Whether it comes wrapped up in paper or served piping hot on a plate, the great British dish of fish and chips never goes out of fashion, writes Andrew Marshall.
WINSTON CHURCHILL referred to them as "the good companions". John Lennon smothered his in tomato sauce. Michael Jackson enjoyed them with mushy peas. They are as much a part of Britain's fabric as a cup of tea, Morecambe and Wise, a pint down the local and Coronation Street. It's the nation's one truly significant contribution to world cuisine and one of its favourite takeaways - fish and chips.
A marriage made in the 19th century to provide cheap and nutritious food for the working masses, battered fish and thick-cut potato chips - both deep fried, salted and soused in vinegar - have helped fuel Britain's industrial prime and sustained morale through two world wars. For generations they have fed countless memories - Friday teatime treat, eaten out of newspaper by the seaside or a late-night supper on the way home from the pub.
Who first had the bright idea to combine fish with chips remains a subject of passionate debate. We will probably never know for sure the true origins of this famous dish and arguments still persist whether it was down south or up north. Some credit Joseph Malin, a Jewish immigrant who opened the country's first fish-and-chip shop in Cleveland Street, London, in 1860, while others mention John Lees, who sold the first fish and chips recorded in the north a few years later from a wooden hut in the market at Mossley, near Oldham.
The hunger for a fish-and-chips supper reached its peak in 1927 when there were about 35,000 fish-and-chip shops in Britain. Today, about 11,500 "chippies" can still be found in villages, towns and cities from Land's End to John o'Groats. They come in a range of styles and sizes, from tiny hole-in-the-wall shacks and no-frills cafes to homely family restaurants and more glitzy establishments. Many are brilliantly named, such as The Codfather, Fanny Haddocks, Codrophenia, Fryer Tuck and Plaice 2 B.
Whether eating in or taking away, there's a certain amount of ritual involved with ordering and enjoying fish and chips. Firstly, what fish will it be? These days, the supplies of the two traditional favourites of cod and haddock are becoming more endangered, so you are just as likely to see species such as skate, hake, pollack and plaice on fish-shop menus.
Deep-fried thick-cut chips (preferably made from King Edward or Maris Piper potatoes) should be liberally sprinkled with malt vinegar then salted, in that order, so the salt isn't rinsed away by the vinegar.
Other essentials include a dish of mushy peas (dried marrowfat peas that have been simmered until soft and sludgy) and an accompanying plate of bread and butter, preferably slices of diagonally cut white and brown. For the full effect, strong hot tea is the purist's drink of choice - but none of your Darjeeling or Earl Grey; make it a Yorkshire or Tetley in a white mug.
Part of the appeal of fish and chips seems to be lost when they are transferred to a plate and many people still insist they always taste better when taken away and enjoyed from the paper wrapping. When taking away, simply ask for "fish and chips" and if you want the works try asking for a fish supper (which includes mushy peas). If you feel your meal hasn't got enough kilojoules, you can always ask for a scoop of the leftover batter, known as "bits" or "scraps", on top.
Another takeaway option is a fish or chip butty (chips or fish in a bread roll). Although found across the country, the true home of fish and chips is by the sea and there is still a special magic about eating them at a classic British seaside resort.
IT'S A SATURDAY morning in early May and the imposing ruins of the 13th-century abbey loom over the old Yorkshire whaling port of Whitby.
Narrow cobbled streets and red-brick houses spill down the slopes of the headland to the natural harbour punctuated with the raucous cries of seagulls and the tangy scent of seaweed in the air. Colourful fishing boats come and go and salty characters unload their catches of haddock, monkfish, skate and crab destined for the town's numerous fish-and-chip shops.
It's just after 11am and a small cluster of people are gathering outside the gleaming white building of the Magpie Cafe that overlooks the harbour on Pier Road, revelling in its reputation as the place to go to enjoy some of the best fish and chips in the north of England.
"On a typical day, but especially at weekends and bank [public] holidays, customers start queueing before we open at 11.30 and the most we ever had was 150 but unfortunately we only seat 130," says the owner of the Magpie Cafe since 1990, Ian Robson. "Although we offer other seafood dishes, haddock or cod, chips and mushy peas is still the overwhelming favourite ... We are very traditional at the Magpie and still use beef fat for frying like many other chippies in the north. Rick Stein, who has eaten here, still fries his in beef fat at his restaurant in Padstow, Cornwall."
Rick Stein isn't the only personality to have enjoyed the fine seafood created by head chef Paul Gildroy. "Over the years I've seen lots of famous faces come through the doors," the cafe's duty manager, Angela Brecton, says. "Actor Michael York, Greengrass from Heartbeat [Bill Maynard], the Emmerdale Farm cast, the Middlesbrough football team, Jack Douglas from the Carry On films and former Doctor Who John Pertwee."
Plenty of less-famous people also make the pilgrimage. Shaun Frost has embarked on a 350-kilometre round trip from his home in Sheffield with his father, Michael, for his favourite seafood hotpot. "I love it here," he says. "The trick is to be outside the Magpie well before it opens." Another customer has willingly made the hour-long drive from Thirsk just to get two regular cod and chips.
Heading inland to Guiseley near Leeds is another favourite for the fish and chip connoisseur - the world-famous Harry Ramsden's fish-and-chip restaurant. "There is no chip ever cut by man which cannot be cooked to perfection in three minutes," Harry Ramsden said and it's now just more than 80 years since he started in business on December 20, 1928, with only £150 in his pocket. It was a modest beginning - a green-and-white painted wood hut, three metres by two metres, which stood next to the tram stop, just the spot to catch the hungry Leeds folk on their way home from work.
