The passion for raw herring is one of the rare things that visitors to Holland (and, whisper it quietly, many Dutch people too) often fail to appreciate. Yet, while herring may lack the sophistication of sushi, it is similarly central to this country’s culture, and entwined with its history and custom. One ritual pertaining to herring is Vlaggetjesdag Scheveningen.
Like so many other things in the Netherlands, the herring seems routine at first glance, with its indistinct size and shape and unceremonious manner of preparation and consumption. Scratch the surface, however, and you find a rich history and many exotic rituals connected to this fish. For instance, herring has traditionally been eaten salted in Holland; this includes a special gutting process which, according to tradition, was invented by Willem Beukelszoon in 1380. When herring is gutted, the pancreas is not removed, so that special pancreatic enzymes let the fish ripen. Yes, that sounds good doesn’t it!
The composition and taste of salted herring changes through the year, as the individual fish put on a layer of fat through the summer. Other traditional ways to prepare this Dutch staple food include pickling in vinegar and serving with pickles (in a so-called “rolmops”), and smoking. Smoked herring becomes red and was supposedly used to throw bloodhounds off the trail of fugitives in the old days; this is why a decoy from the main issue in a discussion, for example, is still called a red herring.
Vlaggetjesdag (“flag day”) has celebrated the arrival of the first herring (“Hollandse Nieuwe”) in the southern coastal towns of Vlaardingen and Scheveningen for years. Hundreds of thousands of people gather in Scheveningen for the festivities, and the fishing boats are decorated especially for the occasion. In addition to the omnipresent herring, this day also features a number of activities unrelated to fish, for both young and old. In Scheveningen, the first barrel of herring is traditionally sold at an auction on the Thursday preceding the official Vlaggetjesdag Scheveningen, and the proceeds go to charity.
During Vlaggetjesdag Scheveningen, visitors are invited to watch spectacular demonstrations by rescue teams, participate in old Dutch children’s games, admire famous artists, watch the Royal Navy, tour boats and old fire engines, enjoy demonstrations of old crafts, watch famous chefs perform their magic, sing along with shanty choirs and enjoy the many colourful traditional costumes. Orchestras, bands, artists, artisans and old sailing luggers all contribute to the fun, which also includes miniature ships, sailing tours and sampling of all kinds of fish. And if visitors want a break from the action, they can always make a pit stop at one of the many sidewalk cafés or go exploring the historical Scheveningen village.
An ancient tradition
Vlaggetjesdag Scheveningen as such is not very old – it was only made official in 1947. The festive tradition around the beginning of herring season is much older, however. In the 18th century, the villages along the coast, including Scheveningen, were forbidden to gut the caught herring. Since herring was most appropriate for smoking around September, most fishing boats fished flatfish or round-bodied fish during a part of the summer so as to avoid a surplus of fresh herring. Only eight or ten boats fished for herring in those days.
A poem from Scheveningen commemorating the departure of fishing boats on 14 September 1781, for instance, notes that there were only ten boats present. Stadtholder William V was present during the departure, as was customary for him on this day of the year. The poem notes that the fishermen were very appreciative of their prince’s gesture, and emphasises a number of familiar aspects. For instance, the boats would fly their flags, and two of the vessels would come back after sailing out to pay homage to the prince – both elements recognisable to us today. Finally, the best herring caught was for the ruler, very similar to the ceremony of reserving a koninginneharing for the Queen. A tradition that unfortunately does not exist anymore today.
Herring in Scheveningen
Fishermen from Scheveningen did not fish for herring much until the middle of the 19th century, the monopoly of gutting and salting being reserved for the cities along the river Meuse. Various small-scale festivities around the beginning of the herring season were recorded in the first half of the 20th century. Although photos from this era show harbours full of different boats, usually flying their festive pennants, this was by no means Vlaggetjesdag yet.
On 10 May 1947, however, the press reported that “[…] the fleet [was] ready. Hundreds of flags fluttered from the rigging of the luggers in Scheveningen yesterday. It was ‘Vlaggetjesdag’ [...].” This is the first time this word was used by the press, still carefully between quotation marks, for the beginning of the herring season at Scheveningen. This ceremony would soon develop into the Vlaggetjesdag that we all know and love today.
Source: Yacht Valley MagazineShare