonderful displays of wet fish and for a taste of the delicacies. The wet fishes literally just came out of the sea which, is probably true in most cases (herring is pickled and eel is smoked, as caught). The aroma is much different to that of my childhood. The distinctive aroma of fried fish, is very noticeable as you turn into the Visafslagweg.
How to Eat
So what are fish sandwiches, and how do we consume them? There is no magic behind identifying fish sandwiches. There is only one basic rule: if it swims and originates from the sea, it is made into a sandwich (known locally as belegde broodjes). A soft white roll is filled with one kind of fish or seafood, with or without sauce, served on a paper napkin and intended to be eaten on the go. The firm favourites are herring sprinkled with raw onions, Dutch prawns (also known as grey or brown prawns), or smoked eel (locally called paling). The choices however, don’t stop there. I went to see Henk Kraan, who offers an extensive menu of fish sandwiches, not to mention all other kinds of fresh and cooked fish. Buy it to take home, or have the friendly staff there prepare something for you to enjoy, sitting outside in the sunshine and soaking up the atmosphere of the harbour environment.
As I sat on the chairs outside, in the humid summer temperatures we have been enjoying recently, I ate my fish sandwiches – grey prawns and smoked eel – and took myself momentarily back to my roots…