Back when I spent a lot of time in the Czech Republic a frequent topic of conversation among my Czech friends was “if you left the UK and never returned…apart from people (friends and family)…what would you miss most about Britain?” Of course, there was quite a list of things I could suggest – but the topmost answer was always the same one…fish and chips! It’s a meal that never fails to lift my spirits or satisfy a hunger pang.
Fish and chips is probably the greatest ever British invention/export. Certainly, no other nation seems to cook the dish better than the good old ‘chippies’ of Blighty. I was brought up appreciating it mainly due to my paternal grandmother living in Lowestoft – England’s most Eastern town – with a port with docks that landed fresh fish daily (…hence tip-top fish ‘n’ chips as fresh as you like every night of the week).
There were two chippies in Lowestoft in walking distance of my Nan’s house – Pablo’s and The Crown Meadow. I always preferred Pablo’s but my Nan insisted that The Crown Meadow was superior. Either way, when I visited my grandmother in Lowestoft and returned from either Pablo’s or The Crown Meadow with a piping hot parcel of tightly wrapped newsprint, my Nan would gesture to the larder and say “Get the Sarson’s!” (…and it had to be Sarson’s!) Then the meal could begin!
Originally, fish and chips were cooked in lard or beef dripping (beef fat). It’s pretty unhealthy but, I do have to say, the very best tasting fish and chips are indeed those cooked in this way. Due to 21st century health concerns, fish and chips cooked in lard or dripping is now totally impossible to find in London’s chippies these days (…unless you know better?!) – although some regional chip shops (in places such as Norfolk, Lancashire, Yorkshire and the more remote parts of Scotland) do still use the traditional cooking method.
Traditional accompaniments to fish and chips include tartare sauce and/or mushy peas – also known as ‘Yorkshire caviare’(!) Some chippies (generally those ‘oop North’!) even sell ‘curry sauce’ alongside fish and chips to tip over your chips.
Every year in the UK there is a competition to find the ‘Fish And Chip Shop Of The Year’ – and it is an accolade that is taken pretty seriously by the industry. Indeed, the best fish and chips I have yet experienced was from a restaurant that won this very award no fewer than three times – in 89/90, 90/91 and 93/94; The Ashvale in Aberdeen, Scotland. The fish and chips there was so good I had lunch and dinner there both days I was staying in the city! Haddock, chips, mushy peas and a glass of Irn Bru. Bliss!
And now…some interesting fish and chip facts (!):
- Unless specified, in England the phrase “fish and chips” implies cod and chips whereas in Scotland “fish and chips” means haddock and chips. (I guess I’m a Scot at heart – as these days I prefer haddock…although as a kid I favoured cod!) Sadly, irresponsible and greedy commercial over-fishing may mean no cod or haddock – and sooner than you think (see the last two bullet points below).
- During World War Two fish and chips remained one of the only foods in Britain not subject to rationing.
- The first ever fish and chip shop was opened in London’s East End in 1860 by Joseph Malin – combining “fish fried in the Jewish style” with potatoes fried in the Irish style; early fusion cooking!
- A debate still continues between the Belgians, French and Irish as to who invented ‘chips’. Certainly the thinner ‘French fries’ style of ‘chip’ is probably a Continental innovation whereas the larger (and more healthy) ‘chip shop’ style of chip most likely derives from Ireland and thence migrated across to Blighty!
- Commercial over-fishing now threatens the future of this dish entirely. We are simply running out of all types of fish. The scale of the devastation of the world’s oceans is truly frightening. Trawlers are now the size of cruise ships and use nets large enough to hold twelve jumbo jets! Large areas of the North Sea are dragged clean by these methods up to seven times every year! How can any eco-system cope with gross mismanagement and greedy interference on that sort of scale?
- Cod is now disappearing. In 1960 the number of spawning cod in the north Atlantic was 1.6 million tonnes. By 1990 this had fallen to 22,000 tonnes. That is now over 20 years ago – and we’ve been over-fishing ever since. (In fact, some laws and subsidies even require over-fishing as a policy…in spite of the eco-crisis! Go figure!) Check out the fish fingers in your deep freeze to see the effects in action. Once ‘fish fingers’ meant ‘cod’. The crisis in the cod population then saw fish fingers becoming haddock…then redfish…then Pollock…and lately, whatever’s left in the sea!!
Anyway, all this talk of food is making me hungry. I am off to fix some dinner. Guess what I’m having? That’s right…..Spaghetti Bolognese!!!!