Wednesday 29 January 2014

Char Pots

Delftware char pot, painted decoration depicting fishes, Liverpool, possibly Zachariah Barnes, ca. 1750-1770
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Before moving to London I could get to Cumbria easily.  In 90 minutes I could be in Windermere and soon after walking the Fells.  Well away from the charging speedboats, on Coniston water a few small boats moved through the calmer waters.  Either side of the boats, fishing rods arched elegantly with lines cast to hook char or trout.  Not that I knew then what they were fishing out of the lake.  Chatting recently about vernacular art to a market trader - in another life a museum curator; for this is London where almost everyone has a second string to their bow - I learned about Char Pots.  These distinctive containers were produced in NW England to serve a centuries old industry of the Lake District.

Barrels of salted char (or charr) were regularly sent to feed the court of Henry VIII.  Char was baked in pies, the weighty crust acting more as a container than an edible pastry.  By 1680 pots had taken the place of pies and butter had usurped salt as a preservative.  Potted Char was so highly appreciated that it warranted its own special 'Char Pot'.  The "broad, thin Pots" were produced by the Liverpool Delftware factories from the early 18th century.   Made of tin-glazed earthenware, these 9 inch diameter flat bottomed dishes were traditionally painted with 5 encircling fishes.  The example above is thought to be from the Old Haymarket pottery of Zachariah Barnes, believed to be the biggest producer of Char Pots, dating from 1750-1770.  This example is in the care of the Victoria & Albert Museum, holders of the largest ceramics collection in the world.  Its buff colouring is enlivened with the distinctive naive paintings of fish in colours of grey, red and manganese-purple. Intrepid readers will find the pot in Room 138: Case 2: Shelf 3, a battered relic of an all but forgotten English delicacy.  In the 19th century the Staffordshire potteries produced smaller, 5 inch diameter, Char Pots transfer-printed with 3 fishes around the outside.  In recent years fragments of char dishes have also been found on the site of a Lancaster delftware pottery which was producing between 1750-1780 suggesting they may have been made even closer to the Lake District..

Arctic Char is a member of the Salmonidae family, a salt-water fish which swims up rivers to spawn.  It's thought some became trapped, cut off from the sea during the last ice-age and sought refuge in the deep water lakes which formed.  I'd heard the English folklore tale that freshwater char only exist in lake Windermere, but somehow I couldn't quite believe it.  

The intrepid traveller Celia Fiennes wrote in1698 of her stay at The King's Arms in Kendal and of her disappointment at being unable to eat its celebrated potted char.  Though she was familiar with the dish, she was "curious to see the great water which is the only place that fish is to be found in" (Lake Windermere).  Disappointed to find the "charr fish being out of season ..." she had to settle for other fish.  Daniel Defoe in his 'Tour through England and Wales'  in 1724 wrote "But I must not forget Winander Mere, which makes the utmost northern bounds of this shire, which is famous for the char fish found here and hereabout, and no where else in England; it is found indeed in some of the rivers or lakes in Swisserland among the Alps, and some say in North Wales; but I question the last. It is a curious fish, and, as a dainty, is potted, and sent far and near, as presents to the best friends ..." 

Hmm, a little more illuminating.  Then, thanks to the fantastically helpful Guildhall Library in the City of London, I chanced upon Mary Wondrausch OBE, the English artist, potter, historian and writer.  She presented a paper 'Potted Char' to the 'Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery' in 1995 for their chosen theme 'Disappearing Food: studies in foods and dishes at risk'.  Thanks to her study I learned Salvelinus alpinus (Char) is to be found in deep-water lakes in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, and also, under different names, in Italy, France, Switzerland, Scandinavia and Iceland.  North America and Canada too have their own sub-species of char.  In British lakes they grow no bigger than 1½lbs (750g) but in more ideal cold conditions, such as Scandinavia, they can grow to more than 5lbs (2.2kg).  

