Monday, December 10, 2012


Having stooped to the depths of writing about avocadoes in this journal supposedly devoted to northern foods, it was probably in everyone’s best interests that I took a little break. The hiatus was not planned, just happened, as each time I considered a possible topic for a post, my inner editor said, “Meh.” I needed some fresh inspiration, and I got it from a road trip that Mary and I took up to the South Shore of Lake Superior (aka “The Cheesehead Riviera”; I just made that up...), destination Halvorson’s Fisheries in Cornucopia, Wisconsin.

There we watched the herring boats come in on a chill but beautiful afternoon. They had to break through a couple of inches of ice in the harbor—the trip was a preview of things to come, too, as our northward drive took us from the dusting of Dunn County snow to nearly a foot along the shore. We loaded a cooler with fresh off the boat herring—including several whole fish that yielded a pile of roe—along with smoked lake trout and whitefish. 

Lake Superior herring is an under-appreciated, misunderstood fish.  Its reputation suffers, I think, from its being confused with other fish known as herring to which it is not, in fact, closely related. The Lake Superior herring, Coregonus artedii, is more closely related to trout and salmon than it is to the saltwater herrings so well known in northern Europe. It’s a reasonable surmise that Scandinavian and German immigrants in the northland mistook this freshwater fish that schools in vast numbers for the ocean fish they knew from home—there are, indeed, superficial resemblances in size and color. And when you consider that for many people, their main association with herring is with the pickled variety, perhaps of indifferent quality, there’s a general reluctance to embrace the lake herring as the superb and versatile food fish that it is.

 As for the name confusion, lake herring is variously known as cisco, bluefin, and, where it occurs in smaller lakes, tullibee. There have been efforts in some circles to “rebrand” lake herring as cisco, but I doubt that is likely to gain much momentum—especially since I’ve seen smoked herring and smoked cisco resting side by side in the cooler case in lakeside fish shops over the years. There’s little consensus on what to call what, it seems, at least at the local level.  So I don't think the term herring is going away.  We just need to work on spreading the word about what a delightful fish it is to cook with.

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve prepared herring in a half dozen ways, and I’m still not tired of eating it. Last night a herring fillet went into a Sichuan-inspired dish with fermented vegetables and tofu in a hot bean sauce. On the our first night back from Corny, I simply fried fillets in a cornmeal dusting and served them with a crunchy, savory garnish of fried bacon, leek, and jalapeno, with a splash of apple cider beurre blanc. Other nights I fried chunks in a tempura-like batter for the best fish tacos I’ve ever eaten; broiled it and served it with a chile-laced mayonnaise; whizzed it up in the FP to make herring quenelles, fish dumplings that I served in a chowder-inspired sauce; and we snacked on the salted herring roe atop rounds of garden potatoes roasted in duck fat, with a dollop of sour cream.

That roe, by the way, is where the real money is for the Lake Superior commercial fisheries, Maureen Halvorson told me. Completing the ironic herring circle, it is shipped to Scandinavia, where it is considered a delicacy—even though it comes from a fish that does not exist anywhere near those northern European shores.

Here are a few more shots from our quick, fishy trip to Corny:

The beach at Corny, "The Cheesehead Riviera"

Cornmeal-dusted pan-fried lake herring with crunchy garnish, cider beurre blanc

It just occurred to me on this trip that they wear orange jumpsuits so they'll be easy to see if they fall overboard....

This was not the first time the three-hour drive to the South Shore was a time trip--that short distance often takes you to another season on the shore.

Waiting for the herring boats

Ice on the deck

The South Shore herring fishery is thriving; Halvorson's added another boat this year, bringing the fleet to four.

" the rooms of her icewater mansions...".

Text and photos copyright 2012 by Brett Laidlaw


Amy said...

Great post, love the stuff too. Last quote . . . Gordon Lightfoot?

Trout Caviar said...

Thanks, Amy. Halvorsons will start fishing lake trout and whitefish later this month, and I hope to get back up there.

Gordo, you got it: "The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down of the big lake they call Gitchee Gumee...". Always gives me goosebumps!

Cheers~ Brett

Jennifer said...

My father-in-law catches tullibee sometimes ice fishing on Mille Lacs, and he usually smokes it. It is DIVINE.

Teresa Marrone said...

Excellent post, Brett, and nice to see someone else who appreciates this iconic North Shore fish. We love Lake Superior herring in all its forms. In addition to bringing it home for cooking here, we order it every time we have the chance when we're up on the shore; the best is at Dockside Fish Market in Grand Marais (their fish and chips basket, with fresh herring, is the stuff of legend).

Happy holidays to you and Mary--