In episode 8 of the BBC’s Wartime Farm historian Ruth Goodman decides to do some picnic catering for a party in the park, an event that would have been encouraged under the ‘Holidays at Home’ scheme – an attempt to provide some light relief for a population that was discouraged from unnecessary travelling.

She served up a sandwich filling – Pilchard and Cabbage Spread – which sounds absolutely disgusting. Her party guests were a little dubious, too, but after gamely taking a few mouthfuls they decided it was actually quite nice.

So we had to try it 🙂

Now, it is possible to buy tinned pilchards, but they’re not very common, and that’s because they’re now called sardines.

Fish 4 Ever sustainably-sourced sardines

We just happened to have some tinned sardines in the cupboard. I invested in some sustainably-sourced fish from Traidcraft a few weeks ago. Mostly because Traidcraft (the original fair trade company here in the UK) has been struggling in our toxic economic climate, and I wanted to help out. So I bought tinned fish, dried fruit and Christmas wrapping paper.

If you don’t have or don’t like sardines then I imagine any tinned fish would do, so give it a whirl with tuna. Or salmon, if you’re feeling posh.

The recipe for this spread isn’t in the Wartime Farm book, and it’s not one of the common WW2 recipes you can find anywhere on the internet. But there’s a copy in a Life on the Home Front PDF aimed at kids, produced by the RAF Museum. It reads as follows:

4 oz. pilchards or sardines 1 tablespoon vinegar
4oz. finely shredded cabbage 1 teaspoon mustard
1 teaspoon chopped parsley 2 teaspoons salt

Mix all the ingredients together, including some of the oil from the fish. Beat well and use as a filling for scones and rolls.

We’re not big fans of brassicas, but we did have some green cabbage in the fridge. We’d eaten half of it in stir-fries, and that was fine, but the rest was languishing a bit. So I pulled off the really limp outer leaves, and freshened the rest up in some cold water for a little while before slicing it. I didn’t bother weighing it. Then I nipped outside and picked plenty of fresh parsley from the garden, and it all got finely chopped. Then I rifled through the cupboards for the rest of the ingredients.

Chopped parsley and cabbage
Chopped parsley and cabbage

My version of the recipe ended up as:


  • 120g tinned sardines in sunflower oil
  • 1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
  • 2 handfuls finely shredded raw cabbage
  • 1 tbsp wholegrain mustard
  • 1 handful chopped parsley
  • 1 tsp salt* (optional)

The method didn’t change – I just mixed everything together well. I used a fork, which helped to mash the fish up. My tin of fish didn’t have much oil in it, so it all went into the mix.

What you end up with doesn’t look immediately appetising:

Fish and cabbage spread
Fish and cabbage spread

We served it on toast, for lunch.

Fish and cabbage spread

And it was zingy, and had a good bit of crunch to it, and it didn’t make the toast all soggy, and generally got a thumbs up and a “would happily have again” vote. You could happily make this with any sort of leafy green that has a bit of body to it – a crunchy lettuce, or baby kale, for example. *Although I halved the salt from the original recipe, it was still too salty, and I would omit it entirely in future.

WW2 cabbage poster

During WW2, government messaging encouraged people to eat a salad every day, as a way of preserving vitamins. There were comments about how badly Brits cooked vegetables at the time, as they were almost all boiled to mush. Children were no more fond of leafy green vegetables then than they are now, which was the main reason why the government went to great lengths to get them blackcurrant cordial (unbranded Ribena) or rosehip syrup (made from wild rosehips) as a replacement source of vitamin C (imported fruit such as oranges being in very short supply).