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My world is shattered: A paean for the demise of my beloved anchovy toast

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Jeremy Maggs is a veteran journalist, television and radio presenter, and MD of communications firm, Bold. He is the author of ‘WIN!’ and ‘My Final Answer’.

The first bite of anchovy toast, in which a little fish butter would dribble down the chin, woke up the taste buds as the combination of concentrated fish and salt spread with the speed of a tidal wave. One emerged from the experience with a Bunter-like shiny face and breath like the bilges of a trawler.

Mine was a childhood smothered in fishpaste. And now the memory has been harpooned as a major food conglomerate — with a click of a mouse on a profit-hungry spreadsheet — has decided to discontinue both Pecks and Redro anchovy spread.

I feel like a panicky sardine caught in a tight net off the South Coast. Like Nemo staring down Bruce, the vegetarian shark.

Long before Johannesburg’s busy Rosebank shopping precinct became a mishmash of overpriced restaurants and coffee shops, one might, to settle oneself, have gone to a department store for a restorative cup of Ceylon tea. Or in the case of a whining child, a Coke float, which would dangerously top up sugar levels to finish the afternoon excursion, as my late mother called it.

One such store was Anstey’s where, on the second floor, decorated in soothing creams and greens, was a thick-carpeted tearoom. The key beverage was served in sensible electroplated nickel silver pots and jugs accompanied by equally sensible sturdy white cups. If one was lucky, there might also be a slice of Battenburg cake, coated in yellow icing; a scone with jam and lashings of cream; or for the more savoury inclined — me — a slice of anchovy toast.

On two solid slices of hot white toasted bread and cut into four diagonally shaped pieces, the paste would be thickly spread. And if served timeously from the kitchen, would have begun the delicate intermingling process with a generous portion of smeared butter. On one side of the plate would be two thin slices of freshly sliced tomato, atop of which would be a sprig of parsley — the classic suburban garnishing of the late sixties.

The first bite, in which a little fish butter would dribble down the chin, woke up the taste buds as the combination of concentrated fish and salt spread with the speed of a tidal wave. One’s micro-atmosphere was then engulfed with the odour of an ozone-rich sea, and there were still many more bites to come.

Accompanied by regular gulps of strong tea to keep the mouth lubricated, it was an experience to savour, and one emerged from the experience with a Bunter-like shiny face and breath like the bilges of a trawler.

PepsiCo, which makes both Pecks Anchovette and Redro Fish Spread, blames changing consumer tastes and says it is looking to offload the brands to a third party. May that happen sooner rather than later. If I had the cash, I would make an offer myself.

My relationship with fishpaste continued into my high school years. On a cold winter’s afternoon, when I had floundered around a rugby field making a fool of myself, I took much solace in the expectation that, waiting at home on the old yellow Formica breakfast nook, would be a pot of tea and either cinnamon or anchovy toast. Just to keep you going before dinner, my mother would say, as I masticated my way through half-a-dozen slices of bread.

Sunday nights, when no one feels like cooking, has always been the perfect time to uncap the famously ridged Pecks bottle with its distinctive red and green badging, proudly proclaiming a heritage dating back to 1891, and telling us it’s “very high” in Omega 3. 

As I mourn what must be the inevitable death of this brand, I have failed to deal with one perennial problem. Unless the bottle is finished within days, there is a tendency, however tightly the lid is screwed on, for mould to grow quickly. All the more reason, of course, to have more of it, more often.

RIP Pecks and your less famous cousin, Redro. I will miss you, although I sense I will be easier to kiss and be around. DM

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    • Living in London I sometimes get requests from SafAfrika for stuff readily available here but, apparently difficult to impossible to get there. The most recent was for 3 LARGE bottles of HP Sauce, original flavour, 600 gram size. It was taken back to Jozzie and I know no more. 3 bottles of HP, large, 600 gram size – contraband?

      Is there an illicit market for this kind of stuff?

  • Yes disappointing. I looked for wayward bottles at the Sedgefield Super Spar yesterday. All AWOL. BUT: here is an opportunity for a small enterprise to take over the manufacture of this product. Surely Pioneer Foods could set-up a small empowerment company at St Helena Bay, Saldanha, Hour Bay, Mossel Bay. PS Jeremy, we have half a bottle in the fridge, only opened 3 days ago. Best you book your flight soonest.🍷

  • Jeremy, here at my local supermarket in Melbourne, there is plenty of stock available. Thanks for the warning – I am going to stock up!

  • This cannot be??
    Surely not!!
    Anchovy toast is as much a South African culinary tradition and delight as biltong and boereworse.
    I’d be happy to invest in a small business enterprise to ensure that our great-grandchildren are not precluded from enjoying in that oh-so-fishy delicious delight.
    But perhaps it’s not for everyone.
    Case in point:
    Just before Covid (BC), my wife and I visited our son and his English bride in the UK. We took them a few bottles of this captivating concoction as part of their “care package”.
    Of course our son was over the moon. Our daughter-in-law was less so.
    After she recovered from the shock and horror of her first bite, her never to be forgotten words: “Of course you had to wait until after we were married to introduce fish paste into our relationship!” linger on.
    But then she’s English.
    She probably hates Bovril too.

