Old pilchards and Cornish industrial fishing heritage

Pressed and salted pilchards, Newlyn Pilchard Works

Pressed and salted pilchards, Newlyn Pilchard Works

Industrial heritage in Cornwall is completely dominated by mining, and most of that is heavily focused on tin mining and china clay extraction as opposed to that of other metals and minerals such as copper, arsenic and so on. Even more neglected is Cornwall’s fishing and fish processing heritage.

The Cornish Quaysude gallery in the National Maritime Museum Cornwall, in Falmouth, provides a tantalising glimpse of fish processing and export, specifically that of pilchards (salted and pressed) which took place in St Ives, Mevagissey and Newlyn amongst other fishing centres. Other interesting exhibits can be found in a number of the smaller museums of Cornwall, such as St Ives Museum, Padstow Museum and Fowey Museum.

Penzance no longer has its maritime museum and Newlyn, today home to the largest fishing fleet (in terms of numbers of boats) in the UK, has no centre for its fishing heritage. However this was not the case until relatively recently, and may change in the near future. Villagers in Mousehole, west Cornwall’s most ancient port, is currently looking at integrating some of the region’s fishing and maritime heritage into displays in the project to establish a new community centre (in the derelict sail/net loft which also housed pilchard processing pits on Duck Street). Talk of old pilchards reminded me of the now defunct Old Pilchard Works Museum in Newlyn.

I had occasion to revisit some photographs I took back in Summer 2003 of the Old Pilchard Works in Newlyn when it was open to the public as a working museum. It remains one of the most memorable museum experiences I have had. The working part of the museum allowed visitors to get a feel for an ancient delicacy which the vast majority of Brits and Cornish would probably turn their nose up at. Salted and pressed pilchards, or Cornish sardines. Caught in abundance off the Penwith coast, pilchards landed in Newlyn would be salted and then pressed, then arranged in barrels ready for export to Italy (and sometimes Spain). Think anchovies and their growing status as a trend ingredient in British gastronomy, then think of a more rounded, almost sweeter flavour and you will have an idea of the wonder that is a salted pilchard.

Press play to view a slide show of my photographs or view on Flickr.

The pilchard presses resemble book presses and there is something timeless about seeing military rows of fish lined up and piled up ready to have their life extended to at least a year through this processing. Barrels were marked with various marks according to the importer, one of them being ‘Cigno Bianco’ or White Swan as you can see in one of the photographs of a box of ‘salacche inglese’ –in future that would probably read ‘salacche cornovagliese’. Part of the museum experience was having the chance to do ‘brass rubbings’ of the copper stencils that marked the boxes and barrels. To my sadness, I can no longer find the one I did but I do remember it was of the Cigno Bianco mark. The museum also introduced visitors to traditional fish processing and the particular relationship between the Cornish and Breton fishing industries, especially those of West Penwith and the region of Concarneau.

As you will hear in this video, from Terry Tonkin who worked here, they were a particular delicacy of the Italian dish, spaghetti alla puttanesca. So prized were the Cornish salted pilchard that they were considered superior to the usual Italian acciughe or anchovy. This dish is a classic of southern Italy, particularly the south-eastern region of Puglia (Apulia) and parts of Sicily. It’s a brazen dish (possibly accounting for its unashamed name, ‘whore-like spaghetti’) made with fresh tart tomatoes, salty black olives, anchovies or other salted fish and capers. It’s time of year is from harvest time at the end of summer to Christmas when these preserved delights are made and put in store for the winter.

Some time in 2005-6 the museum closed, for various reasons, mainly financial, but also because the demand for salted pilchards began to decline. As the Managing Director Nick Howell said in a statement regarding the circumstances of the closure, no amount of good publicity from TV chefs such as Keith Floyd and Rick Stein could persuade the British public to embrace this delicacy. The privately run museum was subsidised by the business which had also just begun to use traditional Breton canning methods to preserve Cornish pilchards and mackerel (in olive oil). You’ll be hard pushed to find a salted pilchard in Cornwall at the moment but thankfully you can still buy Pilchard Works canned fish all over the country. I hope we see salted pilchards in British and Cornish cuisine in the future.

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