I was writing about school dinners and how, on the whole, I enjoyed them… I had forgotten pilchards… Pilchards, those small headless and tailless fish served at school in a tomato sauce… with salad… salad comprising of limp lettuce leaves, slices of cucumber and slices of tomato… I can’t say that pilchards were my favourite dinner. I think to be fair to pilchards it was the horrid, metallic tasting tomato sauce.
Now sardines are another matter; when I was young I don’t ever remember seeing sardines, those small members of the herring family, in fishmongers shops; I do remember having them in tins, preserved in oil. I liked sardines, in sandwiches or on toast. When I went abroad as a student then there were fresh sardines, delicious grilled and eaten with French bread and a glass or two of wine. Sardines began to appear in fishmongers, or maybe they always had been there and I’d never looked for them before.
I read of the shoals of pilchards which swam round Cornwall, and how watchers would be posted on the cliffs to look out for them so the fishermen could go out and catch them, of how the sea changed colour when they came, millions upon millions of tiny silver fish. These small fish were once the mainstay of the Cornish fishing industry, giving work to thousands of men, and food on the table for their families. In 1871, for example over sixteen thousand tons were exported, having been sorted, salted and crated by the women working through mountains of fish in what were called the pilchard palaces. Apparently by the 1900’s the town of Newlyn alone processed thousands of tons of pilchards each year. However, tastes changed and more and more pilchards were consigned to tins, which is how I remember them. A hundred years after the boom years, only six (yes 6) tons of pilchards were landed in Cornwall. Newlyn, which had relied on the small fish, now had a museum at the Pilchard Works factory.
Happily, the fashion for fresh, locally sourced, quality food (I hope it is more than just a fashion) means that fresh pilchards are back in the fishmongers, and back on people’s plates; although nowhere like the fishing fleets of the past, there are about a dozen boats which go out pretty regularly from Mevagissey and Newlyn. Pilchards which were selling at 1½p (0ne and a half pence) a kilo, are now selling at about £3 a kilo… things are looking up for the fishermen and their families in Cornwall.
So back to the question about pilchards and sardines; apparently it depends on size – small one are less than 6 inches long, pilchards are longer… as simple as that…