Neptune's Bounty: Eating 52 species in 52 weeks to explore alternatives to cod, haddock, tuna, salmon and prawns.
Next up in Neptune's Bounty, my quest to eat beyond the UK's top five eaten species of seafood, is not a sexy or glamorous choice. Yes, I'm taking pilchards. Not strictly a different species as I will be tackling sardines at a later date, but as we buy and perhaps eat and treat them as a different fish I thought they deserved a week all of their own.
Pilchards are not going to induce images of a beautiful tower of fruits de mer, eaten with a view of the the harbour or in a trendy restaurant. You're unlikely to imagine putting them in your basket as you leave some upscale fishmonger and take it home to magic up a romantic meal. You're more likely to think of something out a can for a pensioner's supper on toast, or perhaps the pensioner's cat's supper. At best you might think it's reminiscent of the Cornish coast in ye olden days, caught by a salty old sea dog and hauled back to his cottage to be fried over the fire.
However. I think we're doing these trusty, if unfashionable fish a disservice. Tinned pilchards, like many tinned fish, represent excellent value for money, versatility and like many oil-rich fish are full of omega-3. As mentioned, they are strictly the same species as sardines (Sardina pilchardus, the clue's in the name...), yet pilchards conjure up none of the mediterranean vibes of lemony sardines cooked on the bbq sardines or even the late night guilty pleasure of sardines on sourdough toast with fresh garlic, chilli and a cold beer.
Generally, pilchards are the older, larger sized specimens (over 15cm long). They are fished off the south west coast of the UK, the French coast and in the Mediterranean. They used to be caught in large numbers, with the pilchard fishery off Cornwall recording 80,000 from one boat in one night in times past (Frank Buckland, The Natural History of British Fishes, 1883). But sadly times change, the last salted pilchard operation in Cornwall closed in 2005, and UK pilchard sales continued to decline in value and volume between 2016 and 2017.
Try bucking the trend though, with some MSC tinned pilchards. Caught and processed by the The Pilchard Works of Newlyn, these are caught off the Cornish coast and then canned in Brittany. Forget those gross tins of pilchards in sauce your granddad kept at the back of the cupboard, these come in extra virgin olive oil and like many tinned fish have the added bonus of looking attractive on your store cupboard shelf. I could write a whole post about the addiction to buying and displaying gorgeous tins of fish but that is a post for another day.
Use these tinned versions to make an excellent last minute supper you'll need to pick up very few fresh supplies for. This recipe for pilchard pasta uses punchy ingredients like lemon, spring onion, capers, dry white wine and chilli; I like to imagine my younger, twenty-something self curled up by the high windows of my old Glasgow studio flat tucking into this with gusto, with no worries or responsibilities. It's a brilliant dinner for one, but easy to scale up for two.
Pilchard pasta with cavolo nero, lemon and spring onion
- One tin of MSC Blue Label Pilchards in olive oil
- Half a pack fresh linguine or linguine (or dried, enough for one person)
- 1 chilli, sliced
- 1 garlic clove, sliced
- 4 leaves cavolo nero, destalked and chopped
- Olive oil
- 1 tbsp pine nuts, lightly toasted
- 1 tbsp capers, rinsed
- 1bsp sultanas or rasins (juicy, plump golden sultanas are great, leftovers festering at the back from Xmas baking will do...)
- 25g unsalted buuter
- Juice of half a lemon
- Small glass of white wine
- Small handful chopped parsley
- Small handful chopped spring onion
- Large saucepan
- Sharp cook's knife
- Chopping board
- Saute pan
- Wooden spoon
- Measuring spoon
- Colander or sieve
- Lemon juicer (optional)
- Wine glass or measuring jug
- Pepper grinder
- Put a large pan of salted water on to boil for the pasta.
- Heat some olive oil in the saute pan. Add the chilli, garlic and cavelo nero and fry for a few minutes.
- Drain the fish and add to the pan with the pine nuts. Fry for a minute or two, then add the sultanas.
- Add the butter, lemon and wine to make a sauce. Simmer so that the sultanas soak up the juices for a few minutes.
- Put the pasta on to boil. Add most of the parsley and spring onion to the pan.
- Drain the pasta when cooked. Keep back some of the cooking water. Put the pasta in the saute pan and stir well to coat. Add some cooking water if needs to be saucier.
- Check the seasoning and serve with some more fresh parsley.
What else can you do with pilchards?
- Treat fresh ones like sardines, bbq, grill or fry with lots of good flavours like tomato, lemon, herbs and olive oil.
- Make a quick snack with the MSC ones above, simply heat in a pan and serve on toast with some chilli flakes.
- Blitz the tinned ones with a little olive oil and herbs for a fish paste spread (maybe one for the hardcore), again great on toast, or crackers
Even more ideas...