Quick: what's the last commercial fish species still caught in San Francisco Bay? Nope, not oysters, not Dungeness crab. It's herring, and right now, our herrings' winter spawning run is in full swing. If you've ever wanted to go hyperlocal in your seafood eating, now's your chance to get these healthy, delicious, and very sustainable fish onto your table. Fresh herring is popping up on restaurant menus and fish markets around the Bay Area. (The second annual Sausalito Herring Festival was planned for Sunday, Feb. 9, but has unfortunately been cancelled due to the weekend's storm.)
If you have Scandinavian, German, Eastern European or Jewish roots, you've probably eaten herring before--probably pickled, maybe smoked, often doused in sour cream sauce with sliced onions. Sometimes fat chunks of pickled herring were wrapped around olives, onions, or pickles, in a preparation typically known as rollmops. As a Jewish kid in New Jersey, I grew up with a perpetual jar of herring in the fridge, and that's where I thought herring came from: out of the fridge, from a jar.
Not so. The Pacific herring's spawning run from the open ocean into San Francisco Bay typically happens between mid-January and mid-March, to the delight of both commercial and sport fishermen. Many thousands of sea gulls, cormorants, pelicans, murres, ducks, sea lions, and more go into a squawking, barking feeding frenzy when the fat, roe-filled herring arrive. So far, the herring population this year looks quite robust, good news after the near-collapse of the population in 2009, when the state closed down the commercial herring fishery completely in hopes of letting the spawning fish rebuild their numbers. As a "forage fish" for dozens of predators, herring is a valuable food source for a wide range of bird and marine life in the area, supporting many migrating birds along the Pacific Flyway, as well as sea lions, salmon, even whales.
The golden roe, or egg sacs, of the female herring are treasured in Japan, where they are known as kazunoko and are especially prized as a delicacy for Shogatsu, or Japanese New Year. Until quite recently, most of the local herring catch focused on the roe, which were salted and sent to Japan. The rest of the fish were often used for fishmeal, pet food, or even discarded.
Now, however, local awareness of this tasty, seasonal fish has grown, and more and more restaurants and fish markets are featuring it during its short winter season. Herring is rich in omega-3 fats and vitamin D, and since it eats low on the food chain, feeding on drifting phytoplankton (tiny plants) and zooplankton (mostly tiny crustaceans and larvae), it typically contains very low levels of mercury and other heavy metals that large fish like tuna and swordfish can accumulate.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife has set a yearly fishing quota of no more than 5% of the total estimated herring population in the Bay, in order to protect the stocks for future runs, with this year's quota set at about 3,700 tons. The department surveys the population every year, since the recruitment (spawning survival) rates vary greatly from year to year, depending on climate, ocean temperature, habitat, and many other factors.
So, who's got herring on the menu? Typically, herring is served pickled or marinated, which gives a firm, succulent texture to the raw fish, much like ceviche. At the Shed in Healdsburg, local herring is marinated in housemade red wine vinegar and olive oil, then served in a lunchtime salad with frisee, soft-cooked egg, capers, and boiled potato. At Bar Tartine, pickled herring comes Scandinavian style with creamed onions and sprouted rye bread. Marinated herring with bok choy and winter squash is on the appetizer menu at Rich Table in Hayes Valley, while Waterbar along the Embarcadero is roasting their herring in the wood oven, then serving it with warm fingerling potatoes, whole grain mustard, and sherry-roasted onions. For true nose-to-tail types, Local's Corner is offering a three-course herring menu: pickled with beet, radish, carrot, ancho cress and creme fraiche; milt and roe on toast with vadouvan aioli; and smoked with potato, apple, cabbage, and whole-grain mustard. They're sourcing from Two X Sea and Water2Table. This weekend, you can also look for fresh herring on the menus at Walzwerk in San Francisco and Fish., Angelino, Osteria Divino, and Sushi Ran in Sausalito.
