In my old recipe book, Modern Cookery, by Eliza Acton, first published in 1845, I was surprised to find two recipes for red herrings! I didn’t know there were any such things – not that the herrings were red, I think it is just a name for the dish, but I thought it was just an idiom!
Red herrings are kippers, of course, or as Miss Acton tells us, Yarmouth bloaters. Kippers are smoked herring… I love them, their flavour is incomparable, mind you, herring is a favourite fish of mine anyway!
Red herrings, á la dauphin
Take off the heads, open the backs of the fish, and remove the back-bones: soak the herrings, should they be very dry, for two or three hours in warm milk and water, drain and wipe them. Dissolve a slice of fresh butter and mix it with the beaten yolks of a couple of eggs and some savoury herbs minced small: dip the fish into these, and spread them thickly with fine breadcrumbs; broil them of a light brown, over a moderate fire, and serve them on hot buttered toasts, sprinkled with a little cayenne.
As I was reading this recipe I was thinking about what it must have been like for Eliza to cook these fish. I am sure that smoked herrings were much drier and more heavily smoked than they are now because they had to be preserved without refrigeration, or any other modern way. Once they were drained, they would have been wiped with a cloth… we would use a piece of kitchen towel. We don’t tend to differentiate between herbs… so which ones would be savoury? These days in England, we don’t really use the word ‘broil’, we only come across it in American recipes, or receipts, as Eliza says. We have cookers, we don’t cook over a fire, and the ‘toasts’ must either have been made using a toasting fork or on a sort of griddle. For all those who think spicy food is a modern thing, the English have always ‘liked it hot’ – mustard, horse-radish, and as her, cayenne pepper!