Herring Festival, Hareng Roi Etaples
Every year along the Opal Coast in the north of France a very special festival takes place – the Hareng Roi, the King Herring! This humble fish, somewhat overlooked these days, was until the beginning of the 20th century the king of fish par excellence. They were so plentiful off the coast of France that they were the staple diet of the poorest families. The herring has made fortunes for the many fishermen who inhabited the ports of Boulogne-sur-Mer and Etaples-sur-Mer, as well as those who salted and canned it.
Smoking and salting herring are well-known practices mentioned in ancient history books as being food given to the legionnaires of Julius Caesar in France. According to some historians it was the British who first coined the phrase King for the herring back in the Middle Ages and it is a name that has stuck. In Boulogne-sur-Mer and Etaples-sur-Mer each November the King Herring is feted for a weekend as thousands of people attend festivals in its honour. We went to the Hareng Roi at Etaples-sur-Mer… and so did thousands of others! In the port of Etaples, “Les Bons Z’Enfants” a local folk group host this authentic festival to celebrate an event which recalls the days when the fishermen returned from the sea bringing with them an abundance of herring.
Over the course of the weekend some three tons of herring are eaten – fresh grilled herring on large barbecues, pickled herring or smoked accompanied by a good glass of wine and served by a hundred local Etaplois proud of this tradition and dressed in traditional costumes.
On the day we went it was raining but that didn’t seem to dampen anyone’s spirits! There were hundreds of people taking shelter in tents enjoying a plate (or several) of herring cooked every which way. There was singing and even a bit of dancing and everyone seemed to be in a very jolly mood – perhaps the glass of wine you got with your herring meal for just a few euros had something to do with it!
I can honestly say I’ve never been to a festival quite like it before but, as I like herring, singing, dancing and having a good laugh, I shall be returning next year for more!