Real red herrings, as opposed to their metaphorical counterparts, are very hard to find nowadays in Britain. They are made by soaking the herrings in brine for several days, and then smoking them until they are bright red and dry enough to keep for a long time. Those made in Yarmouth are reputed to be the finest, and Thomas Nashe in his Lenten Stuffe, or the Praise of the Red Herring (1567), claims that the method of preserving them was discovered by accident by a Yarmouth fisherman who hung some herrings up over a fire in his hut, and later found that the fish, ‘which were as white as whale-bone when he hung them up, now lookt as red as a lobster’. Red herrings are still made in quantity, but the vast majority are now exported to places such as the West Indies, Africa, and South America, where they are esteemed not only for their flavour but also for their keeping qualities in the hot climate. An even more desiccated version of the fish, known as the black herring, goes to the same export markets.
The metaphorical red herring ‘misleading distraction’ derives from the former practice of pulling a pungent red herring across the trail of a hunted animal to sharpen the skill of hounds being trained.
Subjects: Cookery, Food, and Drink.