Since 1555, when exports were first recorded, Cornish pilchards have been salted whole in bulk, then pressed and packed into wooden barrels and boxes and sold throughout Europe. Before electricity was discovered salting was the main method of fish preservation and the Catholic countries of Europe provided a good market for fish products.
At the beginning of the twentieth century there were dozens of plants salting pilchards in Cornwall supplying the booming Italian, French and Spanish markets where they were sold from travelling carts in the remote rural regions. In Italy, which remains the primary market for salt pilchards today, they were used in rustic dishes as the most economical salted fish to give flavour to the staple diet of pasta or polenta. By the 1960’s, with alternatives of fresh and frozen fish, only one plant continued to pack salt pilchards in Cornwall.
By 1995, though the stocks were a healthy 600,000 tonnes, lack of demand had reduced the landings from Cornish boats to less than 7 tonnes per year. The traditional name for the fish, pilchards, summed up images of tins and tomato sauce and in 1997, after some interesting market research by “The Pilchard Works”, the fish was re-branded as “Cornish Sardines”. New recipes were developed with Marks and Spencer’s, some boats were given new nets and a guaranteed minimum price for their catches and the Cornish Sardines were launched in store later that year.
Since then s4rd78YmCornish landings have risen to around 2000 tonnes due fishermen, processors and multiple retailers working together to re-build the demand.