Just three years later, inspired by the sumptuous interior of London's Ritz Hotel, he built the world's largest fish-and-chip restaurant, with cut-glass chandeliers, oak panelling, ornate stained-glass windows, fitted carpets and black-and-white photos depicting the early days.
On its 21st birthday in 1952 a world-record 10,000 people were served fish and chips.
Today, the Edwardian glitz (and, of course, a menu with fish and chips) continues to attract diners from far and wide, many of them choosing its "King of Fish and Chip meals": haddock or cod fillet served with a choice of mushy or garden peas, bread and butter, tartare sauce and an unlimited supply of chips on the house for £8.29 ($13.25).
Only a few kilometres away, tucked down a side street in Headingley, is Bryan's Fish & Seafood Restaurant. Established in 1934, it has been named one of Britain's top 10 places for a fish supper and is a past winner of the Good Food Guide's fish and chip restaurant of the year award.
A favourite of Michael Parkinson, David Jason (better known as Del Boy from Only Fools and Horses) and the England cricket team, Bryan's serves consistently good battered haddock and crisp fried potatoes in the proper northern tradition.
For those who prefer their food on a plate rather than wrapped in paper, the adjoining restaurant has a spruced-up menu offering a range of posh-nosh seafood dishes such as salmon with asparagus hollandaise, seafood pie and smoked haddock florentine.
More than 150 years since the first fish-and-chip shop was established in London, it's comforting to know the unbeatable combination of fish and chips is still flourishing and resisting the challenge of the Chinese, the Indian, the pizza shop and the burger bar.
www.magpiecafe.co.uk harryramsdens.co.uk www.bryansfishrestaurant.co.uk
Five other great places for fish and chips
1 Linfords Traditional Fish & Chips (Market Deeping, Peterborough)
With a 36-year family history in the fish and chips business, it's no surprise Paul Linford's chippie has been voted one of the top 10 fish and chip shops in Britain. Serving mainly cod (steamed, floured or battered) but also haddock, plaice and lemon sole, this very traditional fish-and-chip shop is in a building that dates back to 1771 and was a former stables and coach house.
2 Anstruther Fish Bar & Restaurant (Anstruther, Fife)
Scotland's No. 1 chippie serves ethically sourced North Sea haddock, Pittenweem prawns and Shetland organic cod from the world's first sustainable solution to wild cod fisheries. No wonder the likes of Robert De Niro, Tom Hanks and Prince William have braved the rain and queues. anstrutherfishbar.co.uk
3 Bardsley's (Brighton)
Bardsley's may be a short stroll out of town up London Road but it's well worth the walk. Once there, look beyond the standard dishes and try some of the owner's specials instead. From Cornish Blue shark steaks to Scarborough fresh-dressed crab, the range of fish is bewildering and the quality peerless. bardsleys-fishandchips.co.uk
4 The Seafood Restaurant (Padstow)
It's the place that put this charming Cornish seaside village on the map and made its proprietor Rick Stein a star. Fish and shellfish of exemplary freshness are the main drawcards, such as seared mullet, chargrilled Dover sole seasoned with sea salt and lime or perhaps a classic fish pie with cod, smoked haddock and minty peas.
5 Rock & Sole Plaice (London)
Open since 1871, London's oldest surviving fish-and-chippie, close to the Royal Opera House and theatres, makes it the perfect venue for that after-show pit stop. Reassuringly fat chips, big mugs of tea, fish cakes and daily specials from red mullet to trout feature, with not a sign of burgers or kebabs on the traditional menu.
+44 20 7836 3785
Traditional Fish & Chips (with mushy peas)
4 fillets of fresh cod or haddock (about 180g per fillet or 200g for haddock to allow for the skin)
2kg Maris Piper potatoes.
beef dripping for frying.
For the batter:
500g plain flour
200g self-raising flour
½ tsp baking powder
Approx 1 litre chilled water (you may need more or less as flours absorb differently)
Make the batter by sieving the flour into a bowl, add the baking powder then gradually add the water whisking continuously to avoid any lumps. The batter should be the consistency of single cream (too thick and the batter will be crisp on the outside yet stodgy on the inside). Place in the fridge to chill.
Slowly heat the dripping to approx 150°C (300°F) in a large pan (the dripping should only come no more than half way up the pan, any more and you run the risk of overflowing).
Peel potatoes and cut into thick chips (the thicker the better as thicker chips absorb less fat) rinse and pat dry. Carefully add the chips to the fat and cook until soft but still slightly firm, remove and cool slightly.
Turn up the heat and heat to 175°C (370°F). Take the fillets of fish one at a time, dip them into the batter and gently lay them into the dripping. These should take about seven to eight minutes to cook and the batter should look light, golden and crispy. Remove and place onto kitchen paper to drain. Place the chips into the hot fat and cook until crisp and golden, again place onto kitchen paper to drain.
To serve, warm four plates put a piece of fish on each. Put a spoonful of mushy peas on each and a dish of tartare sauce and a wedge of lemon.
400g dried marrowfat peas
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 level tsp salt
1 level tsp sugar
½ tsp pea green colouring
Optional: 50g chopped, fresh mint.
Wash peas in water, drain and repeat twice. Cover the peas with water so it is three times the depth of the peas. Stir in the bicarbonate of soda and leave to soak overnight.
Rinse and drain the peas twice, then cover with water. Add the salt, sugar and pea green. Bring to the boil (skim if necessary), reduce the heat to a simmer for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until the peas lose their shape and are soft. Add the mint if required.
Recipes reproduced with the kind permission of the Magpie Café, Whitby.