Wo on a day in June every year do thousands of people take to the streets for the matjes? In Emden, the seaport city on the North Sea coast. The “Emder Matjestage” takes place there every year – apart from this one – the sporting highlight is the matjes run with around 3500 participants. The festival, which is a tourist magnet in the East Frisia region with 150,000 visitors, has been around for 30 years. One of the main sponsors is Fokken & Müller GmbH & Co. Matjes- und Feinkostmanufaktur KG.
Emden is the Matje town on the North Sea. With three herring fisheries and 75 fishing vessels, it had been the center for herring fisheries in Germany since the 16th century until a ban was pronounced in 1975 due to the impending overfishing of the adjacent North Sea areas.
Since then, the herring fishery in Emden can only be visited in the museum. Mayor Tim Kruithoff emphasizes the economic importance of the Emden specialty: “The Matjes is one of Emden’s most important advertising media on menus and in supermarkets.”
Caught “virgin” in summer
Fokken & Müller, founded in 1895, sources its raw materials from the areas between Stavanger and Ålesund in Norway. The fish are caught there only from June to August, which guarantees their “virginity” and high fat content. The fish information center in Hamburg explains that a matjes must not have formed any roe or milk during the fishing season.
Other companies also bought raw goods at a later date, but the intense taste suffers as a result, says Klaas Müller, Junior Director of Fokken & Müller. “From our point of view, the herrings only have the optimal fat content in summer, because the fish eat fat before the mating season begins.”
“The catch of around 6000 tons of whole herring annually is processed into herring rags on land in Norway. These are vacuumed and frozen, ”explains Müller. The raw goods are transported to the Netherlands by ship, where they are stored in a permanent cooling system before they are driven on to Emden in trucks.
The skin should shine particularly
As a rule, 15 tonnes of the herring rags are processed by the workforce every day; according to Müller, up to 30 tonnes can be in the run-up to Christmas or Easter. Freezing is one reason why matjes can be enjoyed all year round.
The raw goods are thawed upon arrival at the company using a specially developed thawing cell. This technique only exists twelve times in Europe. The gentle thawing process at zero to 4 degrees Celsius guarantees freshness as soon as it is caught, says Müller. “The skinning of the herring rags is done by hand, which leaves the silver sheen underneath the skin undamaged,” he continues.
When using a machine, the fillet would unnecessarily come into contact with water and the taste would be watered down. If you put matjes from different manufacturers side by side, you could recognize the real Emder matjes by their shine, the junior boss claims.
Special maturation process
A herring will only become a real matje if it is subjected to a special ripening process. The herring rags are placed in a salt bath with ripening agents, which supports the natural enzymes of the fish in their effect: the small bones become tender and not noticeable, the taste becomes more intense.
Fokken & Müller employs 70 people and has a turnover of around 14 million euros a year. The workforce mainly consists of women and men of Vietnamese origin. The majority of the customers are wholesalers, restaurant owners and canteen operators.
The prices are subject to fluctuations. The herring price fluctuates due to quota regulations and natural influences. According to Müller, prices have risen in recent years due to lower fishing quotas and smaller catches.
The historical significance of herring fishing for Emden is underlined by Eske Nannen, chairman of the supervisory board of the Kunsthalle Emden and widow Henri Nannens, the founder of the magazine “Stern”. It was a matter of course for them to serve invited guests coming to the art gallery to serve matjes from Fokken & Müller. For them, matjes include hearty fried potatoes, black bread and green beans.