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  • Bute St Seafoodie

Dad's Marinated Herrings

"we were... well received and sate down in a neat parlour with a good fire. Breakfasted before our departure and ate a herring fresh from the water, at our landlord's earnest recommendation."

Dorothy Wordsworth (1803)

"Dad's Marinated Herrings/Sardines" - that's what it says in my recipe notebook. The old man used to make this regularly many years ago and I always loved it. Sometimes he made it with sardines. Judging by where it is in the notebook we might be looking at around 2008 or so when it made its entry but, irrespective, it rapidly became one of my go-to treatments for the herring that I would buy in season from Dorset Fish during the early days of the Bute Street Farmers' Market. It also suggests that the original recipe came from Rowleigh Lee (as that was someone Dad would read) but I cannot be sure. My notes don't even have ingredient quantities so it's been a matter of recruiting the weighing scales and measuring spoons to get this recipe posted.

Herring, at least on the south coast of the British Isles, are a winter fish. They haven't been coming to the Bute Street Market for some years now but Martin of Yorwarth's Fresh Fish has been catching them recently in the waters of the south-east to bring to the market in High Street Kensington. Specifically, he's actively involved in the regeneration of the UK herring fishery in the grounds he operates that has found new opportunity through increased quotas for small boats, a measure I’m sure all seafoodies would be pleased to support. Currently, the herring he is catching are coming from the east English Channel (out of Newhaven) as they are now into spawning season and heading a little further south. Only one of the four I bought contained any milt. Shame, as I have a natty little idea that I'd quite like to try with the milts. But that's the nature of seasonality and perhaps I just have to get onto it earlier next year.

I have always really enjoyed these marinated herrings with rye crisp breads and they're the sort of thing that would grace a Christmas Eve, Boxing Day or other celebratory spread.

The marination is actually a two-stage process. The first is more of a curing treatment where the acidity of the vinegar "cooks" the fish along with some aromatics. The second stage is more of a typical marination in which the garlic, chilli and herbs are given a little time to infuse the fish. The whole process can be achieved in about 18 hours.

The recipe gives a timing of 12 hours for the first, curing stage. As a guide this is sufficient for the vinegar to take its effect on the fish, but the time can be extended though the fish will become more and more acidic and vinegary in flavour. It could be worth experimenting with other vinegars, cider vinegar for one, but it is worth avoiding any budget vinegars as they tend to impart nothing more than acidity (though this can perhaps be rectified with the addition of sugar). That said, I wouldn't use the most expensive of vinegars as quite a lot is required and it is then discarded.

By the same token a good quality extra virgin olive oil is what is required here. Again, it need not be the best in your collection but its flavour will make itself known.

There is a choice of herbs on offer! Parsley is perhaps a classic choice, but I have made this dish with dill to great success. And coriander is another option which I might be quite inclined to use if I were to marinating sardines this way.

Dad's Marinated Herrings

Ingredients (Serves 4-6 as part of a spread of appetisers)

3 herrings, scaled and filleted

Rye crisp bread, to serve

For the first marinade:

200ml (approx) white wine vinegar

1 large garlic clove, thinly sliced

1 tsp black peppercorns

2-3 bay leaves

1 tsp sea salt flakes

Juice of half a lime

For the second marinade:

125ml (approx) extra virgin olive oil

1 large garlic clove, thinly sliced

1 tbsp deseeded and finely chopped mild red chilli (or quantity to taste)

1 tbsp flat leaf parsley leaves (or alternative, see recipe intro), chopped


  1. Put the herring fillets in a non-reactive container which has a tight-fitting lid and combine with the ingredients for the first marinade. Ensure the fillets are submerged in the liquid adding more vinegar if necessary. Put the lid on and keep in the fridge for 12 hours (see recipe intro).

  2. Lift the herring fillets from the marinade and rinse briefly in cold water then pat dry. If preferred, the fillets can be sliced into 1" diamond shapes by cutting on the diagonal.

  3. Combine the ingredients for the second marinade and pour over the herring in a clean container. As before, add more olive oil if required to immerse the fish. Cover the container and leave in the fridge for at least 3 hrs, though it will keep for 3-4 days easily. Bring to room temperature before serving.


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