Updated: Aug 26, 2021
The catching and eating of herrings has gone on off the somerset and north devon coast for centuries.
Records of herring fishing from Minehead date back to before the 15th century. By the 17th - 18th century it was a major source of wealth for the town with up to 4000 barrels of herring, especially smoked, being exported every year to Portugal, Spain, Italy and further afield.
“The aroma of fried herrings has pervaded the late autumn months all of my life and even to this day it’s still something I relish. The words ‘herrings for tea’ and the sound of half a dozen of these silver darlings sizzling in the pan are music to my ears. ”
There herring shoals arrive in our neck of the Bristol Channel in the late autumn to early winter in order to spawn, so when they reach the waters off Minehead they are in peak condition.
An old Scottish friend of mine once remarked that as a child the Minehead herring was well spoken of even as far north as his hometown of Glasgow.
The aroma of fried herrings has pervaded the late autumn months all of my life and even to this day it’s still something I relish. The words ‘herrings for tea’ and the sound of half a dozen of these silver darlings sizzling in the pan are music to my ears.
My family has fished for herring for generations and as a child I often helped my grandfather, father and uncles ‘shut and haul’ the nets and it’s a ritual that I still enjoy to this day. The anticipation of hauling the nets after a drift fills me with excitement as you never know how many you will catch - if any at all as the herring can be a fickle beast especially when the wind is coming from the eastern quarter - in fact a brisk easterly wind seems to have a detrimental effect on all types of fishing from Minehead, as the old saying goes ‘when the wind’s in the east the fish bite the least.’ Up until the 60s it was still common for herrings to be sold door to door from a handcart around the town.
During the 1970’s the declining stocks prompted herring fishing to be banned for several years. The ban was lifted in the early 80s but even then the catches didn’t really recover to a great extent. But over the last 5 years hauls have dramatically improved in the Bristol Channel and last season catches of several thousand fish were recorded in a single drift. The herring makes for a very tasty and nutritious meal, it is easily prepared by cutting the head off and pulling out the guts leaving the roe intact then just scrape off the scales with the back of a knife and with a quick rinse and pat dry with kitchen roll its ready for the pan, grill or barbecue. My favourite method of cooking is dusting the fish with seasoned flour and slowly shallow frying it in olive oil until golden brown and crispy on both sides and serving with crusty bread and butter.