Harengs – note rouge

FishShop Chelsea K2640103_001

Fish Shop, Chelsea, etching and drypoint, The Hunterian, University of Glasgow

Herring was and is a somewhat under-appreciated fish, at least in restaurants and chic dining. In A guide to modern cookery Escoffier describes fresh herring as ‘abundant and of excellent quality; seldom used in first-class cookery, except, perhaps, for their milt.’ Whistler seems to have had little compunction about serving Herring with a red wine sauce for the fish course in fine dinners, for example on 7th December 1875 for guests including Alan S. Cole, Cyril Flower and  the artist Jacques J. Tissot.

Mrs Beeton gives a brief description of Herring fishing and characteristics – presumably Whistler’s fish originated in the Norfolk fisheries.

THE HERRING.—The herring tribe are found in the greatest abundance in the highest northern latitudes, where they find a quiet retreat, and security from their numerous enemies. Here they multiply beyond expression, and, in shoals, come forth from their icy region to visit other portions of the great deep. In June they are found about Shetland, whence they proceed down to the Orkneys, where they divide, and surround the islands of Great Britain and Ireland. The principal British herring-fisheries are off the Scotch and Norfolk coasts; and the fishing is always carried on by means of nets, which are usually laid at night; for, if stretched by day, they are supposed to frighten the fish away. The moment the herring is taken out of the water it dies. Hence the origin of the common saying, “dead as a herring.”

This dish features in menus with various titles, ‘Harengs – sauce rouge’, ‘note rouge’ and most explicitly ‘note au vin rouge’. Two red wine sauces for fish feature in Escoffier’s cookbook, one of which is intended for serving with fish that have not necessarily been baked with the wine. In our version of Whistler’s aesthetically pleasing dish, we grilled the herring and served it with a slightly modified version of Escoffier’s Sauce au vin rouge.

RECIPE: ‘Harengs – note au vin rouge’ 

Use one very fresh herring per person.

Thyme sprigs

For the red wine sauce (makes about 1/2 litre):

One carrot, one celery stalk, half an onion (all finely chopped), a sprig of thyme and a bay leaf.

Several dollops of butter (of course)

Thickened fish stock (1/4 litre) (we stole a trick from East Asian cooks, whipping up a small amount of stock using  dried anchovies and a few aromatics and herbs)

Red wine (1/2 litre)

1 garlic clove, grated

pinch cayenne pepper, teaspoon Thai fish sauce


The fish stock should be made ahead of time, then thickened using a roux of flour or another starch, fried with a little butter.

Clean the fish (keep and cook the roes separately), make a series of diagonal slices in the skin on each side, and put thyme sprigs in the gashes.

Melt a dollop of butter in a saucepan, add the vegetable and herb mixture, sauté gently for a minute or two. Add the red wine. Bring to the boil and keep boiling or simmering energetically until the mixture has reduced by half (it takes about ten minutes). Sieve the mixture, add the thickened fish stock, and garlic, and simmer for another five minutes. Take off the heat, add the cayenne pepper, fish sauce (this is replacing ‘anchovy essence’), and butter (I think the butter is not essential). You should have a richly coloured, slightly thickened sauce.


Put the fish under the grill during the last stage of sauce preparation – they take about five minutes to cook.

IMG_2719 IMG_2724

The slightly sharp sauce provides a nice contrast to the tasty oily fish, as well as an aesthetically pleasing note of colour.


Alan Summerly Cole, a textile expert and museum official,  described the dinner in his diary for 7 December 1875: ‘Dined with Jimmy; Cyril Flower, Tissot, Storey. Talked Balzac- Père Goriot – Cousine Bette – Cousin Pons – Jeune Homme de Province à Paris – Illusions perdues.’

The other dinner guests were Cyril Flower, barrister, Liberal MP, 1st Baron Battersea, Jacques (‘James’) Joseph Tissot, painter and etcher, and George Adolphus Storey, portrait and genre painter.

