Karin and I had kippers for breakfast this morning, a satisfying and warming treat on this cold Sunday as we watched the snow fall into the garden, softening the edges and hedges:
I do like a nice kipper! Smoking fish to make it last longer has been repeatedly discovered and transmitted as an idea across cultures, and represents a fascinating intersection where wild biodiversity meets human ingenuity. The north east of England, where I grew up, has a great and ancient tradition of smoking herrings to preserve a portion of the catch, a practice that may have originated with the Vikings who colonised that part of the country over one thousand years ago.
Of all of the North Sea’s edible biodiversity I feel most comfortable eating herring; although there were issues with over-fishing in the 1960s and 70s, current stocks look to be being managed sustainably. The most up to date information I’ve found is in a Norwegian government report from which I took this graph:
Kippers have had subtle, but interesting, influences on culture, spawning phrases, songs and games. To be “done up like a kipper”* is to be taken advantage of by someone or bamboozled, whilst a “kipper tie” is a fashion hangover from the 60s and 70s, named for its broad proportions. Of course Supertramp sang about having kippers for breakfast, particularly in Texas “cos everyone’s a millionaire”. That strikes me as an odd line as herrings (in whatever form) have always been considered a cheap dish. Though I suppose importing them from Craster to Dallas could be quite expensive.
Back to the north east and my childhood, where we played a game called “Split the Kipper”. This involved standing opposite a friend on a grassy field and taking it in turns to throw a knife near to your opponent’s foot. If it stuck into the ground then your opponent had to slide their foot to that point. This continued until one of you had your legs so far apart that you fell over – the kipper had been split! Not the safest game for kids but I never knew anyone to get injured playing it. Like all the best games the point was not just to win but to win beautifully: inching your adversary’s legs apart with accurate knife throws gradually ramped up the tension of the game. I wonder where the game originated? Is it too fanciful to imagine that it was brought over by the Vikings?
The snow is still falling – wonder what’s for lunch….?
*Whatever you do, don’t search the Urban Dictionary for the definition of the word “kippered”….