Carnival comes to a fishy end

Carnival comes to a fishy end

by Karen Bradbury
Stripes Europe

When you hear the word herring, what comes to mind? Tasty treat or horror from the briny depths? Fair or foul, should this fish swim onto your plate this time of year, you might wish to take it as a sign.

Carnival season is about to reach its climax, although you would be forgiven for not noticing much of a buzz this year. Although there were no parties and parades in 2021, it’s a good bet that the muted festivities will be brought to their proper conclusion as dictated by hundreds of years of culinary tradition.

On Feb. 17, it will be time to send all the foolishness of the carnival season sternly to bed. Ash Wednesday marks the start of Lent, the traditional 40-day period of reflection, repentance and refusal in preparation for the holiest church festival of the year, Easter. For many, it’s a time of abstinence from animal products and whatever vice they may be trying to kick, at least temporarily.

In non-pandemic years, those of the Catholic confession would go to church, and the priest would draw a cross upon their foreheads. As those who’ve gone through Bible studies might recall, the ash cross reminds us that from dust we came, and to dust we will return. The ashes traditionally come from burning the palm fronds from the Palm Sunday services of the previous year.

Across many northern and central European cultures, an abundance of herring will make its way to the table for the Ash Wednesday meal. As Lent is a time to avoid animal flesh, fish would be the natural choice. But why this one specifically?

The answer can be found by looking back to the Middle Ages. This fish, native to the Baltic Sea, North Sea and northeast Atlantic, lived in vast schools in shallow waters, meaning it was abundant and easy to catch. Salted or soaked in brine, it could be stored for long periods of time and transported over great distances.

The ways in which herring is prepared as part of the Ash Wednesday meal are as varied as carnival costumes. “Hering mit Pellkartoffeln,” or herring with boiled potatoes, is often served up, as are “Rollmöpse,” rolled-up herring. “Brathering,” batter-fried fish, pickled and preserved in a can, might also make an appearance.

On Ash Wednesday menus in Austria, you’ll find “Heringsschmaus,” a loose term for a fishy feast starring herring or other types of aquatic creatures. In one of its classic iterations, the herring is prepared as a kind of cold salad made up of tart apples, beets, onions, horseradish and sour cream; other ingredients commonly used in the preparation of herring dishes include celery, capers, leeks and pickles.

In Spain, a different species of small fish signals the end of carnival. In a ceremony known as “entierro de la sardina,” or burial of the sardine, those mourning the end of the carnival season dress in formal black attire and march off together to bury an effigy of a sardine. The mock funeral is accompanied by drumming, dancing, fireworks and the burning of a tiny coffin.

Although the significance of the sardine remains a source of speculation, one explanation ties it to a specific event. Charles III, king of Spain from 1759 to 1788, supported upholding the old traditions, and he encouraged the staging of carnival celebrations in the run-up to Lent. One year, the king ordered a load of sardines as an Ash Wednesday treat for his subjects in Madrid. However, when the crates arrived and were opened, a mighty stench arose, and it was clear that the fish had spoiled along the way. The angry king ordered the fish to be buried at the site of the fiesta, the party continued, and thus was born a new tradition that quickly spread across Spain.

Before nixing all notions of ever eating sardines or herring, perhaps you should give them a try? In travels to Portugal, fresh sardines hot from the grill make for tasty and inexpensive street food. In the Netherlands, locals enjoy snacking on “broodje haring,” a white bun with raw herring, served with pickle and onion. These humble fish, love them or loathe them, are all part of the European experience.




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