Pilchards are grown-up herrings, not something quite different and are suitable only to be canned for cats. Well, actually… not quite.
Many species of small fish may be called sardines but once grown to more than 15cm long a number of these species are likely to be called pilchards. Whatever their origin, they’re a delicious, oily fish that’s undoubtedly undervalued.
An enterprising entrepreneur renamed them Cornish sardines and now a professional organisation markets them fresh from late June to the end of February.
Canned pilchards are always available and because they’re often made from older bigger fish, can have a somewhat daunting high oiliness and fishiness. Fresh or frozen pilchards marketed as Cornish sardines are available online throughout the year.
Fresh pilchards have the short life of all oily fish but vacuum-packing greatly extends this, as does buying them frozen. Otherwise, canned pilchards last for years.
Provided you can erase the idea of canned pilchards being cat food, even though usually presented in tomato sauce, they can be used in a wide variety of recipes, from pasta to baking or serving with mashed potato topping. They’re a highly nutritious food with many health benefits, deserving to be far better known and widely enjoyed.
Fresh pilchards or Cornish sardines may be lightly poached, grilled or baked and although there’ll be a definite oily whiff in the air it’s considerably less if cooked in water. The Scottish habit of cooking herrings in oatmeal works well with pilchards.Their robustness makes them suited to curries and fish stews of all styles and nationalities.
Stargazy pie was supposedly created in Mousehole, Cornwall, filled with potato, egg and variable other ingredients but always topped with pastry through which emerged the intact heads of skinned and boned pilchards, the oil of which was expected then to drain into the main filling during the cooking. It’s not commonly found these days.