February 7th: St Ives Feast

'Here goes up goes the silver ball
Free for country, town and all'
'Guage wheg ya guare teg - Fair play is good play'

It is Quinquagesima Sunday today and so tomorrow is St Ives Feast. I’ve been foraging for St Ives references in the archives of The Morrab Library and the archivist dug out for me a first edition of Richard Carew’s book ‘A Survey of Cornwall’. Based on information gathered in the late sixteenth century it was dedicated to Sir Walter Raleigh and printed in 1602. It was wonderful to be able to use something so old not just as an object of curiosity but for its original purpose as a reference text.

One of the main activities of the St Ives Feast is the hurling game still played between teams of children on Porthmeor beach on Feast Day which is tomorrow. Hurling used to be played all over Cornwall but now there are games only in St Ives and St Columb. The game is played with a silver ball (a bit like the Golden Snitch in Quidditch). The Mayor throws the ball into the crowd with the words quoted above. This is how Carew described the game when he saw it about 1580. It's a lot gentler these days!

Whosever getteth seizure of this ball, findeth himselfe generally pursued by the adverse party; neither will they leave, till he be layd flat on Gods dear earth…..The Hurlers take their next way over hilles, dales, hedges, ditches; yea, and thorow bushes, briers, mires, plashes and rivers whatsoever; so as you shall sometimes see 20 or 30 lie tugging together in the water, scrambling and scratching for the ball. A play (verily) both rude & rough, and yet such, as is not destitute of policies, in some sort resembling the feats of warre.

In Carew's day St Ives was a town of 'a very meane sort'. The only industry was pilchard fishing and he describes how the fish were preserved.

They are saved three maner of wayes: by fuming, pressing, or pickelling. For every of which, they are first salted and piled up row by row in square heapes on the ground in some celler …..where they so remaine for some ten daies, until the superfluous moysture of the bloud and salt be soked from them……Those that serve for the hotter Countries of Spaine and Italie, they used at first to fume, by hanging them up on long sticks one by one, in a house built for the nonce, & there drying them with the smoake of a soft and continuall fire, from whence they purchased the name of Fumados….

Until 2005 the Pilchard Works in Newlyn still preserved Cornish pilchards in the same way as described by Carew. The pilchards were exported to Italy, where they were used to make spaghetti alla puttanesca. These days the Pilchard Works no longer makes the traditional product but cans the fish in a number of different ways, packing them into delightful little tins.

This a Sicilian recipe for a pasta sauce with tinned sardines or pilchards.

Pasta with Cornish Pilchards and Fennel (for 2)

One tin of Cornish pilchards in extra virgin olive oil

1 fennel bulb, sliced and trimmed, with fronds reserved

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

30g golden sultanas

1 tsp fennel seeds

½ red chili, finely chopped
a few slivers of lemon zest

180g dried pasta - I used penne

2 tbsp toasted pine nuts** If in doubt use pistachios as I did.

** Pine nuts. A friend of mine recently had a nasty attack of ‘pine nut mouth’ – it’s caused by an allergic reaction to Chinese pine nuts. It won’t kill you, but for days and days you will have a vile metallic taste in your mouth. Please don’t buy unlabelled pine nuts. Italian ones are a different variety and quite safe. There’s an article on wikipedia if you want to know more.

Cook the pasta in boiling, salted water. Whilst that is doing drain the fish and heat the fishy
oil in a large saucepan, add the fennel slices and cook over a medium heat for 5 minutes. Add the garlic, sultanas, fennel seeds and chilli. Cook for another 5 minutes. Add the fish pieces to the pan - I kept them fairly chunky. Warm the fish through.
 Drain the pasta and add to the fishy mixture before the pasta dries off too much. Divide between two plates. Finely chop the fennel fronds and sprinkle over the nuts and lemon zest.

NB If you don't eat fish you can substitute smoked tofu for the pilchards, I tried it - it was good..

As I was going to St Ives
I met a man with seven wives
Each wife had seven sacks
Each sack had seven cats
Each cat had seven kits
Kits, cats, sacks, wives

How many were going to St Ives?

Traditional Riddle


Grazing Kate said...

Hi Liz, I enjoyed reading this and loved the recipe too. South West culture with an Italian twist is a great combo.

You've given me another health warning to worry about - I've never heard that about pine nuts.

Lydgate said...

Hello Liz,
A very interesting piece and I like the picture in particular.As a Hake (St Ives origin), I love marinated pilchards and gather that our wonderful librarian was doing them recently.There is a recipe at http://www.bigoven.com/recipe/137309/marinated-pilchards-hern-ys-aysel
Enjoy keeping the feast!

Dom at Belleau Kitchen said...

now I love pilchards and I wouldn't have thought about using them like this... very nice... love the new header picture too... very industrial for the spring garden x

Cynthia Bertelsen said...


Great post. Pilchards -- never had 'em, but I think I remember them being in Star-Gazy Pie or something like that.


A Trifle Rushed said...

Thanks Liz for such a fascinating blog. The recipe sounds delicious and I'm going to look out for one of those beautiful tins of cornish pilchards.

And thank you for the follow. Jude

Liz said...

The blog got a really good mention in The Times yesterday! How ? - no idea - but massive thanks whoever it was.