“You like the herring?”
What could we say? Of course we liked herring. Who doesn’t like herring?
“Good. Shall we try some?”
Naturally. Wasn’t that what we were here for? We nodded: two of us enthusiastically, one member of our party a little more cautiously.
“Vier haringen,” Tom said. Ah, no. Not eldest son Tom. This was Tom the Dutchman, our guide, host and mentor on all things fishy.
I was back in Rotterdam. Half work and half pleasure, which meant that I’d taken Jane and Ben. We were having a guided tour of Schmidt Zeevis, the town’s leading supplier of every type of fish you can think of – and several that you can’t.
Four plates arrived, each bearing a herring and a small plastic pot of raw onions.
“The herring is raw?” My wife seemed increasingly nervous.
“Of course,” Tom said. “That is how we eat it.”
“With our fingers?” Yep, there was a distinct lack of knives and forks.
Tom grabbed the herring by its tail. Sprinkled it with raw onion, tipped his head back and took a large bite. Ben and I did the same. Jane was rather more hesitant.
“What about Jessica?” she said. “You know what she thinks about eating fish.”
“We won’t tell her,” I said, reaching for my iPhone. So yes, there is a picture of my wife eating a raw herring.
And no, I won’t be publishing it. Who needs to hobble into the divorce court with two black eyes and a broken leg?
We finished the herring – two out of three of us, anyway – and started discussing teenage boys. Apparently they have herring parties in Holland. But not for long.
“When they are fourteen,” Tom sighed, “they forget the herring. Chase the girls instead.” Ben nodded his head in agreement.
It was time to go behind the scenes. I looked particularly handsome in my white coat and protective paper hat.
Fish. And more fish. And they were big. If your only experience of fish is haddock ’n’ chips on a Friday night you tend to think all fish are six inches long. They’re not.
“We need a publicity photo,” Tom said, waving his camera at me.
“You can hold a fish?”
Of course I could hold a fish. I moved hastily away from an octopus and grabbed a large cod. And promptly dropped it again. “Blimey, that’s cold.”
“That’s because it’s packed in ice, dad. Duh…” My son shook his head sadly.
My intolerance for cold is well documented. Still, stiff upper lip and all that.
I grabbed the cod again. Nearly dropped it. Heaved it aloft like the FA Cup while Tom clicked away merrily. Dropped it gratefully back into the ice and struggled to regain the feeling in my hands.
Much more of this and I’d be taking over from Bear Grylls…
But Tom had saved the best for last. “And now the freezer,” he announced.
Did that sign really say minus 23? Yes, it did.
“You have heard of the Ice Man?” he asked. “He trained in here.”
We hadn’t heard of the Ice Man, but I could see what Tom was saying. “Also Japanese television filmed here.”
“Filmed the ice man?”
“No. Filmed the contestants.”
What? I was in the same deep freeze as those kamikaze Japanese game show people? No wonder I was starting to shiver. “You can’t stay in very long,” laughed Tom. No, you couldn’t. But let’s have a go.
I walked a little further into the Arctic wasteland.
“Come over here, Ben,” I said. “Stand - ”
Where were they? I was alone. They’d abandoned me in the freezer. “Jane,” I called in desperation. “Ben…”