Rollmops or vinegar-soused herring is a very Northern European treatment, but gross depletion of this undervalued fish from brutal over-netting off our coasts and EU quota systems means that the herring you buy to make the dish will probably be imported from Norway. While traditionally baked in malt vinegar, white wine vinegar or cider vinegar gives a more delicate result.
They can be cooked the day before and refrigerated.
Preheat oven to 180°C/350°F/gas 4.
Wash and scale the herrings, cut off their heads, slice open the underside and gut them. Rinse the cavity well.
Remove the backbones by first pressing down through the skin to detach it from the surrounding flesh. Turn the fish on their backs and pull out the backbones, using a small knife to detach them with the tail, then flatten the filleted fish with the heel of your hand. Remove any obvious bones with tweezers or small pliers. Put the herring skin side down.
Place a slice of onion on each herring. Season with salt and pepper and, starting at the tail, roll each up neatly, securing it with a toothpick.
Sprinkle the pickling spice in the bottom of a gratin dish just big enough to hold the rollmops in a single layer and pack them into it. Stick the bay leaves between the fish and pour over the vinegar and an equal volume of water to come about halfway up the fish. If you need more liquid, add equal parts of vinegar and water until it does.
Bake for 30 minutes. Remove and let cool, then chill for at least an hour.
Serve with brown bread and butter.
© 1998 Alastair Little and Richard Whittington estate. All rights reserved.