THE WAR ON SPREADS
First Marmite, now fish paste: The shattered world of a simple breakfast
Peck’s Anchovette and Redro fish paste are the latest casualties of product discontinuations or shortages, following the great Marmite debacle of 2021 and the earlier disappearance of Nestlé’s Chocolate Log. As a consolation, TGIFood brings you a recipe for making your own fish paste. But not your own Marmite.
Fish paste is toast. And some of us have barely recovered from the Marmite scare. Although distributor Pioneer Foods says it communicated with customers at the end of 2021, news broke this week – with store shelves already empty – of the culling of both Redro and Peck’s Anchovette, leaving fish paste fans distraught, among them journalist and television news anchor Jeremy Maggs, who wrote, “My world is shattered.”
Nothing lasts forever, all good things come to an end – blah blah fish paste. Every South African immediately understands that phrase and what it means, but does anyone know where it comes from or why fish paste in particular? The internet is Jon Snow on the matter.
Fish paste is front and centre this week following the online and social media explosion as Pioneer Foods (owned by PepsiCo) appeared to announce it had (a fait accompli) ceased production of Peck’s Anchovette and Redro fish paste as of December 2021, and South Africans wailed and beat their chests.
Interesting, I said to myself while thoughtfully stroking my chin. Both brands featured prominently in my childhood, on toast with lots of butter, and on government white bread sarmies for school, elevated with thin ribbons of iceberg lettuce. We’d call it chiffonade today but that was unheard of in the 1970s, and it was also somewhat risque because we were told never to cut lettuce with a knife because it would turn brown. Such culinary heights. I was fed sandwich spread too – which I believe is still available in the supermarkets by the way. If ever something truly deserved to be eradicated entirely, it’s that tart evil gloop with questionable bits in it. To be honest, it’s supposed to be a relish but because it was called sandwich spread, it went on the sandwich. Sommer net so. I give you the ’70s. [And the ’60s – TGIFood Ed]
I’ve enjoyed anchovy toast too which – like Maggs recalled – would actually be something on a breakfast menu at a coffee shop or cafe, even in the ‘90s, into adulthood. It was always a good budget choice when you were broke.
Only now and then though.
Anchovette, or fish paste, is a pungent spread – a bit like Marmite in its divisiveness, you love it or you hate it – and even those who have been eating it their whole lives will admit there can be long gaps between buying it. Which may have something to do with the decision to can the product. The number crunchers took a look and concluded not enough of us were purchasing it to make it profitable for them any more.
To be fair, I haven’t bought it for years. It was while I was researching the great Marmite story of 2021 that I saw it on the same shelves. “Ooh, fish paste!” I said to myself. “I’ll have some of that, it’s been a while.” Only a small jar, mind, because as Maggs also pointed out, and my mom too, if you don’t eat it all quickly, it grows mould in the blink of an eye, even when sealed and kept in the fridge. Look, I’m not above scraping it off and eating it anyway, and I’m still alive.
The official story, which has been quoted extensively this week, is: “We made the decision to discontinue production of our Redro and Peck’s fish paste products towards the end of last year.
“This was part of our ongoing portfolio review,” said Category Manager of Foods at PepsiCo SSA, Mandy Murphy.
I double-checked this and Murphy confirmed this was the only reason, and nothing to do with a shortage of sardines, a rumour which had floated around social media, where else. One has to ask: some Simba and Lay’s chips have been unavailable lately too, because there is a potato shortage. There is also a global shortage of “integrated circuits (commonly known as semiconductor chips) is greater than the supply, affecting more than 169 industries and has led to major price increases, shortages and queues amongst consumers for automobiles, graphics cards, video game consoles, computers, and other products that require semiconductors”.
Such is the beauty of an unrefined Google search and the importance of chips vs crisps, and now I have another trivial fun fact to file in the already overburdened hard drive of my brain, which is long overdue for a system crash.
“We communicated this to our customers, stopped production, and discontinued the sale of related items in December 2021. Products will therefore remain available for purchase by consumers as long as the retailers have stock on hand,” said Murphy.
When the story broke on Tuesday, January 18, 2022 I was going to the shops anyway. There wasn’t a jar to be found anywhere. The lady in one of the Checkers said no, she hadn’t seen it for ages. How was it communicated to customers I wanted to know? Who are these people who have already cleared the last remaining stock? “To clarify ‘customers’ in this context refers to the retailers to which we supply products – ie: Shoprite/PnP/Woolies etc… They were all notified via our sales channels, and via the merchandisers,” explained Murphy.
