For a country with only one coastline, Germans are particularly fond of fish and seafood. Especially given today’s focus on healthful eating, the popularity of the food group in Germany is not surprising. However, much of the fish and seafood Germans enjoy is imported, and rising prices and reduced supply due to overfishing have contributed to a decline in consumption—in 2022 Germans ate about 30 pounds of fish and seafood per person, down from about 35 pounds a decade ago. Sustainability efforts and increased investment in aquaculture are expected to help turn this tide for the better.
Not surprisingly the biggest fish eaters in Germany are in the northern states: Hamburg, Sachsen, Schleswig-Holstein, Berlin, Brandenburg and Bremen. Fish features heavily in Northern German cuisine, particularly herring. Once considered a poor man’s food, herring are a gourmet delight to rich and poor alike today. Their popularity began in the twelfth century and the Hanseatic towns of Bremen, Lübeck and Hamburg have the humble herring to thank for the Hanseatic League’s initial rise to power and the fortunes amassed during that period. Fishermen in the town of Lübeck had easy access to herring spawning grounds off the Swedish peninsula; however, the lack of refrigeration at that time was problematic in keeping the fish fresh. Hamburg, on the other hand, had access to the salt mines in nearby Kiel, thus was able to provide its neighbor with the ability to dry and salt the herring and keep it preserved. The herring industry provided a great source of wealth to the League and indeed the herring is one of its symbols.
One of northern Germany’s most favored snacks is the Fischbrötchen or Fischsemmel, a sandwich made with fish and onions often with pickles or remoulade sauce added. You’ll find them at fast-food stands and take-out restaurants in every German city and town. The most common type of fish used to make a Fischbrötchen is Bismarck herring or soused herring, which is a skin-on herring filet, soaked in a marinade of water, white vinegar, oil, bay leaves, mustard seeds, peppercorns, onion rings and salt. It was named after Germany’s first Chancellor Otto von Bismarck who was quite partial to this dish. Rollmops is another popular delicacy, and not just in northern Germany. As their name would suggest, these are pickled herring filets rolled around slices of onion, pickled gherkins, or green olives, and secured with wooden skewers. They are eaten cold or can also be used in a Fischbrotchen. Rollmops are popular as a hangover cure eaten at a Katenfrühstuck (hangover breakfast) as they are said to restore electrolytes.
Matjes herrings also feature predominantly in German cuisine. These are young herring that are caught before the start of their spawning season then partially gutted and pickled in brine. They are often eaten in a bread roll with sliced raw onions (Matjesbrotchen) but most traditionally eaten with potatoes boiled in their skins. Matjes herrings are the main ingredient in Matjessalat, a salad of diced matjes, pickled cucumber, apple, and onion, sometime with a mayonnaise or cream-based dressing. Such is the appreciation for the matjes herring in Germany, that there are a number of festivals that recognize its significant role in German cuisine. For three days every June, over 80,000 herring lovers attend the annual Matjesfestival in the northern town of Duisburg, close to the Dutch border. Also in June, the city of Hamburg holds what it claims is the northern Germany’s biggest Matjes-Schlemmer-Festival in its Fischauktionshalle (fish auction hall).
To the north of Kiel, the Bay of Eckernförde is famous for its sprats (Sprotten), which are a member of the herring family. These small silvery fish are smoked using a process involving beech log fires and the addition of alder and oak wood gives the fish a golden shimmer. While smoked whole, most people tend to eat everything except the head. Less squeamish sprat fans eat the entire fish with head and tail (“mit Kopp un Steert.”) Smoked sprats earned the name “Kieler Sprotten” because they were packed and dispatched from the railway station in Kiel. Today, sprats may only bear the name “echte Kieler Sprotten” if they are produced within the bay of Kiel (Kieler Bucht). Kieler Sprotten are traditionally packed in wooden cases, but are also canned. You can buy fresh Kiel sprats straight from the boat.
Aside from its role as a high-value source of protein, fish is an important source of essential micronutrients, fatty acids and minerals. In the late 1990’s, scientists found that cultures with a high level of fish consumption such as Japan and Iceland had a lower mortality rate overall and were less likely to die from heart disease. The hero element? Omega 3 fatty acids which, in addition to being essential for brain development and function, were discovered to have a protective effect on heart health. Research has shown that omega-3 fatty acids reduce the risk of abnormal heartbeats, which can lead to sudden death, decrease triglyceride levels, slow the growth rate of artery-clogging plaque, and lower blood pressure.
Today, the leading cause of death in the United States continues to be heart disease. In its efforts to reach the goal of reducing the number of deaths from heart disease, the American Heart Association recommends, among other things, to eat at least 2 servings of fish per week, in particular oily fish such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring and trout. Such oily fish are top choices for German consumers. After pollock, salmon is the next most popular fish, followed by herring, tuna, and shrimp. With most of the population living further afield from the source, fresh fish is not as prevalent in today’s German diet and more than a third of all fish consumed is of the frozen variety, while almost equally as popular are canned and marinated fish accounting for one quarter of the German fish intake.
Wondering how you can include the recommended two servings per week of heart-healthy fish into your diet and busy lifestyle? We’ve made it easy for you! Purchase a selection of genuine German canned fish online from Appel and Ruegenfisch and try these quick and easy recipes. Be kind to your heart and your wallet!