On the trail of herring along Germany's Baltic coast

On Germany’s Baltic coast, from Wismar to Rostock, herring have inspired devotion for centuries. Today, they’re still treasured, whether served fried with potatoes or pickled with raw onion.

Seagulls on the Fischland-Darss-Zingst peninsula.

Photograph by Celia Topping
By Christie Dietz
Published 10 Jan 2023, 13:00 GMT

It's 9am on a chilly March morning and I'm standing in the sunshine watching two men selling fish. One is serving customers directly from his moored fishing boat, the other from the docks at the Old Harbour in the port city of Wismar. Between them are stacks of red and green crates, a heap of plastic bags into which they slip their freshly caught, shiny silver fish, and a blackboard scrawled with one word: herring.

Today is the first day of Wismar’s annual two-week herring festival, and local fisherman Martin Saager is busy arranging wooden tables and benches next to a small white tent from which he and his colleagues will shortly be selling fried herring. Martin started his own business in 2003, after fishing for his father’s company for almost a decade. Five years ago, he broadened his operations, opening a snack bar at the harbour, selling fish and chips and pickled herring, and buying fish from elsewhere to supplement his own catch. But today, his offering is simple: fried herring with sliced white bread. And bottles of beer. “Fish have got to swim,” he grins.

A fisherman fishing for herring in Warnemünde.

A fisherman fishing for herring in Warnemünde.

Photograph by Celia Topping

Herring has been a staple food on Germany’s Baltic coast for centuries and it remains a vital resource for small-scale fisheries across the region. On Wismar’s cobbled streets, the legacy of the so-called ‘silver of the sea’ is clear to see. Three herring have a place on the city’s coat of arms, and the wealth and power Wismar gained as a major trading centre of the Hanseatic League, in large part thanks to the oily fish, is evident in its numerous ornate, eye-catching buildings. 

Wismar’s historic centre, which has UNESCO World Heritage status, is home to a remarkable array of architecture, from half-timbered medieval buildings and colourfully painted gabled houses to elaborate red brick gothic cathedrals, a neoclassical town hall and a scattering of Swedish buildings that remain from that country’s 150-year rule here. And while the former East German city didn’t make it through the Second World War unscathed, many of its buildings have been carefully restored since the collapse of the GDR.

At the Restaurant & Hotel Wismar, I’m met by chef and owner Anne Werth, one of the herring festival’s organisers. Her high-ceilinged, wood-panelled restaurant is adorned with maritime decor: framed maps and etchings, hand-painted boats and ornamental stacks of stones. Throughout the festival, her menu features dishes such as herring schnitzel with fried egg, beetroot and mash, or her signature fried herring — “I use rye flour rather than wheat to make the skin crispy,” she explains — paired with stewed apple and onion, or with fried potatoes and a handful of crunchy, salty cubes of bacon. 

I instead order a pair of herring that have been preserved in a sweet and sour brine of sugar and vinegar, bay leaves, mustard seeds and allspice before being browned in a pan. Served cold, garnished with rings of red onion and accompanied by a small bowl of fried potatoes, the two herring have bronze-coloured, wrinkly, soggy-looking skin. This is an important lesson in proverbial books and covers, however: their flesh is firm and meaty, sweet and sour, gloriously perfumed and deeply moreish. I happily polish them both off.

A couple eat herring sandwiches on the harbour at Warnemünde.

Photograph by Celia Topping

Later in the afternoon, travelling east from Wismar through gently rolling, grassy countryside dotted with wind turbines, red brick farmhouses and grazing horses, I arrive in the port town of Warnemünde, a district of the Hanseatic city of Rostock, whose centre is some six miles further inland. Warnemünde formed sometime around the turn of the 13th century as a small fishing village, but by the early 1800s it had gained status as a seaside resort for the families of wealthy Rostock merchants. Today, it’s a popular tourist destination and a major stop for cruise liners. 

