The last pilchard factory heads for a showdown: Food regulations are blamed for wrecking a curing process that has worked for centuries. Martin Jackson reports

THE SOLE survivor of a 400- year-old fish export industry is defying food regulations and returning to traditional production methods - because trying to please Brussels and Whitehall ruined his product.

Nick Howell presses pilchards - not a romantic job description, but one that used to fit thousands of people in south-west England.

Now a huge industry has shrunk to British Cured Pilchards Limited and its two stone buildings behind Newlyn harbour in west Cornwall, where each year Mr Howell and his four employees salt, store, then press about 120 tons of the small silver fish to provide a Mediterranean peasant delicacy.

It has all been done in more or less the same way, bedding the pickled fish on hessian in loose fitting boxes, since the Cornish started sending pilchards to France and Italy in the 1550s. But recently the old ways have fallen foul of a crop of UK and EC food packaging regulations. They dictate hessian is out, supermarket-style meat soak pads are in, and tightly sealed boxes are needed to keep out dust.

Mr Howell spent three years experimenting, trying to adapt - and explaining to irate Italian customers why fish that had been arriving perfectly edible for centuries was suddenly turning up mouldy.

He said: 'Last year we had the mould analysed, and the upshot was that the attempt to 'improve' the product had altered the salinity and humidity in the box. The meat soak retained all the oil and water, while the hessian would allow the water to evaporate. And the close-fitting lids prevented air circulating.'

So this year, Mr Howell said, 'we're basically saying bollocks to it. We're going back to traditional pressing, traditional packaging, and let them prove there's something wrong with it.'

Mr Howell said he had no argument with realistic hygiene rules and was spending up to pounds 150,000 on upgrading the works.

Penwith council's chief environmental health officer, David Jones, said: 'I don't think we'd oppose him going back to the old ways, we'd just wait to see what transpired. There are certainly anomalies in the regulations, and while Brussels could take a hard line, that's something for the politicians to sort out.'

Through the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, Cornish fishing villages relied on the pilchard. During the autumn and winter fishing season a watch would be kept from the cliffs by a look-out who would call out the boats when a shoal was spotted and direct them to encircle it with nets. When the catch was brought ashore, the rest of the village would turn out to layer the fish with salt in piles, and later pack them into barrels for export.

Any of those villagers would recognise the Newlyn production line today. Pilchards caught during the winter are salted in sunken tanks. In June they are sorted by hand and laid herringbone fashion in forms or 'coffins' for boxing, or in a starburst pattern in casks and slowly crushed under screw presses to squeeze out the excess oil. They are then packed and trucked to Genoa, to agents who began buying from the firm in 1905.

About the only element of the whole process not steeped in ancient fishing tradition is Nick Howell himself. Sick of commuting, he gave up a job in newspaper advertising in London in 1974, and headed west to open a wet fish business.

He bought the curing factory in 1981 - and has since developed a passion for pilchards. His reception office is hung with antiques relating to the great days of the little fish, and he strides about the processing plant reeling off ideas for a museum, for having workers in traditional costume and for branching out into products such as fish oil health supplements. He is hopeful that he and his pilchards can slip through the net of packaging rules.

However, there is already another threat from legislation - the proposed 'tie-up' regulations, which are aimed at conserving fish stocks. These would limit the number of days fishing boats can put to sea.

There is only one vessel in Cornwall equipped to land the pilchards, a low-value fish worth about pounds 125 a ton on the quayside. Mr Howell fears that faced with limited fishing time, the skipper may opt to concentrate on trawling for ling, pollack, and monkfish, worth 10 times as much.

(Photograph omitted)