There are historians who believe that the migration of the herring shoals from the Atlantic to the English Channel during the reign of Henry VIII had as significant an impact on our national history as that cruel monarch himself. It is certainly true that the grim and character-forming childhood that I and my sisters endured would have been inconceivable without herring. Kippers for breakfast, soft roes on toast for tea, herring and potatoes for Saturday lunch. Steamed herring, grilled herring, herring fried in lard. Kippers fried, grilled and jugged. Those things, regarded then as staples to be consumed with neither pleasure nor complaint, I now view with helpless nostalgia.
The herringlessness of our fish counters testifies to a real ecological disaster. Thanks to industrial fishing and EU policy, we have been severed from the diet that, by bringing protein in abundance to the poor, changed our national character.
Where is all this leading, you may ask. First to pickled herring, which you can still obtain in bottles, oversweetened and usually processed long ago and far out at sea. If you come across fresh, fat herrings, as I did recently at Oxford Market, buy a quantity and pickle them yourself. Open them flat, cover with two parts white vinegar and one part white wine, with raw onions finely chopped and plenty of salt. Leave in a cool place for two days and the bones will soften, leaving the flesh firm, succulent and full of the inimitable herring flavour.
My thoughts now turn to the great question: what to drink with pickled herring? The answer is Rueda, a raw, earthy Spanish white that combines the gooseberry sharpness of Sauvignon with a good dose of leathery Verdejo to produce a wine with an aroma of silage and the kick of a horse. The Viña Garedo from Corney & Barrow typifies the breed, and it chased those piquant herrings down the tube like the wild hunt of Waldemar.
There are those who think Spanish red means Rioja, with the routine vanilla flavour and oily aromas that go with the Crianza and Reserva brands. But there is Spanish wine made, like Rioja, from the Tempranillo, that is entirely unpretentious - the kind of wine you would stop for at a roadside inn on a pilgrimage and drink too much of to be able to proceed to your goal. Such is the Mas Oliveras from Catalonia - a strong, honest workhorse of a wine that is able to stand up to a Cornish pasty and brown sauce.
The Joven is a presentable and affordable Rioja, but to appreciate the flavour-filled refinement of Spanish red at its best, you should try the Bierzo, made from the local Mencía grape in an isolated part of north-west Spain. Still young, but ripe and smooth, this example shows just why Rioja is destined to sink, among Spanish reds, to second place.