Here I meet local guide Klaus Lass, a tall man with a white handlebar moustache, who walks with me in the direction of the sea along the Alter Strom, a canal lined on one side with lovingly renovated fishermen’s cottages, some of which are now shops and restaurants. Fishing cutters and sailing vessels bob about on the water, and there’s a queue of people in winter coats waiting to buy fish sandwiches from an old East German boat. “Those are used for selling to tourists,” Klaus tells me. He then points to a strip of mobile stands on the east side of the canal. “Over there is for locals.” 

We cross the canal on a 120-year-old swing bridge and make our way down the line of stands that make up Warnemünde’s fish market. Chalkboards list potato soup and sausages in bread rolls, while huge old metal smokers display fat, orange chunks of fish. Domed glass counters are crammed with rows of pickled herring sandwiches in shell-shaped buns, stacks of plastic tubs of rollmops and matjes (fillets of young herring in salt brine), and piles of little fried sprats. Six days a week, these small-scale fisheries also clean and sell their freshly caught fish from small shacks between the mobile stands. However, due to fishing quotas, they now have to buy in the ready-to-eat stuff.

These quotas, in place all across Germany’s Baltic coast, aim to address the fact that herring stocks have been producing fewer and fewer offspring — a result of both historic overfishing and the warming of the Baltic Sea. Earlier, when I’d spoken to Dr Christopher Zimmermann, head of Rostock’s Thünen Institute for Baltic Sea Fisheries, he explained it’s likely to take “six to seven years to get [stocks] back to a good amount”, adding it was “unlikely previous levels will ever be reached again”. The effects of this have been felt throughout the region. “There are 15 fishermen remaining in Warnemünde,” says Klaus. “There were 80 during the GDR.”

Traditional rollmops – pickled herring fillets.

Photograph by Celia Topping

A taste of the Teepott

We stroll back over the canal and down an alley, turning into Alexandrinenstrasse — one of Warnemünde’s old streets, running parallel to the Alter Strom. It’s narrow, cobbled and very pretty, lined with trees and more impeccably kept cottages. We walk to the end of the street, arriving at a small square next to a sand-coloured 19th-century lighthouse that marks the start of Warnemünde’s seafront promenade. Klaus tells me how, as a child growing up here in the GDR, he would be sent off to the beach in the mornings with his friends. “At lunchtime, we’d run home, shouting, ‘Mummy, I’m hungry.’ She’d make fried potatoes with herring, and then we’d all go back to the beach.”

With its fine, pale golden sand and grassy dunes stretching into the distance, Warnemünde’s Blue Flag beach is the widest on Germany’s Baltic coast. At one end, the promenade tapers off into a sandy path that disappears into the coastal forest of the Stoltera Nature Reserve. From where I stand at the mouth of the Unterwarnow estuary and the end of the Alter Strom, a pier stretches out into the deep blue water towards a green and white lighthouse, beyond which a large Danish ferry chugs slowly towards the port. Behind me, partially hidden by a sand dune, is the rather incongruous curved concrete shell roof of the Teepott Building, which has housed a beach restaurant since the late 1960s and is a striking example of the modernist architecture of the former GDR.

Left: Top:

A shopping street in Wismar.

Right: Bottom:

A fisherman selling herring at the Old Harbour in Wismar.

photographs by Celia Topping

Inside, Teepott’s cream walls are decorated with black and white photographs of Warnemünde — images of beach scenes involving fishing boats and Germany’s famous striped, hooded wicker beach chairs, which were invented here in 1882. I’ve come to try the labskaus, a salt-cured beef and potato dish that originated as sailors’ fare and incorporated whatever other rations were available on board. Served warm, Teepott’s version comes topped with a fried egg and garnished with slithers of pickled cucumber, three shiny rollmops and two pink pieces of smoked char. The labskaus itself vaguely resembles steak tartare and tastes a little like corned beef hash, but it has a pleasingly coarse, meaty texture and a peppery kick. I ask what’s in it. “Matjes, sour gherkins, beetroot, salted beef brisket, potatoes, rosemary, chives, parsley and dill,” I’m told. “And a whole lot of love.”

