Look for Iowa farmers before planting. You’ll see their pickups parked at an angle in the entrance to their fields, like they didn’t have enough time to park it straight what with all the traffic in the ditch. Driver’s doors left wide open in the supposed rush. And a short distance away, there they are, squatted on their heels, their ball cap tipped back just enough to see the pale portion of their forehead, their eyes vaguely looking into the middle distance. Perhaps they are meditating. But if you look closely, they have a clod of dirt in one hand. They are slowly crushing it. Nostrils flared because they are smelling for that sharp odor of basement damp. Fingers rolling the soil back and forth because they want to tease it down to a grain. And all the while they are thinking and planning and measuring their own worth.
Well, folks, that farmer’s checking the soil for what your wine friends call terroir. A French word that is supposed to capture that inexplicable part of the grape that is due to climate, earth, and plant. It is distinct and it is individualistic. So much so, that if your vineyards are on one side of a valley that gets more morning sun, and your neighbor has vineyards on the other side with more afternoon sun, the terroir will be different between the two. No kidding.
But terroir is also used to describe a sense of place. The uniqueness of place. In the Netherlands, believe it or not, that terroir would include eating herring. Yup, herring. Specifically, eating what the Dutch believe is the greatest of treats — “Hollandse Nieuwe,” or Holland’s new herring. Raw. Lightly scaled. No head or guts. But a tail to hold onto. Maybe white onions on the side. But for the purist, not even the white onions. Just raw oily fish on a plate. Yum?
“Once a year it is coming. The moment just comes. This is really Dutch. When you’re in Holland you eat herring. When you are in Spain you drink sangria, when you are in Italy you take pizza and pasta. But, Joe, you will never be a real Dutchman just because you eat herring. Just like I won’t be a real Italian because I eat pizza.”
A little educational, a little philosophical, and probably all malarkey, Denis Navarro smiles and laughs and ducks his head and races to the front of his restaurant and then quickly races to the back, joking, eyes scrunched small then suddenly sprung large, as if to make a small child laugh from the surprise — it all works for me. I laugh. Clearly, a carnival barker disguised as a restaurant owner.
Denis Navarro knows fish. Raised in the Dutch fishing town of Scheveningen, owning restaurants since he was 21, and loving food, he speaks of fish almost in song. And herring is clearly the chorus to his favorite tune.
“This is a good year. It has to do with the fat. The more fat, the better. This herring we have is not salted. This is the natural flavor. The new herring cannot yet give birth to other fishes. The head is going off, the skin is going off a little bit. They cut them open, in one time they take it out. It is the work of five seconds for a fisherman. This is something special. It is a delicacy. Although this is a cheap delicacy. You should not eat it with the bread. You should eat three or four to be filled.”
The herring season is very short. The boats go out in mid-May and by late June it’s all over. The arrival of Holland’s new herring is celebrated every year on Flag Day in Scheveningen. The fishing boats arrive in the harbor decked out with flags, and the first wooden basket of herring is handed over to the Queen, who then puts it up for charity. Thousands upon thousands of people show up to eat the first catch, more than a few garbed in traditional Dutch costumes, and all buying herring right off the boats.
Even during normal times, Denis Navarro has his own fish man go down to the boats three time a week and pick fish for the restaurant. Herring season, however, is special.
“People used to live off of herring. It was their main income. At that time it was something very different. They used to go out for a half year to fish for herring. Now they go three days before. The charm is gone, but it is still good herring. They catch them in the boats and directly freeze them in. In the early days, they salted them to keep them good. No need to do that anymore. Fish is very delicate and more difficult to prepare. Meat is easier. For fish you have to have a good address.”
So, you ask, how does one eat this six-inch slimy critter? Ah, Denis Navarro and his wife Nathalie demonstrate on a willing victim, my wife.
“You hold it by the tail, just so, now tip your head back, and then slide it down your throat. Excellent!”
And there you have it. Holland New Herring. The terroir of the Netherlands.
And Iowa terroir? Duh. You grab the top of the ear where the silk shows, pull the roasted husks down to the bottom, dip the golden kernels in butter, add a splash of salt, and bite. Now you’ve had Iowa herring. By the way, just because you eat this delicacy doesn’t make you an Iowan. But, trust me, if you add a dash of Iowa State Fair, you can’t get any closer.