To eat fish and chips is to be British. For me, it’s our undisputed national dish: head to one of our coastal towns and you’ll find hordes of people sitting outside in all weathers so they can enjoy it next to the sea, eaten straight from the paper.
Crisply battered flakes of pearlescent fish and piping-hot chips are an inspired combination. Both Manchester and London claim to have been where the match was first brokered, but what we do know for sure is that fried fish was brought to Britain during the 17th century from Spain and Portugal by Jewish immigrants.
Chips, most likely, were a Belgian import. The two were increasingly enjoyed together during the Industrial Revolution, when fish were starting to be caught in greater quantities off the coast of Scotland and Yorkshire and transported to the cities via the rail network.
Fish suppers even get a mention in Oliver Twist, in which Dickens refers to a ‘fried fish warehouse’. By 1910, fish and chips had become so popular that virtually every street corner boasted a shop specialising in the dish.
You could even argue that fish and chips helped us win the Second World War. The War Cabinet recognised the dish’s morale-boosting properties and exempted it from rationing, letting workers and soldiers’ families enjoy it as often as they were able to. During the DDay landings, British troops would call out ‘Fish!’ to each other over the gunfire. If a reply of ‘Chips!’ wasn’t received, it meant that the worst had happened-hence the phrase ‘He’s had his chips’. At one time, there were 35,000 Fish and chip shops across the country, which is 24,500 more than today. However, the volume of fish sold annually through them remains the same, despite the industry having had a pretty hard time of it over the past few years.
Our oceans have been pushed to their limits and, for a while, there was talk of cod, the nation’s favourite fish (we’re its biggest consumers worldwide), being taken off the menu due to overfishing. However, its legions of fans needn’t worry: local stocks have been under pressure, but are now recovering nicely. And Norwegian vessels in the Barents Sea (which supply us with the majority of the cod we consume here) fish sustainably, within strict quotas.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t try something a little different. Why not give a native species, such as whiting, gurnard or sole, a go next time you pop out for fish and chips? Not because cod stocks are running low, but simply because they’re delicious.
British fishermen, who are often criticised, deserve a medal in my opinion. They adapt to ever-changing advice from regulatory bodies and are always looking for smarter ways to fish-largely to their own cost. Today, we have a smaller, more efficient and more caring industry, coupled with chippies that are a cut above.
Those worth their salt (and vinegar) will fry to order, rather than keeping their portions on standby for hours under a hot lamp. They’ll always use fresh fish, never frozen-our placemats at the Rockfish restaurants read ‘Tomorrow’s fish are still in the sea’. Chips will be cut from a seasonally available variety of potato and the tartare sauce might well be made on site. Really, it’s no wonder that British-style fish-and-chip shops are popping up all over Europe, Asia and even Australia.
How do you have yours? Personally, I’m a cod fan and I like the top piece of the fillet best-the flakes are bigger. I prefer my batter thin but crisp, and I don’t like flour on the fish before it’s dipped in: it’s claggy. I shake plenty of salt over them first and then vinegar. I like tartare sauce, but not ketchup, and I’m partial to pickles. And the fish should never, ever be sitting on top of the chips.
Rockfish Dartmouth won The National Fish & Chip Award for best independent fish-and-chip restaurant in 2013. Mitch Tonks is opening a Rockfish restaurant (www.therockfish.co.uk) in Torquay in Devon this month and is currently writing his eighth book (www.mitchtonks.co.uk)
Which are the best fish and chip shops in Britain?
The 2014 National Fish and Chip Awards winners
Quayside, Whitby, North Yorkshire.
The Fusco family has been serving proper Yorkshire fish and chips (cooked in beef dripping) for more than 50 years. (01947 825346; http://quaysidewhitby.co.uk)
Frankie’s Fish and Chips, Brae, Shetland.
Britain’s most northerly fish-and-chip shop, with wonderful sea views-don’t miss the battered Shetland scallops. (www.frankiesfishandchips.com; 01806 522700)
Papa’s Barn, Ditton, Kent.
Prides itself on serving the freshest fish, brought in daily from Peterhead and Billingsgate market. Try the Moby Dick-a jumbo portion of cod. (01732 848488; www.papasbarn.co.uk)
TOP TEN REGIONAL WINNERS
Frankie’s Fish and Chips, Brae, Shetland (see above)
Hennighan’s Top Shop, Machynlleth, Powys (www.hennighans.co.uk; 01654 702761)
John Dory’s Traditional Fish and Chips, Belfast (http://johndorys.co.uk)
Quayside, Whitby, North Yorkshire (see above)
Richardson’s Fish Bar, Fleetwood, Lancashire(www.richardsonsfishbar.co.uk;01253 779229)
Merchants, Stourbridge, West Midlands (www.merchantsfishandchips.co.uk; 01384 373373)
The Boundary, Market Deeping, Lincolnshire www.boundaryfishandchips.co.uk; 01778 347080)
London and South-East England
Papa’s Barn, Ditton, Kent (see above)
Central and South England
Godfrey’s, Harpenden, Hertfordshire (http://godfreyschips.com; 01582 462965)
South and West England
The Tavi Friar, Tavistock, Devon (www.thetavifriar.co.uk; 01822 617884)
Country Life’s favourite fish & chips
Stein’s Fish and Chips, Padstow, Cornwall
Serves up all the classics, as well as hake, monkfish and John Dory landed right on the doorstep. The dripping-cooked chips are dangerously moreish. (01841 532700; www.rickstein.com)
No1 Cromer, Norfolk
This stylish new venture gets top marks for its giant portions and minted mushy peas. If you’re eating in the restaurant, the chips come in a miniature bucket with a spade to serve them. (01263 512316; www.no1cromer.com)
The Fish Shed, Topsham, Devon
Part of pioneering Darts Farm near Exeter, The Fish Shed serves locally caught specialities straight off the day boats. For a real treat, try the lobster and chips.
(01392 878206; www.dartsfarm.co.uk)
The Scallop Shell, Frome, Somerset
A spin-off from the top-quality fishmonger at White Row Farm Shop, this was named Best Newcomer in the National Fish and Chip Awards. Cornish whiting and plaice take centre stage.
(www.thescallopshell.co.uk; 01373 830510)
Kerbisher and Malt, 164, Shepherd’s Bush Road, London W6.
Believe the hype: Kerbisher and Malt has confounded naysayers with its spankingly fresh, well-priced offerings. Everything is made fresh on site, apart from the ketchup.
(020-3556 0228; www.kerbisher.co.uk)
** This article was first published in Country Life magazine July 2 2014
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