My final stop is the peninsula of Fischland-Darss-Zingst, known for its pristine, powdery beaches and the ancient beech forests of the Western Pomerania Lagoon Area National Park. I stay in Ahrenshoop, one of the peninsula’s six villages, located on a strip of land less than half a mile wide, between the Baltic Sea and the Saaler Bodden lagoon. A former fishing village and an artists’ colony in the late 1800s, Ahrenshoop today is a small but popular holiday destination full of boutiques, gift shops, galleries and exceptionally charming, colourfully painted thatched houses.

I wake early on my last morning to watch the sun rise on Ahrenshoop’s beautiful white beach, fringed with orderly bristles of newly planted dune grass. The air is bitterly cold, the sea is calm and the beach is bathed in a hazy pink light. Gulls perch on wooden breakwater posts and there’s a sporadic quack from the ducks bobbing about near the shore. I realise that once there would have been fishermen in the water at this time, hauling in the nets they left overnight. I think of the past centuries of fishing and trading, the wealth and the success that herring brought communities all along the coast, and what’s now in danger of being lost. A goose honks overhead, snapping me out of my thoughts, and I stand up and shake the sand off my coat. Then I turn and head back to my hotel, wondering if I can’t fit in one last herring for breakfast before I go.

A ceramic container for marinated herring at Restaurant & Hotel Wismar.

Photograph by Celia Topping

Four local favourites to try

Sea buckthorn
Thorny bushes of bright orange sea buckthorn berries thrive in the dunes along Germany’s Baltic and North Sea coasts. Prized for their high vitamin C content, they’re used in everything from jams to schnapps.

This sour soup of Russian origin became an easy-to-prepare classic in the GDR. The traditional East German version typically includes peppers, pickled vegetables and leftover meat and sausage or fish, flavoured with tomato paste and paprika 
and served with 
sour cream.

Mecklenburger Rippenbraten
Popular across much of north Germany, this rib roast was originally a festive speciality of rural Mecklenburg. Pork belly is stuffed with baked fruit such as apples and plums, roasted and served with red cabbage and potatoes or dumplings.

Rote Grütze
This northern German and Scandinavian dessert is a sweet mix of (mostly red) berries and cherries. Thickened with starch or even the groats, or grütze, from which the dish gets its name, it’s best enjoyed with vanilla sauce

Bismarck herring sandwich at the fish market in Warnemünde.

Photograph by Celia Topping

RECIPE: Bismarck herring

This German speciality is delicious served in a white crusty roll with lettuce, sliced onion and gherkins.

Serves: 4-5

Takes: 15mins, plus four days resting/marinating

10 fresh herring fillets 
500ml white wine vinegar
2 tbsp granulated sugar
2 bay leaves
5 allspice berries
3 juniper berries
½ tsp mustard seeds
½ tsp black peppercorns
2 medium onions, peeled and sliced into ring

1. Place the fillets in a glass bowl and sprinkle with 1-2 tsp salt. Cover tightly with cling film, place in the fridge and leave to rest for 2 days.
2. Once rested, rinse the fillets in cold water and put into a clean glass bowl. 
3. Add the vinegar to a medium size saucepan along with 500ml water, the sugar, bay leaves, spices and 1 tbsp salt. Place over a high heat, bring to  a boil then immediately remove from the heat. Leave  to cool completely.
4. Add the sliced onion to the herring. Pour the vinegar mixture over the herring, making sure the fish is submerged. Cover tightly with cling film, put it in the fridge and leave to marinate for 2 days. Store in the fridge and eat within a week.



Getting there

Airlines that fly direct to Hamburg from the UK include EasyJet from Manchester, Edinburgh and London Gatwick, and British Airways and Eurowings from Heathrow. Hamburg can be reached by train from London, with two changes.

Where to stay

The Dock Inn Hostel Warnemünde is a modern hostel with large communal areas, bike rental, a bouldering hall and a sauna. The rooftop shipping containers make for minimalist but comfortable doubles with views of the shipyard. Shipping container from €44 (£38).

How to do it

Expedia offers two nights at the Townhouse Stadt Hamburg Wismar from £250pp, including EasyJet flights from London Gatwick.

More info visit germany.travel.

Published in Issue 18 (winter 2022) of Food by National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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