A very dear friend gave me a strange dish a few weeks back, something I guessed had once been used as a cat bowl or the like. However, he told me to look up its origins and of course, it proved to be a charr pot and today, highly collectible. As a result, it is on display rather than in the tackle shed. (BTW… I’m attempting to stick with the double “R” spelling, though I have always shunned it for being pretentious in the past. “Char”, it seems, is a largely obsolete English word, used still on occasion for work, as in “charring” for someone. There’s more to it, but I think we are yawning already!)
The most basic of researches showed this to be a typical charr pot, with four fish images decorating it, six and a half inches in diameter, and a little under two inches in height. It is in reasonably good condition and probably dates from the later 18th century ’till some time well into the 19th century. When it was made, it was destined to hold several small potted charr, almost certainly netted from Lake Windermere and processed in Penrith. From there, the pot and its contents would have been transported by road, at least until the mid-19th century, probably to London where it would have been bought by the relatively rich as a well known and highly regarded delicacy.
It seems that the bulk of the charr were netted from Windermere in December when the fish moved from the deeps to the shoreline to spawn, though I have not corroborated this last piece of information. It seems that the fish had their head, tails and fins removed and then they were well salted. The salt was then drained and the fish were flavoured with mace, cloves, peppers and bay leaves. They were then put in a pan, covered with butter and baked. Finally, the resulting gravy was drained off, the fish were put in their pots, covered with clarified butter, and transported to the dining tables of the wealthy.
Mrs Beeton described charr in 1888 as “one of the most delicious of fish, being esteemed by some superior to the salmon”. However, by then, the charr trade was in slow decline because of over-fishing and by 1921, charr netting was finally suspended by the Fishery Board. During the Second War, however, Windermere’s fish became important again, this time its copious perch stocks being netted and canned and sold as perchines to a hungry public. An older friend tells me that as they were smothered in tomato sauce they weren’t too bad, but that she was glad to see cod back in the Fifties!
As we all know, charr in Windermere today are suffering like never before. Professional charr fishing (about which I once made a BBC film) is now pretty much defunct, though Scottish charr stocks are very possibly still vigorous. Certainly, back in the 1990s, Ron Greer, then of the Freshwater Fish Laboratory in Pitlochry, thought them prolific enough to net commercially. My ferox fishing friends opposed the suggestion, and after a rowdy meeting or two, I believe the proposal was dropped. I have a high regard for Ron but, speaking personally, I fear nature has enough to contend with in these difficult times.
So for that reason I doubt whether I will ever eat a UK charr (though I have eaten them in Greenland and succulent they are) and my pot will remain forever empty!
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