Maatjes, pronounced “mah-chess,” means virginal fish. They are caught before spawning as they swim up from the cold North Sea depths where they have been feeding on plankton. Marine Stewardship Counsel and Dutch laws allow for these fish to be caught only three weeks of the year beginning in May, to sustain the breeding population. McCoy will be out on the fishing boats this year to document the annual catch.
His business, NorthSeaHerring.com, handles between two and three metric tons of the fish a year. He first tried the Dutch herring in the mid-1980s as an Air Force serviceman stationed in the Netherlands. He went back for another, and another, and hasn’t stopped. His importing business is Internet-based in Arkansas, but of course his processing plant is in Europe.
McCoy’s fish don’t come stuffed in a jar or a can. These come flash-frozen and vacuum-sealed in individual packs, and they taste somewhere between pink salmon sushi and a salty oyster. Sushi bars in the U.S. sometimes offer the on the menu, McCoy said.
Surprisingly, the two children that I tested the fish on (age 6 and 8) were both very receptive and gobbled them all up. But McCoy said a lot of Americans are wary of the fact that the fish is uncooked. Instead, it’s preserved by what’s called the gibbing process, a method credited to a 14th-century Dutch fisherman. It involves taking part of the gullet out, but leaving the liver and pancreas in for the brine-soak phase. Because the fish retains enzymes this way, eating the fish uncooked is a healthier option to frying or baking.
It’s also a lot easier. There is no preparation time other than thawing. Since they are small, it doesn’t take very long. And, if you happen to thaw out more than you need, they’ll keep in the fridge for a long time. I ate one that I’d left in the fridge for three weeks after thawing and it was still good. McCoy said the same about one he'd left in the fridge for two months.
Maatjes pair well with a sharp cheese and something crunchy, like Melba toast, to balance the texture and natural oils of the fish. They’re also good with a Heineken.
Most of McCoy's orders have been from northern states, he said. And he’s even had trouble getting some of his own family members and friends to try it.
In late April, McCoy will be at Queen Wilhelmina Tulip Park in San Francisco sharing his herring with thousands of people as part of the United States’ largest Queen’s Day Festival to honor the Queen of the Netherlands birthday. The festival organizers ordered 1,400 herring from McCoy.
Maatjes cost about $35 for a package of 10. While that may seem steep at first, keep in mind that even if you were to fly to Amsterdam you would still pay $3 American for one fish from a street vendor. With the Euro exchange rate at 35 percent higher than the dollar, it is surprising McCoy has been able to reel them in at this cost.
Because the fish is so new to Arkansas — and rare for America in general — the herring are not easy to find in grocery stores. For now find them at www.northseaherring.com. McCoy has a toll free number at 855-622-8537.