  • I read on Sunday they were discontinuing. Went in hope to Spar down the road yesterday: and got their last little jar of Pecks and five of Redro. Kind of funny as I don’t recall when I last bought fishpaste. Often I see it and get “the taste” to buy. But then think I will have a slice and not feel like another till six months later. After that mould has grown 🙂
    I told an elderly woman reaching for a jar in Spar that they were discontinuing, so she bought four. She says she follows Jamie Oliver and he often uses fishpaste in his recipes instead of salt, so she does too. I googled and couldn’t find any reference to this. But did find a recipe for fishpaste from someone who says they are a Peck’s lover. Not quite the same though, all the hassle of making ones own…
    Lovely read, this story.

  • As a fellow mourner, I see from a number of Australian websites that they import Pecks from France, but that it is very different to our late, lamented Pecks/Redro, and it has not been well received in Oz. I understand that Pioneer may sell the TMs (A few folk have already asked why somebody else does not pick up the Pecks baton). Secondly, there are a couple of recipes online for anchovy paste. As with the booze ban, this might be the time to experiment; necessity is, after all, the mother of invention!

    • I remember in the 1960s and ‘70s, during morning tea break at the Supreme Court in Jeppe Street, Johannesburg, the advocates and attorneys walked across the street to a lunchroom (name forgotten) and most of them had anchovy toast and tea, before making their way back to the court 15 minutes later. Those were the days …

  • Hello Jeremy, do not panic. I make my own anchovette and it is at least as good as Pecks. The one drawback of my concoction is that you should, preferably, consume it within a week of making it (even if refrigerated). Blend together a tin of anchovies, with a tin of sardines and a full tablespoon of tomato paste and you will have a good result. Vary the quantities to suit your own taste. I send you good wishes.

  • What a dastardly act Pepsico, you need a rethink! Mind you, like most “in your face” products, maybe some advertising and promo’s would work??

  • It is indeed a sad occasion. Just a few moments ago, whilst enjoying a thick spread on toast, I clicked on Jeremy’s article. I just finished the last bite. Please Jeremy, motivate a takeover of this deluxe Product and lets keep it going.

  • Sure Jeremy, and I love fish paste as much as you do, but there is another side to this: our oceans are hectically overfished. Many now believe it’s immoral to eat fish. It’s a bit like that fellow from the Dutch East India company proudly tucking into the very last Dodo ever on the island of Mauritius. There are more important things, surely. Whether we really are heading for a mass extinction we don’t really know, but we do know that our insatiable demands for whatever makes us feel warm and fuzzy inside (I include myself) have driven the world to the edge of an abyss, and we truly don’t know what’s waiting for us. I had lots of fish paste in my life of almost 60 years. I am going to remember and be grateful that my middle-class pocket could afford it. “So long and thanks for all the fish” (to misrepresent Douglas Adams and his intrepid hitchhiker).

  • I remember my brother’s slices of white bread, doorstop size, with 1cm layer of butter topped with a slightly thinner layer of Peck’s – never Wedwo – he used to have after school. He dunked the neatly cut fingers into his hot tea until the tea, halfway through looked like a oil spill in the Pacific. Mine thinly sliced, toasted with a scraping of both butter and anchovy paste but never dunked! In later years living on my own and not getting through a jar so quickly I discovered that if you stored the bottle upside down with the paste resting against the lid it lasted longer. Scientific explanation for that was that it prevented outside air to come into contact with paste thus took longer to grow mould. Somehow I grew out of using fish paste and sadly won’t miss its demise.

  • It is not in, “my Culture”, to go without Pecks Anchovette, or at a push Redroe, what is wrong with Pepsico, except that they are not, Coca Cola and at the rate they are going, never will be! At least they had the “kahoolies”, to admit they had made a mistake when the changed their “Original”, Coca Cola and brought it back again. I don’t think Pepsico cares and I less about them now!

  • This is interesting. I saw more posts here than on any other article by DM this week. And rightly so! I think it has to do with changing consumers. Too many fish paste fans have emigrated and soon we will have that awful chocolate Nutella taking top spot. Like HP, made in The Netherlands exclusively from ingredients imported to that country it sure demonstrates how we have lost our manufacturing base. Fish paste will come back at double the price.

  • What a walk down memory lane … as a child I remember the tea room at Stuttafords in Durban offering those fingers of toast slathered in the pungent pinky paste ! And then as a working girl, tea and anchovy toast at the Press Club, before work.

  • Jeremy, All those years wasted in broadcasting. You write beautifully. Hopefully you pen more stories for us in future. Unlike TV Viewers, readers don’t know or care what you look like, doesn’t matter if you’re old and grey, your words reveal your thoughts and feelings intimately to us and evoke our own memories of childhood in Joburg.
    Haven’t thought about it for ages, but this story reminded me of the 5 storey department stores in town, like Greatermans where their was a person sitting in the lift calling out what was each floor, as the doors opened… “Ladies underwear, shoes, linen”

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