Here's a health to the Pope,
And may he repent,
And lengthen by six months
The term of his Lent.
Its always declared
Betwixt the two poles,
There's nothing like pilchards
For saving of souls.1
The salted pilchard is a traditional Cornish delicacy, although not one that the Cornish themselves care to partake of very often2. No, the destiny of the Cornish salted pilchard is to be exported to sunnier climes. Whilst not quite to the British taste, salted pilchards are a feature of Sicilian and Croatian cuisine and became a particular favourite of Italian Catholics who ate them during religious fasts, and were known 'Salacche Inglesi' or Salted Englishmen.
The pilchard appeared off the Cornish coast in huge shoals between July and September every year. Once the catch was landed, they were pressed and salted in pilchard cellars, or in open air pilchard palaces, with the oil produced from the pressing being sold as lamp oil, whilst the pressed pilchards were packed in wooden crates before being shipped abroad.
The export of salted pilchards from Cornwall was first recorded in 1555 and by the mid eighteenth century there was a well established export trade to the Mediterranean and North America. Pilchard fishing was therefore once a major industry in Cornwall, and thus good Cornish Protestants would toast the health of the Pope to thank him for the business he had put their way. However from the beginning of the twentieth century catches began to decline and demand slowly dwindled in its main markets. By the end of the century British Cured Pilchards Ltd, which began in Mevagissey in 1905 before relocating to Newlyn in 1927, was left as the sole Cornish producer of salted pilchards.
Run by Nick Howell together with his wife Marie Therese, the company relied almost entirely on the Italian export market. Indeed ever since Enrico Borzone first made the journey from Genoa in 1905, the company had been selling salted pilchards in same wooden casks and boxes with stencilled trade marks to the Borzone family distribution business.
The Slow Food campaign even designated the Cornish salted pilchard as one of the United Kingdom's four 'presidia'3 in a bid to preserve this traditional foodstuff. But even this endorsement was not sufficient to halt the inevitable, as Nick Howell himself has now admitted. "Demand for the traditionally packed salted pilchard has been in steady decline. We always said that if there ever came a time when the old presentation ceased to be viable, we would close it down. Sadly that time has come."
Blaming "increasing affluence" and the "faster pace of life" for declining sales he has now announced that the Newlyn factory will close in October, bringing to an end the production of the Cornish salted pilchard.
1 A traditional toast in Cornish fishing villages, quoted by Margaret Perry see below.
2 They apparently taste like anchovies, which of course all right thinking people detest with a passion.
3 Presidia being a network of local initiatives to preserve traditional food, the other three in the United Kingdom being Somerset cheddar, Old Gloucester cattle, and perry pears from Herefordshire, Gloucestershire and Worcestershire.
- Last salted pilchard factory to close
Daily Telegraph 30 July 2005
- Margaret Perry, Exporting fish from Newlyn
- William Skidelsky, The lefties who believe in pleasure 1st January 2005
- New York pilchard stencil