Magazine article The Spectator

Tinned Treats

Magazine article The Spectator

Tinned Treats

Article excerpt

On leave in the foothills of the Himalayas, an Indian army officer and sportsman wrote in 1865: 'Unless I shoot something or other, I shall have to fall back on biscuits and sardines.' The canning of food, which had begun in the early part of the century, was very welcome to soldiers serving overseas who would rather leave the local produce to the natives; and tinned sardines were a particular favourite of the Raj. Sardines on toast were regularly on the menu at the club, to be eaten as a savoury after trifle or Bakewell tart and custard.

According to Felipe Fernández-Armesto's invaluable book, Food: A History, 50 million tins of sardines were being produced annually on the west coast of France in the 1880s. Cornwall, too, was developing a successful industry, canning the larger or adult sardines known as pilchards. Huge shoals were caught in seine nets off the coast, between July and December, then gutted and salted and stored in barrels in fish cellars. (One of these old granite buildings on the north coast was converted to flats a few years ago by the National Trust.) Much of the oil pressed from the fish was sold to the Royal Navy, and waste fish - contemporary accounts mention the appalling smell went on to the land as a form of manure.

Then something, or rather two things, happened to the pilchards. The shoals stopped visiting the Cornish coast in such vast numbers, and there was no longer the demand for them in this country. We British prefer our sardines to be called by that name; there is something distinctly unappetising about the word pilchard, which for some reason puts me in mind of seedy sea-side boarding-houses. The word is not known to any of the European languages. Italy had always provided the principal market for Cornish pilchards, and that is where the bulk of them have gone in recent years.

But now, as the marketing men say, the product has been rebranded, and pilchards have become 'Cornish sardines' (which they were sometimes called in the 19th century). We may imagine barbecuing them fresh in some rocky cove - not so different from the idea of cooking them on a beach in the Algarve - and suddenly the stigma of the pilchard is gone for ever. …

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