Here in England, char can be found in small numbers in many of the Lake District's deep water lakes and was fished on Lake Windermere for centuries.  By 1860 overfishing brought a dramatic decline in the catch and today only rod-and-line fishing of Char is allowed on the lake during July-October.  A diet of crustacea is supplemented with its own species due to cannibalistic instincts.  A weak Char leans as it swims in a faltering fashion, its scales attracting the light and the unwanted attention of healthy Char.  Line-fishermen exploit this predatory behaviour by fishing with light-reflecting metal 'spinners'.   

Larousse described Char as "the finest and most delicate of fresh-water fish".  It's flesh can range in colour from pale pink to red and is, apparently, richer and more delicate than trout.  Early recorded recipes give instructions for long, slow cooking over several hours which suggests they would have been placed in a bread oven, taking advantage of the residual heat after baking.  The finished dish called for copious amounts of clarified butter to form a preserving seal, in much the same way as potted shrimp.  Not a food for the masses then.  Potted Char was appreciated all over the country by those who could afford it.  The pot needed to be reliably stable and stackable so that it could be transported, hence it was made wide, shallow and flat-bottomed.  Whether the decoration applied would have made the pot acceptable for placing on the dining table I do not know.  Certainly in the larder  the simply executed paintings of fish would have told what lay within those buttery depths.

Mary Wondhausch quotes several sources for how to pot your char.  Of these, Mrs Barton's of 1807 seems most appropriate to illustrate this piece. Mrs Barton was the wife of the Rector of Windermere in the early 19th century.
Char or trout 7
½ lbs or 1 dozen fish; black pepper and salt; white pepper 1¼ oz; cloves 6 dramms; ground mace 2 dramms; clarified butter 2lbs, cayenne pepper.
Time: 12 hours to salt; 4 hours to bake
Method: Clean your fish, head and tail them, lay them 12 hours in black pepper and salt, sprinkle inside and out.
Then season inside and out with the white pepper, cloves and mace.
Lay them in a baking dish one by one and barely cover with clarified butter.  Bake four hours very slowly.
When cooked lay them open.
Take out the backbone and scrape with a knife point the thickest of the seasoning from inside of them, and
Dredge a little cayenne pepper in them.
Have ready your pots dry, lay the fish in on their backs, side by side, head and tail.
Fill up the ends with small fish, and press all tightly down with your hands.
Then barely cover them with clarified buter and when it has well soaked in, quite cover them.

For most of us these days wild char is simply not available.  Char, like trout is farmed in some parts of the northern hemisphere.  Personally, I'll pass on either fish if it's farmed.  As Jane Grigson wrote in her book, English Food, "smoking is the only way to make the over-produced farm trout edible" and I suspect the same goes for the char.  I'd seek out wild brown trout as a substitute for char in this, Mary Wondrausch's own version of, potted char.  It's a little more up to date to take account of present day cooking equipment and the limitations on numbers of fish.  I've slightly altered the wording for clarity, as well as exercising a preference for using clarified butter:

Potted Trout or Char
Take four trout or char, clean and split them open.
Grind salt and black pepper on them coarsely, and a little grated nutmeg.
Butter the bottom of a heavy pan and lay two fish skin-side down in it. 
Pound 1 teaspoon of mace and ¾ teaspoon of cloves in a pestle and mortar and sprinkle half the mixture on the fish.  Add the two remaining fish and sprinkle these with the rest of the mixture.
Top with about 3oz of clarified butter and cook in a *very low oven (140C/Gas 1) for at least 40 minutes.
When cool enough to handle, fillet and skin the fish.  Pack the filleted fish into a shallow pot and pour the spiced cooking juices over.  Top up with more melted, clarified, butter to completely cover and leave to cool.

* Mary Wondrausch's experience is you can leave this in a Rayburn oven for 40 minutes to several hours with no difference to the result.

If you're still not convinced, try Jane Grigson's Fish Book for a rather easier way with char, though it's more likely you'll have to settle for trout.  I think I need to make a late summer trip to The Lakes this year.  I need to have a chat with one of those fishermen and take a walk on the Fells again.

The Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery
1995 Disappearing food: studies in foods and dishes at risk: Mary Wondrausch: Potted Char
Lake District National Park
Phil Crouch

Further reading: Northern Ceramics Society Journal, vol. 25, 2008-9

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