Fish And Chips: A Tribute To The Greatest Meal On Earth

Is there anything more comforting in British cuisine than Fish And Chips? No. Be it in local chippy or gastro form, here's why our national classic perennially makes life seem worthwhile even when it probably isn't.
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Is there anything more comforting in British cuisine than Fish And Chips? No. Be it in local chippy or gastro form, here's why our national classic perennially makes life seem worthwhile even when it probably isn't.
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You can forget your Michelin stars and your haute cuisine. You can keep your liquid nitrogen frozen desserts and you can stick your tasting menus up your star anise. Sometimes, there's only one meal that really, really cheers me up. It's tasty, it's satisfying and compared to eating out at The Obese Pigeon or wherever, it costs peanuts. I’m talking about the simply brilliant combination of fish and chips.

Now, please don't get me wrong - I love good food. In fact I adore food. I watch several TV food shows, I've eaten at some mighty fine places over the years, I've an appetite the size of Alaska and I've got a stack of cookery books taller than the Burj Khalifa. For me though, there really is nothing more heart warming than the sight of a pile of lovingly chipped, deep-fried potatoes sitting alongside a large, fat, juicy slab of simply battered fish. The crispness of the outer-chip combined with the fluffiness of the inner-chip is a thing of wonder. The crunch of the golden batter as you cut through it, married with the escaping steam of the perfectly cooked, gently flaking flesh is quite simply delightful. Add an accompaniment of some description, some bread and butter and a pot of tea, and it's a meal fit for Royalty. I’m pretty sure Liz and Phil like a decent fish supper and Prince Andrew definitely looks like he's put away a fair few these days.

This iconic British delicacy can be first traced back to the mid 19th century. The claim for the invention of chips is subject to an argument between the French and the Belgians - it’s possible they were invented in Belgium as far back as 1680 - and Charles Dickens alludes to chips in his 1859 book ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, though we do know for certain that the first official UK ‘chippy’ opened in Oldham in 1860. Selling deep-fried potato chips and providing a simple, cheap yet tasty meal for hungry mill workers in the town, it was a popular enterprise. Fried fish was also being sold separately in various forms during the same time period (again there’s a reference to it in some Dickens works – namely ‘Oliver Twist’ in 1838).

By 1995, ravenous, fish and chip addicted Britons were demolishing an incredible 300 million portions of it every year. I repeat, three hundred million portions. Wow.

The first known combined fish and chip shop was either opened in London by a Mr Joseph Malin or by a Mr Lees in Manchester (both sometime in the mid 1860’s), depending on who you believe. This sparked a rapid ascent in popularity for the dish. It wasn't long before plush yet affordable sit-in restaurants were catering to diners keen to sample the new craze - the first of these was opened by Samuel Isaacs in London and quickly became a restaurant chain. The numbers of diners enjoying the dish increased almost as rapidly as their waistlines, and in 1913 the British Federation of Fish Fryers was established to protect the interests of proprietors in this now rapidly growing industry. The demand surged over the next few decades, and the dish became one of the only foodstuffs to be exempt from rationing during the Second World War.

It also became the Friday evening meal of choice for the more devout of Catholics who refrain from touching meat on a Friday (though this is also a custom which remains popular for UK citizens in general). By 1995, ravenous, fish and chip addicted Britons were demolishing an incredible 300 million portions of it every year. I repeat, three hundred million portions. Wow.

The dish has also travelled outside of this green and pleasant land, following emigrants to the US, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, to name a few. The dish obviously varies slightly in each location, though the traditional concept remains the same. On a recent trip ‘down under’, I was quite taken aback at the passion the Aussies and Kiwis have for this fare. In some cases, not content with simply deep frying the bare skinned potato, they batter the chips too. It’s fair to say I had a new found fondness for our Australasian cousins when I saw this for the first time. They serve it with tartar or tomato sauce, you can add ‘chicken salt’ if you wish and you even get a little wedge of lemon with your take away portion. In the US and Canada the fish is often served with ‘home fries’ and coleslaw or tartar sauce. It's also found its way to other European countries, and across Asia, to varying degrees of success.

Of course one main thing differs wherever this meal is served, and that’s the type of fish used. For years in the UK, with the odd regional exception, it’s really been a simple case of cod or haddock, and sadly for these species of fish millions of people will only settle for either of the two. These days due to the issues surrounding the depletion of fish stocks, we find ourselves with a much wider choice of fish to fry in our fish and chip shops – something I’m keen to embrace. Pollock seems to be the standard substitute, and if you didn’t know you were eating it you’d be hard pushed to tell the difference. Coley, plaice, mackerel and even some species of dogfish are all on the subs bench vying for a few minutes of glory too.

There really is nothing more heart warming than the sight of a pile of lovingly chipped, deep-fried potatoes sitting alongside a large, fat, juicy slab of simply battered fish.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is making great strides at the moment with his Fish Fight in making the British public (and our European neighbours) see some sense in trying alternatives to the staples we’ve stuck with for far too long. He’s also getting somewhere in turning around the crazy fishing quotas imposed by the suits in Brussels. We have an abundance of tasty fish in our coastal waters, so we should take a leaf from Australia and New Zealand’s books, where it’s common to choose which type of fish you want battering as part of the whole delicious experience. Barramundi, hoki, gurnard and blue cod are all species which can form part of the dish over there – all superb. It simply relieves the pressure placed on certain species by our over reliance on just a couple of them.

Back in Blighty though, the meal wouldn’t be complete without some sort of side order or condiment. The traditional accompaniment is simply salt, vinegar and a wedge of lemon. Though over the years day-glo mushy peas, curry sauce, pickled onions, gravy, coleslaw, ketchup, tartar sauce, mayonnaise and even chilli sauce have made an appearance on the menu in most chippies. I tend to go for a splash of both peas and curry, but whatever floats your trawler. Also available to decorate the plate are scallops (slices of potato battered and deep fried), and scraps or scrumps (bits of batter which have dropped off in the frying process - scooped up and piled together - often served in bags with a take out to scatter over the meal). I often get annoyed in my local chippie when I ask for scraps - they almost always forget to put them on, leaving my fish supper looking like it's forgotten to wear its pearls. There are regional variations on the condiments on offer too - in Scotland often only 'salt and sauce' will do. The sauce in question is a tangy mix of brown sauce and vinegar or water (or both), poured from an old drinks bottle with a hole punctured through the lid. There are also variations on how it's all fried. Vegetable oil is now the main oil used for frying; however some areas and individual chippies do still use traditional beef dripping - or at least give you the choice of either. Beef dripping gives the dish a fuller more distinctive flavour but it also deprives some people who can't or won't consume animal products their chip fix.

All this talk is making me hungry now though, so I'll leave you with some final thoughts on this fishy goodness. It’s the simplest of simple meals, yet it’s more satisfying to me than any other dish I can think of. The pleasure of a fish supper is something I would certainly miss if I ever left this country for somewhere lacking such delights. I can eat pizza for fun, I'd tackle a curry whenever it's offered and I'd neck a Chinese if I was in the right mood - which is most of the time, to be fair. Though sometimes when faced with endless choices of takeaways, themed restaurants and chain pubs, only one meal will do for me.

So I'll have ‘one of each’ please, a peas, a curry - and don't forget the bloody scraps.

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