The great Sardinia pilchardus revival

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IT IS eight inches long, weighs five ounces and spends most of its time swimming in canned tomato sauce. But the humble pilchard, Sardinia pilchardus, the staple food of Roman galley slaves and medieval armies, is being marketed as the saviour of the Cornish fishing industry.

The pilchard market has grown by more than 300 per cent in the past year, and the fishermen are returning to the species as a means of making a profit in an industry which has been hit hard in recent years by high overheads and restrictive EU quotas.

In Edwardian times shoals of 16 million pilchards would be sighted off St Ives, such a vast number that they would turn the sea purple as they skitted along under the surface. But overfishing and changing tastes saw the industry go into decline 70 years ago. Now the species - and the market for pilchards - is making a comeback.

Maria Limonci, of the Sea Fish Industry Authority, said: "Cornish fishermen are interested in re-establishing an ancient tradition. There are plenty of pilchards and plenty of demand."

At the home of British Cured Pilchards in Newlyn, 10 miles from Lands End, a handful of cured pilchards are being pressed into special wooden "coffins" to squeeze water and brine out of them before they are packed for export to Italy. The factory, the last working pilchard plant in the UK, is also home to the "Great Pilchard Story" museum. Newlyn is now at the forefront of what the industry hopes will be the revival not only of the pilchard, but also of small-scale fishing industries.

"The pilchard has an image problem," said Nick Howell, the fish merchant who runs the factory. "Pilchards have always come in tins with tomato sauce and people remember how they hated them at school. But call them sardines and you have this image of barbecues on Portuguese beaches."

Last year British Cured Pilchards supplied Waitrose and other upmarket retailers with 60 tonnes of Cornish pilchards. The previous year Mr Howell had sold just 18 tonnes. Ten years ago 99 per cent of his turnover came from exports to Italy but now the Italians take just 34 per cent. "Before 1997 the industry had been dead for years," said Mr Howell. "It still has no great importance to the Cornish economy but it is growing; it's another little thing in Cornwall's favour."

By guaranteeing local fishermen a fixed price Mr Howell is making it worthwhile again for them to fish for pilchards. "I used to land pilchards and get 50p a stone for them. That worked out at about a penny a fish," said fisherman Edwin Madron. "Now we get a fixed price of pounds 2.50 a stone you can make a good living. On large boats the men are away for 12 days at a time. You've got to catch a huge amount of fish to make that worthwhile. With a two-man crew you spend less time out and make more money."

Another fisherman, Neil Brockman, said: "A lot of people would go out for pilchards if they knew they were going to get a reasonable return. You have to invest so much in this industry but pilchard fishing could really be quite profitable for smaller boats and crews."

The fishermen are reviving a tradition which dates back more than 400 years. The first recorded export of pilchards was from Looe in 1555 and in 1591 Sir Frances Drake warned Queen Elizabeth I that salted pilchards were being exported to France, Spain and Italy, then enemies of England, in what Mr Howell described as the fishing equivalent of the "arms-for- Iraq" scandal.

The pilchard boom peaked in 1871, when 16,000 tonnes were landed. Young fishermen would be posted at high vantage points along the coast every day from July to Christmas, to spot the vast shoals. They would cry "Hevva" when they spotted them. By the 1950s the industry had been wiped out by over-fishing and new refrigeration techniques

Today, however, free of the quotas and size restrictions that are the despair of many fishermen, the pilchard can be found half a mile from the shore. The fish near Newlyn are being caught by a traditional and environmentally friendly method, using cotton ring nets which are dropped like a curtain to the seabed and then slowly drawn up. The fishermen lean overboard and scoop the pilchards into baskets.

Mr Howell said: "You can put other species and the wrong-sized pilchards back in the water. Dolphins just bounce off the nets. It doesn't disturb the sea bed and the quality of what you are left with is fantastic."


t The "pilchard" is a mature Breton sardine aged three to 10 years.

t Less than 100 years ago women called "jowsters" would hawk the fish in a basket or "cowel" which could carry 70lbs of pilchards, while carrying 40lbs of salt in their apron pockets.

t Recipes for pilchards include Stargazey Pie and Marios - pilchards baked in vinegar, bayleaves and spices.

t Pilchards used to be stored for up to seven months in wooden "rousing" tanks nine feet deep which could take 3,200 stones of pichards. The water would be so salty that any worker who fell in would float to the top.

t In Edwardian times millions of pilchards would be sorted at "pilchard palaces" 40ft long and 5ft high, roofed courtyards where they would be "scuffled" in salt.

t Cured fish are laid in "coffins" which take eight hours to press the brine and water out of them to extend their shelf life.