Herring: Primed and pickled for the big time

Solomon Gundy on crackers. (Photo Credit: Sadie Beaton)

Solomon Gundy on crackers. (Photo Credit: Sadie Beaton)

With the local food movement at full-throttle and artisan ‘foodies’ pickling everything in sight, and with fish finally being recognized as part of our food system, Solomon Gundy may be well poised to garner some long-overdue appreciation on Nova Scotia plates.

It is sustainable, delicious and has an obscure, cool name. But what the heck is it?

Well, this much we know: Solomon Gundy is a slightly sweet preparation of pickled herring and onions, once a signature snack along Nova Scotia’s southern shore. Of course, the good people of Lunenburg County weren’t the first to pickle this little fish. Herring, one of the most abundant and resilient fish in our oceans, has been weired, seined, trawled and preserved since Medieval times.

Though herring may seem humble, this hardy, portable protein actually helped shape the Western world as we know it. Pickled herring fueled centuries of revolutions, conquests and economic alliances, and has been glorified in a surprising number of poems and paintings. It has also has swum its way into the cuisines of a great many cultures.

Many Germans still cure their hangovers by curling pickled herring ‘rollmops’ around pickles. The Dutch tend to dangle the fish straight into their mouths, while Russians, Ukrainians and Poles chop them up with beets and mayonnaise. Scandinavians prefer their herring pickles on crusty old rye bread, washed down with gulps of Akvavit. Meanwhile, New Yorkers line up at old-fashioned Jewish appetizing stores for the schmaltziest (fattest) morsels.

Pickled herring made its way to Central America as part of the nefarious slave trade that moved forced labour, rum, fish and sugar around the Atlantic Ocean, helping build the once-vibrant economy along Nova Scotia’s South Shore. But the exact story of how pickled herring ended up as a South Shore delicacy remains shrouded in mystery, as does the curious name.

The Oxford English Dictionary, that old standby, says Solomon Gundy is “a dish composed of chopped meat, anchovies, eggs, onions with oil and condiments.” The phrase is said to have “obscure origins’, possibly related to the Italian ‘salmagundi’, and/or French ‘salmigondis’ which is defined, unhelpfully, as “a thing of various tastes and textures.”

titlepageSolomon Gundy appears in many seventeenth and eighteenth century recipe books, purportedly as a meal made on pirate ships. A recipe appears as far back as 1764 in English Housewifery Exemplified, by Elizabeth Moxon. Nova Scotia’s most famous historian, Helen Creighton, also noted its prominence in her 1950 classic Folklore of Lunenberg County. (Incidentally, she recommended Solomon Gundy as a cure for fever, wrapped around your feet.)

In Jamaica, Solomon Gundy is a popular pickled herring paste laden with fiery peppers. It is also oddly similar in name to the poetic children’s rhyme character/comic zombie villain ‘Solomon Grundy’ – though this connection is maddeningly unclear, as well.

Did Swiss and German immigrants pack pickled herring in their suitcases when the British brought them over to colonize Nova Scotia’s South Shore in the early 1700s? Or did a batch of Solomon Gundy catch a ride on a slave ship with the dark rum and molasses? Did Superman himself drop it off?

Although word is spreading about this enigmatic fish pickle, Solomon Gundy has yet to enjoy its big-time role in the local food spotlight. Still quietly made and enjoyed in South Shore kitchens, Solomon Gundy is usually served on crackers, with cream cheese or sour cream. Local lore suggests a piece of ‘Gundy is also preferred to champagne and French kisses as the best way to ring in the New Year.

Shelburne’s award-winning Charlotte Lane Café features Solomon Gundy as part of a local fish sampler plate – modernized with chipotle mayo and some pickled ginger. As chef Roland Glauser explains: “Our customers love it – tourists and locals alike. I decided to have it on the menu because it is such a traditional food… so tasty and showcases the ocean so well.”

Mersey Point Fish Products has been selling Solomon Gundy since the early 1980s. Sourced from Bay of Fundy and Newfoundland seiners, it is their best-selling pickle.

Until recently, it was mostly produced for export. But Mersey Point’s plant director, Robert Mutsaers, has noticed that “Nova Scotians are getting more interested in trying traditional fish products.” Presenting at Saltscapes (Halifax’s popular consumer expo show) for the first time earlier this year, he watched the Solomon Gundy fly off the sample platters. “I was very happy to see how well it went over. I think we gained many new customers in one weekend!”

While the origins of Solomon Gundy remain shrouded in delicious mystery, its newfound popularity is only just beginning. Some of the best seafood is caught and processed right here in Nova Scotia and pickled herring is a treat ready to be celebrated alongside this province’s world-famous blueberries, apples, trap-caught shrimp and harpooned swordfish.

Get to know Solomon Gundy before it goes mainstream. Sources include the Historic Farmer’s Market in Halifax or the shelves of most grocery stores in Nova Scotia. Better yet, go fully artisanal and make it yourself with this classic recipe from Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens:

Solomon Gundy

1/2 dozen salt herring
2 medium onions
2 cups vinegar
2 tablespoons pickling spice
1/2 cup sugar

Remove tails and heads from herring. Clean inside and remove the skin. Cut in pieces about 1 inch thick and fillet the pieces. Soak in cold water about 24 hours. Squeeze the water from the herring. Place in bottle with slices of onion, in alternate layers. In a saucepan, heat the vinegar and add pickling spice and sugar. Let cool; then pour over the herring in the bottles.

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