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Friday, 12 July 2013

Anchovies as a case in point

'Anchovy', that humble little fish whose natural habitat seems ever to be the top of a pizza, is a symbol of probably one of the few words that has come into English from the Basque language, although we actually took it from the Spanish and Portuguese anchova, rather than directly from the Basque anchoa, which is also the name of one genus of anchovy.

And while anchovies may seems like a harmless salty topping for pizzas, they were also behind one of Alfred Hitchcock's films, The Birds, which was inspired by peculiar behaviour shown by shearwaters in and around the California town of Santa Cruz in 1961.

Some birds need no chemical help to go
completely berserk.
While Hitchcock drew on a Daphne du Maurier story for the basic story-line, the actions of the shearwaters helped shape the detailed plot of the movie. And those actions, it seems, were shaped in turn by a marine neurotoxin called domoic acid.

This chemical comes from a marine alga called Pseudo-nitzschia australis, and when the algae are eaten by anchovies, the toxin is then introduced into the food chain that leads to the shearwaters.

Most people only heard of the El Niño effect after the Peruvian anchoveta (Cetengraulis mysticetus) fishery fell to very low levels in the early 1970s, in part as a result of over-fishing, but also because of the climate changes brought by an El Niño event at that time. This is a different species of fish from the Mediterranean anchovy, Engraulis encrasicholus, but it was also able to be pickled and sold far away, without refrigeration.

The sardine, is a small fish of the herring family, cured and soaked in oil, which gets its name from the island of Sardinia, although the same or similar fish could also be gathered off the coast of Brittany, but even there, far from the Mediterranean island, the fishermen seem to have kept the Latin name for the fish. There is a 'sardine stone' mentioned in the Bible in Revelations which was also a precious stone, perhaps the same as the 'sardius', mentioned in Exodus and Ezekiel.

It is always risky second-guessing those who translated the Bible into English, but at a guess, this may be either the sard, which is another name for a carnelian, or perhaps a sardonyx, which has alternating bands of sard and white quartz.

Then there is the pilchard, a fine example of excrescence in the language. While this sounds suspiciously as though it may be obscene or scatological or plain unpleasant, it is none of these. In fact, an excrescence is something added on to make a word sound more euphonious. In Twelfth Night, Feste (often referred to as the Fool or the Clown) uses the old form when he tells Viola:
" . . . fools are as like husbands as pilchers are to herrings - the husband's the bigger."
Shakespeare knew the anchovy as well, and it rates a mention in Henry IV (Part I, II iv 588), when Prince Hal searches the sleeping Falstaff's pockets and finds a bill featuring this:
Item, Anchovies and sack after supper. ii s. vi d.
It appears that anchovies and sack was a repast much to the fat knight's liking. But then sack, capons, sauce, bread and more sack, were all much to the liking of Sir John. Dickens, however, seems to have a more mixed view: the Snagsbys in Bleak House serve "delicate little rows of anchovies nestling in parsley" to the Chadbands, and Mr. Pickwick speaks of anchovy sandwiches as "glorious" — at least in the presence of devilled kidney.

David Copperfield, on the other hand, was less impressed when dosed with anchovy sauce by his aunt, Betsy Trotwood, to stop him crying. In that case, though, the anchovy sauce was in between aniseed water and salad dressing, so perhaps the sauce was no problem at all.

Anchovy sauce was obviously held in low esteem, as Pip in Great Expectations notes an anchovy-sauce cruet in an inn where he takes tea with Estella, " . . . and somebody's pattens". These were wooden overshoes that help lift one's real shoes out of the mud, and on the basis of these items, Pip objects to the room, and they are ushered into another.

If there had been pilchers in the room, that would have been a greater reason to object, for what had been a pilch soon after the time of Sir John Falstaff, a flannel wrapper worn over a baby's nappy or diaper, was by now a pilcher, going by the name the fish had vacated when it became a pilchard.

The over-garment would probably have been more offensive to the sensitive Pip and Estella than even the muddiest of overshoes.

1 comment:

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