You bought the last jar and you didn’t even know it at the time.
Everything in these aisles was all nicely spaced out, no empty spaces where the long-gone fish paste should be. Not like when Marmite was temporarily unavailable. Then there were mournful, desolate expanses of shiny stainless steel, waiting to be replenished. After writing about this in October 2021, I’ve kept a casual eye on the Marmite shelves and you know what? It hasn’t been around for ages.
PepsiCo was unable to comment by deadline with an update on the situation.
At the end of the fish paste statement, Murphy said: “We are in the process of finalising the sale of the related assets or brands to a third party.” All this means is that “there are a number of assets such as factory machinery, bottles etc which may be of use to a third party”, if anyone is thinking about going into the fish paste business.
Since there is no more fish paste ever, not even a substitute (not like when your perfect makeup foundation is discontinued which causes a horrible transition period filled with expensive mistakes but you eventually find a new one; the struggle is real, people), the alternative is to make it yourself, something which I began to consider about three shops into my search, because naturally, now the damn stuff is impossible to find, I want it even more. I’d seen a recipe which was as simple as sardines, anchovies and tomato paste (although have you seen the price of anchovies?). Cookbook author, food photographer, food stylist and intrepid fish-loving traveller Georgia East seemed the logical choice who to turn to for advice.
“I absolutely adore fish paste – hot toast, liberally buttered and spread equally as generously with fish paste is one of my ultimate comfort snacks. I particularly love fish paste on toast sliced into ‘soldiers’ to enjoy with a soft-boiled egg at breakfast,” she said.
“I love fish paste so much that I had to include it in my cookbook West Coast Wander (Struik Lifestyle). That version is rather decadent as it’s made with butter and so I developed an alternative that is closer in texture and taste to Redro or Peck’s Anchovette.”
Make your own fish paste
1 x 120g tin of sardines in olive oil/vegetable oil
8-10 brown anchovy fillets plus 5-10ml of their oil
1 x 50g sachet of tomato paste
Add the anchovies and 5ml of their oil to a mixing bowl. Use a fork to lift the sardines from the oil. Don’t add in the sardine oil. Add in about 4 teaspoons of the tomato paste. Use a stick blender to combine into a spreadable paste, adding in extra anchovy oil if the mixture is too thick. More tomato paste can be added for colour.
East likes to sprinkle in a pinch of dried chilli flakes too, but this is entirely optional, she said. Clearly it’s a fish paste thing – this will keep in the fridge for 3-4 days. Which sounds right when you think about what they say about house guests and fish.
“Making your own fish paste is incredibly simple and a whole lot healthier than the store-bought variety. Switch out the plain sardines for smoked sardines or if you’re an anchovy lover just make a paste using those. While I’m a fan of gentleman’s relish, I do know that the strong flavour of anchovies isn’t for everyone. However, I would recommend using them in homemade fish paste as their umami taste is indispensable to the spread.
“Once referred to as ‘pelagic paste’ in Daisy Jones’ Star Fish (Quivertree) due to the questionable lack of anchovies in Anchovette, our store-bought fish paste is often anchovy-flavoured, with the bulk of the spread made up of sardines and pilchards. Hence, as with most times, homemade is better.
“That being said, store-bought fish paste is essentially the polony of the seafood industry – affordable, delicious, nostalgic and made with every bit of fish imaginable – truly a nose-to-tailfin product. I’ll be sad to see it go,” said East.
Other much-loved products which have been take off the market in the past two years include HP Sauce (PepsiCo), salt and vinegar Lay’s (PepsiCo – they were discontinued then brought back for a limited run), tomato sauce Simba chips (PepsiCo, and frankly this is one I support; that’s Satan’s flavour), and Chocolate Log (Nestlé). There was a bit of a panic over Peppermint Crisp (Nestlé), an ingredient in a traditional South African tart, when there was a shortage in September 2021. Nestlé promised it has not been discontinued but if you haven’t bought it for a while, the packaging is different now. Also, it’s still not available on every shelf. DM/TGIFood
The writer supports Ladles Of Love which in six years has grown from serving 70 meals at its first soup kitchen to one of the most prolific food charity organisations in South Africa.
Follow Bianca on Instagram @Biancaleecoleman