Herring roe is what?!

Fish stall

I've never given much thought to the sex life of herrings - not until the last couple of weeks.

Until recently, my wife and I used to have a little ritual. Every Friday I would go to our local fishmonger and buy a packet of frozen herring roe. On Saturday evening, if we were staying at home, we would take the roe, wash it, fry it in butter and eat it in front of the telly.

It's a lovely dish. The roe is sort of deliciously creamy and fishy - all at the same time. And it takes almost no time to cook. You throw a knob of butter into a hot pan and - just before the butter is about to burn - add the roe. Fry it on a brisk flame, until the roe becomes a lovely golden colour and curls into tight spirals. Serve it on hot buttered brown toast, with a slice of lemon and sprig of parsley. It's wonderful comfort food.

Two weeks ago we were at the fish counter of Tesco and I saw some herring roe. ‘Can I have some soft roe?' I asked, pointing to the herring roe. ‘That's not roe,' said the man in the white coat behind the counter, ‘It's milts.'

I had never heard of milts, so I asked: ‘What are milts?' 

I got a surprising answer. ‘It's the seminal fluid of fish,' said the assistant.

My wife and I started laughing. It sounded so horrible. But because we'd eaten herring roe so often, I bought a large bag of it.

When I got home, I looked it up. It turned out that what we'd always known as herring roe was indeed ‘milts'. Most of the roe that you buy in the shops is the eggs of female fish eg cod's roe or caviar (sturgeon's roe). However with the herring, it's a bit different. The stuff which is usually referred to as roe is in fact milts, which is from male fish. My old copy of the Shorter Oxford Dictionary described milts as the roe of male fish. Collins English Dictionary did not mince its words. Milts are indeed the seminal fluid of fish or the bags containing the seminal fluid of fish.  And randy male herring have an awful lot of sperm, because they cast their seed into the water in the hope of inseminating a lucky female.

In other words, the shop assistant was correct. All these years we had been eating herring sperm on toast.

Since then we have stopped buying herring roe: my wife won't eat it. In the same way, she won't eat kidneys or tripe or sweetbreads (the pancreas of cows). Anything linked to the bodily functions of animals, puts her off her dinner.

Now, as we're watching telly with the kids on a Saturday evening, we have scrambled eggs on toast, which is not nearly as much fun, although perhaps it's better for the horny herrings and their female friends.


Take the herring roe, make sure they're defrosted. Run the pieces of roe under the tap to clean. You can toss them in flour if you like - it's entirely up to you. Heat up a heavy-bottomed frying pan, and drop in a large knob of butter, which should start sizzling. Throw in some bits of roe - a few at a time. Cook until golden, serve on hot toast with a wedge of lemon and sprig of parsley. If you want to impress your friends, you can serve it with a green leaf salad of lettuce leaves and rocket, a sprinkle of fresh chopped onion and a drizzle of vinaigrette.


JACK SHAMASH, our Man in the kitchen, puts meals on the family table every night of the week at his home in north London. He also writes for The Times, The Guardian and Horticulture Week (so he knows a lot about fruit and veg)



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