Balzac’s Cousin Pons makes for uncomfortable dinner party conversation! Here is an excerpt:

It was between the years 1810 and 1816 that Pons contracted the unlucky habit of dining out; he grew accustomed to see his hosts taking pains over the dinner, procuring the first and best of everything, bringing out their choicest vintages, seeing carefully to the dessert, the coffee, the liqueurs, giving him of their best, in short; the best, moreover, of those times of the Empire when Paris was glutted with kings and queens and princes, and many a private house emulated royal splendours.

… But to return to Pons. A stomach thus educated is sure to react upon the owner’s moral fibre; the demoralization of the man varies directly with his progress in culinary sapience. Voluptuousness, lurking in every secret recess of the heart, lays down the law therein. Honor and resolution are battered in breach. The tyranny of the palate has never been described; as a necessity of life it escapes the criticism of literature; yet no one imagines how many have been ruined by the table. The luxury of the table is indeed, in this sense, the courtesan’s one competitor in Paris, besides representing in a manner the credit side in another account, where she figures as the expenditure.

With Pons’ decline and fall as an artist came his simultaneous transformation from invited guest to parasite and hanger-on; he could not bring himself to quit dinners so excellently served for the Spartan broth of a two-franc ordinary. Alas! alas! a shudder ran through him at the mere thought of the great sacrifices which independence required him to make. He felt that he was capable of sinking to even lower depths for the sake of good living, if there were no other way of enjoying the first and best of everything, of guzzling (vulgar but expressive word) nice little dishes carefully prepared. Pons lived like a bird, pilfering his meal, flying away when he had taken his fill, singing a few notes by way of return; he took a certain pleasure in the thought that he lived at the expense of society, which asked of him—what but the trifling toll of grimaces? Like all confirmed bachelors, who hold their lodgings in horror, and live as much as possible in other people’s houses, Pons was accustomed to the formulas and facial contortions which do duty for feeling in the world; he used compliments as small change; and as far as others were concerned, he was satisfied with the labels they bore, and never plunged a too-curious hand into the sack.’

One can’t help wondering how Whistler’s guests coped with this description of the gourmand’s life, and then went on to work their way through the following meal:


Potage au homard –
        Harengs – note au vin rouge –
      Côtelettes de mouton, purée Champignons
        Poulet à la Baltimore
                          homony –
            Becassines –
              Mince Pies –
         Compote de Poires
Café. –      Brie –      Salade

This was a really lavish dinner: lobster soup, herrings (with the ‘note’ of red wine sauce), mutton cutlets with mushroom purée, Baltimore chicken with hominy, snipe, ‘Agourtzies’, mince pies, stewed pears, coffee, brie, salad. It’s going to be pretty hard to find snipe!

However, if the dinner was aimed at Cyril Flower it may just have worked: he bought Variations in Pink and Grey: Chelsea at some time after 1873.

Variations in Pink and Grey: Chelsea, oil, Freer Gallery of Art
Variations in Pink and Grey: Chelsea, oil, 1871, Freer Gallery of Art


Whistler gave titles to his pictures that emphasized the colour scheme and harmony. There were several that contained a ‘red note’. One of the most striking is Note in Red: The Siesta, which shows Whistler’s model and mistress Maud Franklin resting on a red divan. Possibly she was preparing for or recovering from a dinner! She was definitely present at some of Whistler’s dinner parties although Alan S. Cole flatly refused to let her come to his house.


Note in Red: The Siesta, 1884, oil, Terra Foundation for American Art:  Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.149



Whistler menu, 7 December [1875], http://www.whistler.arts.gla.ac.uk/correspondence #06860

For all other sources please see the Bibliography.


Published by

Katharine MacDonald

Katharine MacDonald is an archaeologist, food and art lover. As daughter of art historian Margaret, she has been familiar with James McNeill Whistler all her life, and has a very strong appreciation for his taste in art, cuisine and places to visit.

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