From fisherman to hero: the story of Willem Jakob Böckels and the “herring revolution”

In 1556, Emperor Charles V and Queen Maria of Hungary traveled to the small fishing village of Bjerflint in Zealand. Chroniclers recorded their visit to the local cemetery, where they honored the memory of one Willem Jakob Buckels, also known as Boikelsun. They did not yet know that this simple fisherman would go down in history as the man who brought wealth to Holland and introduced herring to the world.

Human memory is a peculiar thing, especially when it comes to territories. Some countries forget the names of those who shaped their history, while others remember them with great reverence. Willem Jakob Böckels was lucky enough to be born in the right place, and today he is remembered as a hero who revolutionized the fishing industry.

It all started when Böckels noticed something unusual about herring. Despite the abundance of herring in the sea, fishermen only caught herring when there were no other fish nearby. The herring was considered a beggar’s fish because it was not difficult to catch, but it had no value on the market. The reason for this was its bitterness, which made it unattractive to buyers. While other fish sold well, herring remained unsold and took up a lot of space on ships.

Boeckels made a discovery – he discovered that the source of the herring’s bitterness was its gills. With one swipe of his knife, he deftly removed the gills, changing the flavor of the herring. But he didn’t stop there. Bukels began to salt herring in oak barrels right on the ship, keeping it fresh and improving the flavor. Thus was born the herring fishery, an industry that still thrives today.

Herring became more than just a fish. It became a symbol of cultural significance and culinary delight. We won’t go into detail about the flavors of herring and the various ways it is salted and prepared, but it is worth mentioning the process of “Dutch chinching.” For many years this method was shrouded in mystery, and its unique flavors were explained by the use of lemon in the south of the country and onions in the north.

One of the delicacies of particular value is maatjes haring. Translated as “virgin herring”, it is highly sought after and is still subject to seasonal restrictions. The story of Willem Jakob Böckels serves as a reminder of the impact one man can have on an entire industry and the legacy he leaves behind.

According to Dr. Maria van der Veen, a renowned historian specializing in Dutch maritime history, “Willem Jacob Beukels’ contribution to the development of the fishing industry cannot be overstated. His innovative methods not only changed the taste of herring, but also created a thriving market for this once undervalued fish.”

Dr. Jan de Vries, a specialist in economic history, adds: “The pickling method introduced by Bukels not only improved the flavor of herring, but also increased its shelf life, allowing for long-distance trade. This had a significant impact on Holland’s economy and contributed to its transformation into a maritime power.”

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