The new-season maatjes are with us again, and the harvest is top quality despite a difficult year, according to producers.
Maatjes are young herring, caught during a season of only six weeks, starting in early May.
But the fish that are now coming into the shops and market stalls were caught in May of 2020. Since then they have been processed to give them their particular character.
The young fish – the name maatjesharing is a corruption of the original name maagdenharing, or virgin herring, referring to their immature age – are cleaned and salted and then frozen for one to seven days. That extends the shelf-life of the fish, and contributes to the texture and flavour.
Thanks to the salting, and the freezing which kills of the herring worm, the fish caught during the six-week season can be consumed throughout the following year.
The fish are caught at the beginning of the catch season by fishing boats from Norway, subjected to an initial processing in Denmark and then shipping to suppliers in Belgium. One of the largest is Gilco in Evergem in East Flanders.
One of the problems this year was a strong wind in the North Atlantic, which caused the schools of young herring to be more widespread, and reduced the amounts that boats could catch on one trip.
The other main problem, predictably, was Brexit. As the UK left the EU, the Norwegian fisheries lost their agreement for fishing in UK waters. And that happens to be the areas where the young fish gather in early May at the start of the season.
“But despite the difficult catch, the maatjes are very tasty and are available at good prices in the supermarkets,” said Caroline De Reu of Gilco.
“It is best to take them out of the fridge before eating so that they can come to room temperature. Then they are the tastiest,” she said.
• User tip: There is no need to open your throat and let a maatje down in one go as seen in publicity shots. Feel free to eat the fish any way you please, with any accompaniment.