This month’s object is associated with a local delicacy – it is this char dish from our pottery collection.
Arctic Char (or charr) is a type of freshwater fish found in northern upland areas, including Norway, Scotland, northern England and parts of Wales. There is a small char population in Lake Windermere, and it became a popular local delicacy from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries.
It is not clear how or when the fish arrived in Windermere. Some theorise that Arctic char were trapped in the lake at the end of the last Ice Age, while others claim they were brought here by the Romans when they occupied Ambleside.
In the medieval period, potted char became a popular dish in the English Royal Court, and barrels were regularly sent to London to satisfy their appetites. In the fifteenth century potted char was transported in pies, and from the 1680s pottery dishes were used, like the one we have in our collection. These dishes were broad and thin so they could be easily stacked and transported, and they often had a simple design of five fish around the rim. This dish is from the nineteenth century as the tourism industry boomed in the Lake District, and many came to try the local potted char.
Before it was put into the dish, the char was cooked and seasoned, then ground into a paste which was pressed into this shape of dish. It was then topped with a layer of clarified butter to seal and preserve it. Early recipes suggested that it should be cooked over several hours, perhaps placed in a bread oven so the residual heat after baking could be used to cook the dish. It could also be served cold with toast, on which it was liberally spread (sometimes at breakfast). The flavour apparently resembles trout or salmon.
Early visitors to the Lake District wrote about char as the dish of the day. In 1698, traveller Celia Fiennes wrote of her disappointment at being unable to eat the celebrated fish at The King’s Arms in Kendal. She was also “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 something else.
Writer 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… “
Unfortunately, overfishing in Windermere led to a decline in the char industry in the late nineteenth century, and char fishing was officially banned in 1914. Now you can only fish for char using a rod and line between July and October, due to low stocks in the Lake District. Char is no longer available in local shops or restaurants, but we have this little dish to remind us of the fish that once brought so many of our ‘foodie’ ancestors to the area.
• Slow Food UK on Windermere Char
• Tregeale Fine Art
• Wild Trout UK on Arctic Char
• Take One Dish
• Photo of char fishing from The Great Age of Steam on Windermere by George H Pattinson (1981); no further acknowledgement