i feel like a priest
in a fish & chip queue
as the vinegar runs through
how nice it would be
to buy a supper for two.
Vinegar by Roger McGough
As English as fish and chips is one of those phrases that trips easily off the tongue but which doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny. White fish, typically cod or haddock, fried in a thin coat of flour, was a favourite with Jewish refugees who cooked it on Friday nights to prepare for the Sabbath. Apparently the batter preserved the fish without sacrificing too much flavour, and it could be eaten cold the following day.
Seeing a commercial potential they began selling fried fish to Catholics so they could meet their own religious obligations on a Friday, but then it caught on with the rest of the population and soon fish prepared ‘in the Jewish Manner’ was available on the streets of London throughout the week.
The fish was usually sold by street sellers from large trays hung round their necks. Charles Dickens refers to an early fish shop or “fried fish warehouse” in Oliver Twist (1839) where the fish often came with bread or sometimes baked potatoes but the marriage with chips didn’t happen till the mid nineteenth century.
It’s difficult to pick through the muddle of completing claims, but it seems likely that the first commercially available deep fried chips were sold on Oldham Market by ‘Granny’ Duce. The blue plaque in the market (left) puts the date around 1860.
Just when fish and chips were combined is not really clear. Two often mentioned candidates for the first shops are in the early 1860s. Maybe it was Joseph Malins in London. Or perhaps it was John Lee, recorded in 1863 as selling fish and chips out of a wooden hut in the market at Mossley near Oldham. So he possibly got the idea from Granny Duce. But it’s just as likely that lots of people came up with the same idea at roughly the same time.
What we can say for certain is that by 1910 there were more than 25,000 fish and chip shops across the country, a number which had risen to over 35,000 by the 1930s. (And no, I don’t know who went round counting them).
In The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) George Orwell speculated that the pleasures of fish and chips that helped keep the masses happy and ‘averted revolution’. Presumably they would be too full of food to go out protesting on the streets. Apparently there are still around 10,500 fish and chip shops in the UK, with Indian restaurants coming a close second with 9,000 outlets.
The dish has become a staple on pub menus these days. It’s becoming rare to see a London pub without a sign outside boasting that it serves the best fish and chips in town. I’m briefly tempted to order it for lunch when I see it on a pub menu . But these days my relationship with that dish is best summed up with the phrase ‘I like them but they don’t like me’. The fish is always too big, there are too many chips, and it’s all too greasy for an ageing digestion. That aside, I know that they will never live up to my Proustian memories of fish and chip suppers of times past.
One of my earliest encounters with fish and chips was probably on family visits to Hereford where both both my parents were born and my dad’s mother and mum’s parents still lived. There was a traditional chippy about ten minutes walk away, and on at least evening while we were there a large bundle wrapped in newspaper would be brought into the kitchen
Wrapping fish and chips just in newspaper fell foul of health and safety watchdogs in the 1980s, though I’m pretty sure that long before the food was first covered with greaseproof paper before encasing it in newspaper. But do I really remember the taste? I remember the smell of the vinegar, but mostly I remember the anticipation.
When I was at Manchester University in the late sixties, I lived in digs in the suburb of Withington with two other students. Our landlady provided breakfast and dinner but that wasn’t always enough. The evening walk back from our post-dinner pub visit passed what we regarded as the finest chippy in Manchester. I wish I could recall the shop’s name, but the batter was crisp, the fish succulent, and the fresh-cut chips always thick and hot. I’m sure it was all delicious because many times we decided to soak up the evening’s beer with a helping of fish and chips.
I can’t remember indigestion in those days. Except for one evening when we decided to go back for another helping. About halfway through that second course we understood that – whatever anybody says – you can have too much of a good thing.
About ten years ago on an autumn visit to Cromer in Norfolk we bought fish and chips from a seafront chippy, and sat on a bench eating them with our fingers. I do still clearly remember the taste of that particular alfresco meal which was as good as I suppose all those earlier experiences probably were. And perhaps there’s a reason for that.
Back in 2011 Charles Spence, a professor of experimental psychology at Oxford University, made it official. Fish and chips are tastier when eaten at the seaside! Apparently the ‘ambient sound’ of crashing waves improves the flavour. So I suppose the message is not to eat them while the tide is out.
The growing thrust towards plant-based food has of course produced its own version of this classic ‘English’ dish. Pictured above is a plate of ‘tofish and chips’. I first saw this advertised in a shop in north London. The Stoke Newington branch of Sutton and Sons, one of the area’s most popular fish and chip shop chains – here offers only vegan versions of burgers and pies and battered Tofish.
You can find lots of different recipes online. Essentially, though, tofish is made out of pieces of tofu wrapped in nori ( thin seaweed sheets used in sushi) which apparently adds a fish-like flavour. Then it’s coated and pan-fried in a light vegan batter (which could be made with beer or cider).
While it doesn’t have the consistency of fish it certainly looks reasonably like the real thing. SInce I haven’t yet tried this I can’t say what it tastes like, but I’ll update this post when I know more about it.
But to get back to the real thing. It seems you don’t actually have to dwell in nostalgia over the golden age of fish and chip shops. It sounds to me that Fryer Tuck’s establishment up there in the northern fastness of Barnard Castle still produces the kind of meal that kept Britain going during the war. (At least they did in 2014 when this YouTube video was made).