Who are you calling pilchard? It's 'Cornish sardine' to you...

In a rebranding exercise that would put even the most cunning of Downing Street spin-doctors to shame, the half-forgotten and ever-so-humble pilchard has been rechristened and is now selling by the boat-load. Arise, the Cornish sardine.

In a rebranding exercise that would put even the most cunning of Downing Street spin-doctors to shame, the half-forgotten and ever-so-humble pilchard has been rechristened and is now selling by the boat-load. Arise, the Cornish sardine.

This saviour of Cornwall's faltering economy may be slippery, shiny and about six inches long, but it could hold the key to thousands of new jobs in one of the Britain's most impoverished regions. But don't, don't call it a pilchard.

The fresh Cornish pilchard - sorry, sardine - has fast become one of the most unlikely food retail successes of recent times, having leapt from being the dowdy, tinned meal-of-last-resort of impoverished students to the new darling of Britain's fresh fish counters.

The pilchard was once the backbone of Cornish industry, providing jobs for thousands of fishermen. At the end of the 19th century, Newlyn alone was handling some thousands of tons of pilchards a year.

The Cornish pilchard industry's annus mirabilis was 1871, when 16,000 tons were exported. "Pilchard palaces" - salting and processing plants - could be found in most of the Duchy's ports, where dozens of women would slowly sift through giant mounds of fresh catch up to six feet high and 40 feet long, salting, sorting and crating. The boom lasted until the 1930s. Changing tastes meant that, by the 1950s, pilchard sales were foundering. It was tinned and relegated to the lower supermarket shelves, languishing underneath piles of arriviste Canadian red salmon and Pacific skipjack tuna. Fresh pilchards all but disappeared.

By the early 1990s, a mere six tons were being landed a year in Cornwall.

For Nick Howell, manager of the Pilchard Works factory and museum at Newlyn, the decline of the once-proud fish into obscurity presented a unique challenge: how to make Britons think pilchard again.

"I changed the name and perception," says Howell. "I was looking for a fresh market for pilchards." He managed to convince wholesale buyers that Cornwall was abundant in sardines - the only thing was, they happened to be called pilchards.

"When we started to sell grilled pilchards, there wasn't much response," Mr Howell said, "but when we started selling them as grilled sardines, sales took off." Now, fresh Cornish sardines - aka pilchards - are back in force in Britain's shops. Waitrose began selling them three years ago, but this month Marks & Spencer started to stock fresh pilchards as well.

"There are no quotas for pilchards," says Mr Howell. "And you don't find them in Devon or Wales. Cornwall's it! Also, the fish is wonderful for your heart."

With the new bulk orders, pilchard fishing is coming back to life. Fishing incomes have risen dramatically. In 1997, pilchards fetched a mere 1.5 pence per kilo, but fishermen can currently expect to get around £1 a kilo. A few years back there were often no pilchard boats working from Cornish ports but now Newlyn and Mevagissey can boast a combined fleet of around a dozen, half of them working regularly.

Andrew Lakeman, whose wholesale company, Ocean Fish, supplies Waitrose with fresh pilchards, says: "My family goes back to the 1700s in Mevagissey. All of them were involved in fish, until about 1962. Then, my father said to me 'fishing is dead', and I became an engineer."

Mr Lakeman returned to the industry in the early 1990s to start Ocean Fish, and pilchards have brought him back to his family roots. "It's quite difficult, you know! The quality has to be there, and they're caught at dusk, landed in the middle of the night, and are at the factory at six in the morning. They have to be fresh."

But when is a pilchard a sardine? "A pilchard is bigger than a sardine," explained a food industry source last week. "Anything under six inches is a sardine, and anything over six inches is a pilchard - but could also be called a sardine." Perfectly straightforward then.

Additional research by Sandrine Leveque

The Independent on Sunday asked Andrew Thomason, resident manager at Raymond Blanc's two-Michelin-starred restaurant, Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons, for advice on reviving foods that suffer, like the pilchard, from an image problem

Pork scratchings

The problem: Tooth-shattering assault course for the mouth, beloved of career beer-drinkers. Like eating a heavily salted brick, and found just to the left of the matches, above the cigarillos.

View from Le Manoir: "Actually we do in summer offer spit-roasted suckling pig with summer vegetables. The skin is removed from the pig, finely shredded, baked in a hot oven and sprinkled over the pig."

Rebranded as: Countryman's crackle.

Scotch egg

The problem: Sinister, bland, plastic-sealed habitué of corner-shop fridges, beloved of career beer-drinkers (see above) and students, usually after 11pm.

View from Le Manoir: "There's no reason why you couldn't makes use of quails' eggs. That would be fantastic, if smaller. Also, you could make your own mince to go round the outside."

Rebranded as: Oeuf écossais.

Faggots

The problem: "Signature dish" in prisons and schools.

View from Le Manoir: "We'll draw a line under that one."

Rebranded as: Golden globes.

Mushy peas

The problem: The colour of astroturf, the consistency of mud, the taste of cardboard. Found in chippies next to the Benson & Hedges. After just 10 seconds in a microwave, they'll keep you company the whole night long.

The view from Le Manoir: "We do do crushed peas, cooked with mint. Lamb sits on that."

Rebranded as: Purée de pois.

Turnip

The problem: Ask Graham Taylor.

View from Le Manoir: "Turnip gratin - we do that."

Rebranded as: Purple parsnip.

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