I came across this recipe in Heather Corbett’s Fish Recipes from the South-West, reminded again of the long-running connection between Cornwall and Italy established via that tasty little fish so vital to Cornish history and identity, the pilchard—aka the European sardine or Sardina pilchardus. While puttanesca is hardly a sauce to stir up excitement (despite its name), what got my attention was Corbett’s use of tinned Cornish pilchards, a twist on the Italian classic whimsical enough to ease one through her directive to cook the tomato first. (Not so easy to overlook, however, will be the grated parmesan she instructs readers to toss in at the end. Believe me, avoid the fish sans formaggio subject at all costs with any Italian friend. You’ll never hear the end of it…)
A thriving industry in the 18th and 19th centuries, pilchard fishing in Cornwall diversified somewhat in the 20th century with companies like The Cornish Pilchard Works in Newlyn, which continued to process and export the lion’s share of catches to mainland Europe—namely Spain, Portugal, and Italy (where demand was high for the economic and versatile salacche salate inglesi). Though traditional salt-packing production ended in 2005, the company still sells pilchard fillets in decorative tins featuring artwork from the Newlyn School, such as Walter Langley’s Between the Tides.
You can use tinned tomatoes or fresh ripe ones to make your own pulp. I used about 350 grams of cherry tomatoes for this version, which made for a nice flavor but keep in mind you will have to contend with the skins. For a more traditional sauce, score and boil 400 grams ripe tomatoes; let cool; peel, deseed and roughly chop before adding to the pan.
for 4 people
350-400 grams spaghetti or linguine
5 tablespoons olive oil
350 grams cherry tomatoes, halved (or homemade tomato pulp as outlined above)
150 grams pitted black olives
2 cloves garlic
1-2 tablespoons salted capers, rinsed
2-3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
2 tins Cornish pilchards
1 fresh red chili pepper
salt to taste
Peel and thinly slice the garlic. Finely chop the rinsed capers. Remove the seeds from the pepper and slice into very thin rounds. Roughly chop the olives (or just break in half as I tend to do).
Heat the oil a large pan. Add the garlic and cook for one minute, careful not to brown. Next add the pepper and stir to flavor the oil, followed by the olives and capers. Cook for another minute while stirring. Transfer the tomato to the pan and continue cooking on low for about 10 minutes, adding the parsley halfway through. Lastly, drain the pilchards and crumble the fillets into the sauce. Combine well.
Meanwhile cook the pasta al dente in plenty of salted boiling water. Drain and add to the pan and toss with the sauce. Garnish with a bit more fresh parsley (optional) and serve.