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What is Bloater Paste?

What is Bloater Paste?

In the Archive we often get asked what the earliest form of packaging was – and while we have no definitive answer, we often point to our potted meat and bloater paste jars. Inevitably, the second question is “what is Bloater Paste?”

Bloater paste was a herring paste described as... a 'tasty tea-time treat on toast.' It was made to a closely guarded recipe at Blackfriars from the 1890's until after the Second World War.

SA/BL/6/1 Original Bloater Paste recipe

The new season's catch was landed in January at the quays in Great Yarmouth, and the fish was smoked, salted and packed in great wooden barrels and sent to Blackfriars. Here the fish heads and tails were cut off, the backbones removed and they were ground up ready for the addition of spices, anchovies and lard.

The paste was then left to mature for two-three months before being ladled into the small ceramic pots and covered with a waxed disc and a heavy tin foil 'capsule'. The ornate pots were piled up in pyramids on the marble shelves and were sold at 2d and 3d a pot.

In the 1930s, Mrs. Lemon worked for Sainsbury’s and made bloater paste in both the Kitchens and the Factory. Here is her description of the process:

"Red herrings bloaters arrived packed in radiating circles in large wooden barrels. Men removed the barrel top with a crowbar. Girls worked taking heads and tails off the fish at a wooden block with a chopper attached to the middle. The bloaters were boned, replaced in the empty barrel and taken to the Kitchen. The cooking and spicing were never seen by the girls. The cooked fish was returned in big metal trays as a thick paste, very oily and very smelly.

Bloater paste was packed in 2oz and 4oz jars by means of a filling machine. A small wax cover was put on the top of the paste. Lids called 'capsules' were then put over the top of the pot. The capsules were made of a heavy tin foil and were pinched in round the edge by machine. They could be peeled off. J. SAINSBURY BLOATER PASTE was written on the foil.

Bloater paste pots came in big crates packed in sawdust. They were washed, covered in Hudson's powder, left to drain, and dried with meat cloths.

Bloater paste was made six days a week. Usually there were seven people working including three boning, one filling and one on the capsule machine."

Bloater paste was almost certainly one of the very first products to be made at the Blackfriars ‘kitchens’, which were set up on the company's move to the area in 1891. The earliest pot in the Archive's collection probably dates from about this time. It is small and squat, with quite a simple design. The fact that there is no sign of smudging on the printing suggests that the motif was an applied transfer, rather than a print from rubber rollers, a process which was introduced at about the turn of the century.

The second design of bloater paste jar certainly shows the smudging characteristic of roller-printing. The motif is more elaborate, but is similar in shape to the earlier type.

This was followed by a plainer design, dating from about 1914, which just bears the words 'J. Sainsbury, London,' and 'bloater paste', in place of 'J. Sainsbury's superior home-made bloater paste' which appeared on the previous type.

Meat pastes were probably introduced in 1920, when grocery departments first appeared in Sainsbury’s branches. A delicious tea-time treat, they were originally available in a choice of chicken and ham or turkey and tongue, and were made especially for Sainsbury's by Shippams, the well-known paste manufacturers. By this time, a 'SAINS-berry' punning trade mark had appeared on the jars, and is just visible in contemporary photographs of counter displays.

These jars are today by far the most common, although pot-collecting aficionados have spotted subtle differences in the arrangement of the holly within the trade mark. The jars were made by Maling of Newcastle-upon-Tyne — the main manufacturer of jam jars and similar pots at this time - and arrived at Blackfriars in massive crates packed with sawdust. Some of the jars bear Maling's pattern marks, such as '156' (the commonest type of meat past jar) and 'E38' (the small squat bloater paste jar). By the end of the Second World War the original pastes in ceramic pots had disappeared from the counters of Sainsbury's branches, but 'Selsa' pastes in glass jars continued to be available. The customers kept the pots for their own use, and that is why so many can still be found.

Do you have any memories of buying or eating Bloater Paste? Let us know on our memories page