A HASSIDIC TALE OF HERRING (As Only Woody Allen Could Tell It):

A man who could not marry off his ugly daughter visited Rabbi Shimmel of Cracow. "My heart is heavy," he told the Rev. "because God has given me an ugly daughter."

"How ugly?" the Seer asked.

"If she were lying on a plate with a herring, you wouldn't be able to tell the difference."

The Seer of Cracow thought for a long time and finally asked, "What kind of herring?"

The man, taken back by the query, thought quickly and said, "Er -- Bismarck."

Too bad," the Rabbi said, "If it was matjes, she'd have a better chance."

-- From "Getting Even," by Woody Allen

Baked, fried, kippered, grilled, marinated, soused, cuddled in mustard and dill, pickled in wine, ensconced in onion sauce, swaddled in curry, packed in French onion marinade or wrapped in sour cream, the indomitable herring stands alone.

"This is high-quality, exotic gourmet food," says Menachem Sklar, who is the third generation of Sklars to head Nova Scotia Food Products Corp. in New York.

Sklar, like almost everyone in the small world of the herring business, will speak of this little fish in tones that hint of nothing but magnificence.

And no wonder. Herring is rich in protein, fat and heritage. It is prepared in countless ways and traditions. This tenacious fish spans the Western world from California to Nova Scotia, from Iceland to Eastern Europe and beyond the Ural Mountains. It is eaten hot and cold, whole, in fillets, boned, skinned, rolled, shopped, ground, slathered upon heavy dark breads, layered on sheets of rye crisp, tossed in salads and nibbled in chunks and tidbits accompanied by pickled vegetables.

Often shunned by those who do not delight in its succulent texture and those not schooled in its culinary versatility, herring is always available in its most familiar Eastern European old-fashioned styles, which dominate area delis, gourmet stores and groceries.

Until recently, the bulk of the Washington market was served by Namar Foods, a distributor supplying two of the three most popular -- and traditional -- brands, Montrose and Vita. The New York company Arcee manufactured and supplied the third.

Sounds simple. But a first-time herring shopper wandering into a deli is bound to get confused. Inside the deli case, for instance, will be a whole fish, headless, about eight inches long. It is basking in brine. This is a salt herring. Next to it are small fillets cured in madeira wine sauce. This is matjes herring. Next to this may be fillets rolled around onions, decked with a bay leaf and skewered by a toothpick. This is the variety of schmaltz herring known as rollmops.

And the list goes on, the ancient order of herring mavenry.

However, herring is on the move.

This is most evident in Giant Food's gourmet store, Someplace Special, where food coordinator Ann Brody has introduced something different: Swedish-style herring.

Inspired by the demands of an international clientele, Brody has researched and invested in what she calls "a herring revival." She has enlisted the knowledge and guidance of Leif Klasson, owner of The Swedish Fish Company, an Annapolis-based business that flies fish in directly from Sweden to Washington.

Klasson selects sweet, melt-in-your-mouth fish prepared in Swedish sauces that provide a wide range of flavors and textures -- Swedish smorgasbords have been known to feature more than 20 varieties of herring dishes. From a subtle onion marinade to a provocatively sharp mustard with dill, these sauces will expand the discerning palate of many a herring lover.

Furthermore, changes are happening here at home.

One comes from -- where else? -- California.

"For years Vita was selling two varieties, the East Coast pack and the West Coast pack," says Namar's Dick Rosen. "I didn't know this until a company representative mentioned it. I said, "Send me some of the West Coast pack." I tried it and I liked it -- it's sweeter. Since September, it's all we sell now, except for the luncheon herring which is a centercut herring with the bone. It's still in the traditional East coast pack."

Themes and variations are also to be found in the individual varieties prepared at area restaurants and delis, such as Parkway Delicatessen in Silver Spring, the Chevy Chase Seafood Market in Rockville and Chevy Chase, Sutton Place Gourmet on New Mexico Avenue in the District, and Giant's Someplace Special in McLean; nearly anyplace that carries the fish has its own version of chopped or creamed herring.

In short, there is no reason to be hard of herring in the Washington area. The problem is not too little but too much. So herewith, a sampling and a guide to some of the better jarred and locally prepared herring.

In a taste test of 25 varieties of herring, from jars and from deli cases, participants recommended the following:

Arcee Pickled Herring in Wine Sauce, Skansen Tidbits in Cream Sauce and Vita Tastee Bits in Wine Sauce -- widely available in jars.

Arcee Matjes Herring Fillets and Montrose Old-Fashioned Style Rollmops -- widely available in jars and bulk packed at deli counters.

Leif Klasson's herring in onion marinade -- available bulk packed in fish case at Someplace Special, Suzanne's, Your Watergate Chefs Gourmet Shop, Daniels' Cellar and Sea, Old New Orleans Seafood Market.

Leif Klasson's herring in mustard with dill, herring in curry, kippered herring and Swedish-style rollmops -- available bulk packed in fish case at Someplace Special.