Neptune's Bounty Week 4: Pilchards
Can unfashionable fish get another chance?
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
What else can you do with pilchards?
Even more ideas...
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