Why the Cornish pilchard industry is no longer worth its salt

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The Independent Online

The closure of the reeking 80-year-old wooden presses at the Pilchard Works, in Newlyn, marked the end of an industry that once supported thousands.

The Cornish salted pilchard may have been shunned by its native countrymen but roaring exports saw it enjoyed at Mediterranean dining tables for centuries. It accompanied pasta, polenta, salads and bruschettas, and was a staple ingredient of spaghetti alla puttanesca.

Demand has steadily fallen though and the factory recently lost its remaining contract with Genoa's Borzoni family, forcing it to pull in the nets for good.

The machinery and artefacts of Britain's last salt pilchard factory will be sold and the builders move in on 14 November. The huge 21-ton salt baths will become flats and the packing floor upstairs converted into an office.

Mr Tonkin said: "The first export was 1555 and we've been supplying the Borzonis since 1905. This is an old Cornish trade that will be lost forever."

He blames its demise on English squeamishness. "Salted pilchards have never taken off in England - unlike fresh fish that have been headed, gutted and filleted - because the English are old fussy farts," he said. "They don't like a fish that looks like a fish. They hate the eyes looking at them." The many fans of Newlyn's salted pilchards include the chef Rick Stein and the Prince of Wales, who was mobbed by paparazzi during his visit to the factory in November 1995, the day after the Princess of Wales' notorious Panorama interview in which she spoke of the couple's broken marriage and affairs was shown.

The key to the scaly delicacy's popularity was its taste, the result of being cured in dry salt for anywhere between four weeks and three years, then pressed of oil and water and packed in wooden casks. But 25kg barrels of pilchards are no longer in demand in the deli aisles of European supermarkets. The factory's owner, Nick Howell, 54, says that he has received abuse from a handful of local people since announcing the closure, but insists that he had no choice.

"People come here and say, 'It's disgusting, this is Cornish heritage', but I'd like to see them put in a quarter of a million pounds of their own money and get here at seven every morning," he said. "This has been a dangerous business - one customer, one product - and it's time to move on."

While it is all over for the salted pilchard, the plain old fresh pilchard is bucking the dire straits of the Cornish fishing industry and making a comeback with Britain's consumers.

An inspired marketing wheeze in 1997 saw Mr Howell rename his unfashionable pilchards "Cornish sardines" - strictly true, as a pilchard is a large sardine.

He began to produce new tinned and vacuum-packed products in a separate factory, which he sells to Waitrose and Marks & Spencer. In 1997 Cornish fleets brought in seven tons of pilchard; last year it was more than 800 tons. This is some way off the industry's annus mirabilis of 1871, when 16,000 tons were exported, or the night in November 1905 when 13 million fish were caught in a few hours.

Stefan Glinski, 48, owner of Pride of Cornwall, a £200,000 customised pilchard fishing boat, says that despite the growing competition, times are good.

"A lot more people have been abroad and eaten sardines and got a taste for them. And oily fishes such as herring and sardines have been promoted for their healthy omega oils."

Mr Tonkin plans to take a job in the modern factory, swapping the traditional presses for a vacuum packer. "Every day I eat pilchards for the omega and drink a pint of Guinness for the iron. That's what keeps me young and so good-looking."


* Orange and salt pilchard salad

A recipe from the mountain village of Sasso Marconi in Italy. Thinly slice two salt pilchards, add chopped oregano, parsley and olive oil, and refrigerate for one hour. Serve with fresh orange segments.

* Star Gazy Pie

A Cornish dish. The pilchards are stuffed with a mixture of bacon, parsley, onions, cider and breadcrumbs. Boiled eggs and bacon are used to cover the pilchards, which are cooked with their heads sticking out of the pastry.