The herring stall in the street is a Dutch institution. The Dutch like their herrings raw, slimy and, well, very fishy. Mevrouw T loves them. I quite enjoy them as a snack or light lunch.
Since customers need to wait while the haringboer (‘herring farmer’) fillets each fish in front of them, there is always time for a chat at the herring stall. Some people take their herrings home, but many eat them on the spot.
So little social dramas play out, one of which I was privileged to catch.
‘Is the herring good?’ asks the young man, arriving with his dog. He looks bit edgy, unshaven, arms tattooed. Living rough, perhaps?
‘Herring is always good,’ growls Mr Herring. He stands at the stall for hours, day after day, hands patiently working with the knife. It would be the most boring job in the world were it not for the chats with the customers.
People swear our man is the best haringboer in town. Everyone has their favourite haringboer. The herrings are particularly good at the moment – the new season’s catch has hit the stalls.
Mevrouw Herring is in charge of the money, and of laying the herrings on the trays, garnished with chopped onions and gherkins.
‘Give me a herring and a serving of kibbeling,’ says the young man.
‘You’ll have to wait,’ says Mevrouw Herring. Other customers are also milling around.
‘Oh, is it not my turn?’ asks tattoos.
‘Unfortunately not,’ says the gentleman in the overcoat firmly.
‘Oh. Sorry.’ The young man shrugs. There’s paint spattered on his boots and hands. He’s not living rough; he’s been working. ‘Can I take a napkin?’ He pulls one from the dispenser on the counter without waiting for a response, and bends down to attend to his dog, golden retriever size and shape, but with St Bernard colouring. With the napkin he carefully wipes the drool from its mouth.
Mevrouw Herring finishes serving the other customers and turns to him. ‘So, you asked for the kibbeling and…?’
‘…and a herring for the dog,’ says our friend, slipping her the money.
Mr Herring looks up sharply.
Mevrouw Herring passes the plastic tray of kibbeling, deep-fried cod scraps in batter. And a herring, perfectly filletted by the best haringboer in Amsterdam.
The young man lays the fish on the ground. The dog approaches it enthusiastically, licking his lips. Then he stops, sniffs the herring suspiciously, backs off and looks up at his master. ‘Is this grey thing really food?’
‘You sure it’s good herring?’ asks the young man.
Mr Herring grunts.