Skip to main content

Fish is off

oliticians have to be so careful. They can be caught out with the wrong woman, doing business with the wrong sorts and even eating the wrong food. Remember John Selwyn Gummer feeding his daughter a beefburger during the BSE crisis in 1990? Well, he wasn't the first minister to be guilty of a serious lapse in taste.

In 1948, John Strachey, as food minister, announced to the nation that a certain South African fish was good, palatable, a little dull maybe, but delicious in sandwiches. Mr Strachey was tasked with the difficult job of keeping a hungry country healthy. Rationing was biting hard. Bread, butter and meat were limited and even spuds were in short supply for a year.

Still the stubborn British held firm. Tummies might rumble but they were determined not to sample anything they didn't fancy. They were revolted by tuna and appalled by whalemeat. But nothing matched the horror with which they greeted snoek.

Snoek (the name rhymes with cook) is a bony, oily fish of the Southern seas and it had a frosty reception in the north. Even before it arrived, people were sceptical. A 1947 newspaper cartoon showed a London family nervously preparing to open a tin of the stuff. "Steady now, mother," says Dad, standing by with an axe. "If it springs at you, I slosh it with this axe."

It was just a shame that poor Mr Strachey had bought 10 million tins of snoek. The first pound;100,000 consignment arrived from South Africa in May 1948. The Government published recipes to win over a reluctant public.

It also declared that snoek counted for only one point on the rationing system compared with 13 for red salmon.

All to no avail. Nearly two years later a third of tins were still on the shelves. More recipes were circulated, including snoek with salad, snoek sandwich spread and snoek pasties. Then the price was cut.

But still the people didn't take the bait. In the end there was only one answer. Strachey's tins were taken away for relabelling and a new "selected fish food for cats and kittens" appeared in shops.

Stephanie Northen

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you