Sitting on my bedroom window ledge is an early 18thc pearl-ware dish. It is 16 cm across and 4 cm deep and fish are swimming all around the side. They look a little like trout but they have bright red fins, gills and lips. These are the rare char and the dish was specially made for potted char, a Georgian delicacy.
Char (salvinus alpinus) are survivors from the Ice Age and occur in Britain only in a few deep, cold lakes – chiefly Windermere and Coniston in the Lake District and one or two in Scotland and Wales – where the water temperature never rises above 20˚C. They have been a rare treat since at least Tudor times – Henry VIII used to have barrels of them sent to his palaces – but I have never tried one so I don’t know whether this is a case of rarity making something particularly desirable or whether they really are different and delicious. Apparently the flesh is delicate and pink-tinged. Perhaps a Lake District reader can tell me what they taste like!
Because of the distance from the Lake District to major centres of population the best way to get char to the market before refrigeration was to pot it – cook it with spices, salt and pepper, then seal it into a container with a thick layer of clarified butter on top to keep it sterile.
Intrepid early travellers to the area such as Celia Fiennes and Daniel Defoe wrote of eating potted char for breakfast in the local inns and its fame spread as improved transport and the passion for tourism in the Romantic Age opened up the Lake District to visitors.
Potted char began to spread all over the country, packed into the special dishes like mine, although if you search on-line for ‘potted char dishes’ you’ll find other designs as well.
Because most people would have bought char ready-potted it was difficult to find recipes in my collection of early cookbooks. However, here is one from The Housekeeper’s Instructor; or, Universal Family Cook by W.A. Henderson (1807).
Potted char appears to have been eaten much as we eat potted shrimps today (those of us who are lucky enough to get hold of the real thing – tiny brown shrimps, not the big great big pink things!) – with crisp toast. And if you find a char dish, then snap it up. They are very rare survivors and mine was a lucky find at auction after I had seen one on Antiques Roadshow.