At Oakland's Spanish-themed Duende, the tapas menu includes a tosta de pescado of pickled herring and steelhead mousse. Peko Peko, a Japanese catering company and pop-up izakaya restaurant in Temescal, featured herring nanban-zuke--a Japanese preparation similar to escabeche--at a recent dinner. Nearby, Beauty's Bagels is hoping to get more herring in the house by this weekend; if they do, says chef-owner Blake Joffe, they'll pickle it in white wine with onion, garlic, allspice, mustard seed, dill, and bay leaf. Once pickled, it will be served over arugula dressed with the pickling liquid, with a bagel and cream cheese on the side.
If you're looking to source your own, both Monterey Fish Market in Berkeley Hapuku Fish in Rockridge's Market Hall both have fresh local herring in stock. Kirk Lombard, who runs frequent Sea Forager tours around the Bay, does a "herring alert" for interested subscribers on his email list to let them know when the fish are running.
What about catching and cooking your own? Bay Area Bites spoke with Maria Finn, author of The Whole Fish: How Adventurous Eating of Seafood Can Make You Healthier, Sexier, and Help Save the Ocean. Finn, who lives on a houseboat in Sausalito's Richardson Bay, has a front-row seat on the season's herring feeding frenzy, as sea lions, sea birds gather in the water just outside her windows when the herring show up. She shared her tips for preparing every part of the fish, below. (For tips and how-to videos on scaling, filleting, and smoking whole fish, check out this post.)
Finn: Last week, I went out on a small boat in Richardson Bay in Sausalito with a neighbor and used a hand-tossed net. However, some people were wading out a few feet and catching them with five-gallon buckets near the Tiburon Ferry landing, so you don't need a boat or net. Just look for the critical mass of sea lions, sea birds, and/or commercial fishing boats. You do need a sport fishing license to catch herring; there are one- and two-day licenses available, as well as full-season ones. Also, as I tossed the net amid lots of frolicking sea lions and seals, some seaweed with herring eggs came up, so I save some of that as well. I took about half of a five-gallon bucket of herring, and trust me, that's a lot of fish to clean.
Bay Area Bites: Okay, you've got your fish and your seaweed with roe. Now what? Do you treat the male and female fish differently?
Finn: First, I gutted them. I slit up their bellies very delicately so as to not cut open the egg sacs or milt sacs. The egg sacs I set aside for bottarga. For this, I keep the sacs intact, coat them with a little olive oil, and then salt and put them in the fridge overnight. The next day, I take them out and layer them between salt for a week. After they are stiff, I take out an egg sac, rinse it and grate it over pasta (I like pappardelle by Community Grains) and add some greens like kale and then a poached egg on top. Ridiculously good. With the roe-on-kelp, I mixed them with thinly sliced cucumbers and put a sesame oil-rice vinegar dressing on them. The male "milt" or sperm, I dredged in flour, pan-fried in butter, and then spread on toast. (I learned this from Douglas Bernstein at Fish restaurant in Sausalito). For the fish itself, after gutting, I scaled them, tossed them in olive oil and salt and grilled them. I made a preserved lemon and anchovy sauce to drizzle on them. They were really good!
Bay Area Bites: You mentioned earlier that you shared some of your herring with chef friends. What did they do with them?
Finn: Andrea Blum, the former chef at Montalvo Art Center, kippered some. David Johnson, my next door neighbor, who runs the Davey Jones Deli nearby, is smoking them for herring salad sandwiches. For the now-cancelled Sausalito herring festival, he had planned to make a herring paella. My neighbor Maude Bradley is also a chef. She took a bag home and made herring in ginger miso and poached herring with garlic, leeks, and olives. Her favorite was Super Bowl snacks of crispy fried salt-and-pepper herring.
Bay Area Bites: What about your cats? Did they get any herring treats? Can you use the scraps to catch other fish?
Finn: My fat little cats like unhealthy, junk-cat food. So I keep the herring raw (heads, guts, blood lines, etc), grind it up, and slip it into their wet food. Over time, I want to incorporate more and more until they are eating raw, local seafood scraps and not the junk food they love so much now. I also save heads and other parts I don't eat to use for bait when I'm out fishing for stripers or ling cod, or to use to bait my crab pot.