Today most people are concerned primarily with the quality and variety of the food they consume, but years ago the crucial issues were those of supply and preservation.
Such fish as herring and cod, which could be easily preserved through salting , drying, or smoking, answered the needs of the military as well as the civilian population.
Until the early 15th century in England, church rules forbade the eating of meat on nearly half of the days of the year. Fish was eaten during Lent and on all Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays.
Not until Cromwell's reign in the mid-17th century were fish days abolished.
By the 17th century, a fierce rivalry broke out between the Dutch and the English, who no longer tolerated the Dutch fishing in their coastal waters.
In those days, fishing rights and naval power went hand in hand, and the English won control of the herring grounds, thanks to their domination of the sea.
Herring is still popular throughout Europe, with each nation favoring its own distinctive mode of preparation.
While smoked kippers are popular for breakfast in England, the most prized English herring are ''real Yarmouth bloaters.'' These herring, which are very perishable, are lightly salted and smoked for a maximum of three or four hours.
Red herring, by contrast, is heavily salted and cold smoked for several weeks , giving a red color to parts of the fish. Red herrings are not widely eaten today, but they have left their mark on British culture.
According to Dorothy Hartley's ''Food in England,'' if a friend from Glasgow wishes you well at New Year's, ''he slips a red herring down his sleeve into the palm of your hand as he grasps it.''
The Scots like to fry their herring after coating them in oatmeal. Scottish students were reputedly always sent off to university in the autumn with a barrel of oatmeal and a barrel of salt herring. The oatmeal was for both morning porridge and for coating the herring.
The Dutch are the great enthusiasts for fresh, raw herring, or ''green herring,'' as they call it. Live herring have a green back that changes to blue during processing. Great festivities attend the sending off of the herring fleet from Scheveningen in the late spring. The first keg of green herring landed is carried to the Queen by the boat's skipper.
The French herring trade is centered in Boulogne. As elsewhere, most of the catch is salted, either at sea or in port. Not all Frenchmen are enthusiasts of salt herring. Alexandre Dumas, for instance, wrote in his ''Grand Dictionaire de Cuisine'' that ''salted herrings almost never appear on the master's table, but in countries where they are abundant, they are useful for workers and the poor.''
In Sweden, herring preparations range from the luxurious to the simple and homely. Some hearty main dishes, such as the Finnish Herring Pudding, are the kind of dishes that ''grandmother used to make.''
The Operakallaren, Sweden's most elegant and famous restaurant, regularly includes such dishes and sells similar preparations in its take-out department, or food boutique, as it is called.
Herring really comes into its own, however, at the smorgasbord table. No smorgasbord, or Swedish buffet, would be complete without it.
On a wintry Sunday afternoon, I visited the Ulriksdals Wardhus, a charming inn and restaurant built in 1868, nestled in the woods just outside Stockholm.
At the herring table, two dozen or more dishes of herring were set out, Baltic herring grouped together on one side opposite other types of herring. An American used to herring and sour cream would find it hard to believe that all those dishes started with the same basic ingredient.
Most of the herring consumed in Sweden and the United States is salt herring. Fresh herring is delectable, but it has a short season, spoils easily, and is seldom sold far from the seaport where the catch is landed.
Salt herring keeps well, but is not regularly stocked in local fish stores and must often be specially ordered.
Prepare salt herring by soaking it in fresh water for a minimum of 12 hours in the refrigerator, changing the water several times. When ready to use, remove the fish from the water, drain, and pat dry.
Fillet the fish, being careful to remove as many bones as possible, pulling off the outer skin of each fillet. If whole salt herrings are unavailable, substitute commercially prepared marinated herring.
The following herring recipes may be served separately, or altogether, as the first course of a formal dinner.
Together they make an elegant mini-smorgasbord. In Sweden, such dishes are often arranged on a separate sideboard where guests help themselves before bringing their plates to the main dining table. Boiled new potatoes, Scandinavian crisp bread, and butter are the traditional accompaniments. Quantities should be adjusted according to the number of guests and number of recipes prepared. Herring in Curry Sauce 3/4 cup leeks, finely chopped 4 tablespoons shallots, finely chopped 3 salt herring fillets, in bite-size pieces 1 apple, peeled, coarsely chopped Sauce: 1/2 cup mayonnaise 1/2 cup plain unflavored yogurt 2 teaspoons curry powder 1 teaspoon paprika 1/2 teaspoon black pepper Radishes for garnish Parsley for garnish
Fill a glass jar with layers of leeks, shallots, herring, and apples. In a small bowl, blend together mayonnaise, yogurt, curry powder, paprika, and black pepper.
Pour sauce over herring, cover jar, and refrigerate at least a day before using.
To serve, arrange on small oval dish. Garnish with finely sliced radishes and sprigs of green parsley.
Curry sauce is traditionally served with Swedish marinated salmon, but it is equally good served with herring. Finnish Herring Pudding 2 tablespoons butter 2 yellow onions, peeled, finely diced 2 leeks, finely sliced 4 ounces Canadian bacon, finely diced 6 potatoes, peeled, sliced 3 fillets salt herring, cut into bite-size pieces 2 eggs 1 1/3 cups milk or 1 cup milk + 1/3 cup heavy cream 1 tablespoon flour 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Melt butter in frying pan. Add onions, leeks, and bacon; cook until onions are golden but not browned.
Butter a wide baking dish and layer potatoes, herring, then a layer of onions , leeks, and bacon.
Break eggs into a small mixing bowl and whip lightly. Add milk, flour, and black pepper. Pour over herring mixture.
The dish can be prepared ahead to this point and chilled.
Bake 50 minutes in 350 degrees F. oven until potatoes are soft and pudding is lightly browned. Herring Balls With Currant Sauce 3 salt herring fillets 3 cold cooked potatoes 1 cup diced cooked meat 1 tablespoon potato flour 1/2 teaspoon salt Freshly ground black pepper Dry breadcrumbs, sieved Drippings of lard or oil for frying Lemon wedges for garnish Parsley for garnish
Chop herring finely by hand or in a food processor with steel blade, or grind it. Chop potatoes, then meat, in small batches. Combine in large mixing bowl.
Add potato flour, salt, and pepper to fish mixture and mix thoroughly. If mixture is too solid, dilute with 1 to 2 tablespoons milk. Form into small balls and roll in bread crumbs.
Melt drippings in skillet and fry balls until lightly browned on all sides. Arrange on warm serving platter; garnish with lemon wedges and parsley. Serve with a sauce boat of dried currant sauce. Sauce: 1/2 cup dried currants or raisins 1 cup bouillon or water 2 tablespoons flour 2 to 3 tablespoons vinegar 2 teaspoons sugar 1/2 teaspoon salt 2 teaspoons soy sauce
Rinse currants and cook in bouillon until tender. Drain and reserve bouillon.
Put flour into small bowl and gradually add vinegar, stirring constantly with a wire whisk to make a smooth paste. Add bouillon gradually, beating constantly.
Return to pan and simmer 3 to 5 minutes until thickened. Add remaining ingredients; thin to desired consistency with additional bouillon. Taste and correct seasonings. Serve immediately.