Fishy Tale of Easter
in the Middle Ages
the time of the Lenten fast in Spring, it was the fish that was
still cheap and plentiful when meat was forbidden for the 40 long
days that led up to Easter.
to the cold North Atlantic, herring held a layer of fat that was
a natural for preservation, and either smoked or salted, they
were packed by the thousands in barrels and shipped inland to
markets all over medieval Europe.
gleaming silver when caught in trawlers' nets in September, they
had all been but reduced to the color of gray cardboard by the
time Lent had rolled around. Not
surprisingly, the barrels of preserved herring would come to symbolize
steely Lenten sacrifice - coupled with a cast iron stomach.
its fishy reputation, however, the lowly herring came into its
own in the Hundred Years War when, on February 12, 1429, the French
attacked an English supply train in the siege of Orléans.
fierce attack, the English army barricaded themselves behind their
barrels laden with herring intended for Lenten consumption. The
skirmish was forever afterward dubbed The Battle of Herrings.
The English won.
than salted, the 'red' herring quickly took on the appearance
of fish jerky, and it often
needed copious helpings of mustard to make it palatable. At Queens
College, Oxford, on Easter Sunday the first dish served was a
red herring made to look like a man on horseback riding away -
a symbol that all the fasting and penance of Lent was finally
was the smoking process that gave the red herring its distinctive
brownish red color. Hunters would leave red herrings along their
trail because the strong smell would confuse the wolves. This
is the origin of red herring, or "to leave a false trail."