World food supplies would have to become a great deal worse before millionaires would fight in the streets for a tin of pilchards. The only aspect of this rather dull fish I find of interest is trying to establish exactly what species it is, before it got covered in tomato sauce. Never was there a better case for employing scientific nomenclature to keep things unmistakably clear.

If I am correct, and strictly speaking, the sardine and the pilchard are the same species (Sardina pilchardus – the European pilchard). The sardine is simply younger, less than 6 inches long, and more likely to end up tinned in oil. I assume that sardines were once associated with the island of Sardinia in some way. Fresh sardines are certainly more associated with the cuisine of southern Europe, but there was once an important Cornish pilchard fishery. There has been some renewed activity in Newlyn lately I gather, although now it is called a sardine fishery. Wise choice. As a slight complication tinned ‘sardines’ in supermarkets may be the European sprat or even the herring.

The European sprat (Sprattus sprattus) is commonly eaten covered in flour or oatmeal and fried whole in Britain and, oddly enough, Bulgaria. If you’ve never tried this why not give it a whirl? Preservation of sprats by smoking or tinning in oil does occur but is not so popular for the UK market. Sprats generally come from Scottish or Norwegian waters and need colder water for successful spawning than do sardines. But if they originate in Norway they may be called brisling, just to be difficult.

The Atlantic herring (Clupea harengus) is familiar in the UK. If fresh it is called herring but if smoked it is a kipper or bloater. Herrings tinned in tomato sauce were an item commonly procured for the Royal Navy where they were known as ‘herrings in…’. In Scandinavia the herring is canned young like the true sardine and then confusingly called sild. Whitebait, a common restaurant starter, are simply very juvenile herrings. There is a related species, the Pacific Herring (Clupea pallasii) which I assume we are only liable to encounter if we eat tinned, or I should say canned, fish from Canada or the USA. That salty wonder the European anchovy (Engraulis encrasicolus) may resemble a small herring but it is from a quite separate family of fish.

Remarkably one company, Glenryck, has been associated with tinned pilchards since I was at school. There has been huge innovation in the trade recently with the fish now being tinned in brine as well as tomato sauce. The company claim that they maintain supply with fish from Namibia and the Pacific, so evidently several species must end up in their tins. Now all that is quite clear what is the distinction between the Dublin Bay prawn, the langoustine and scampi?


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