Fish and chips: a very British obsession

Last Friday, 4 September, was National Fish and Chips Day. Which, in my view, is a bit odd. After all, the combination of fried fish and chipped potatoes is – unofficially, at least – the UK’s national dish, an iconic part of our cultural heritage. Although they won’t win many Michelin stars, fish and chips are a British staple, a British obsession even. Surely, every day is Fish and Chips Day?

PHOTO CREDIT: Magda Glazewska (@magdag) via Unsplash

Of course, the people who declared 4 September to be National Fish and Chips Day had an agenda. The festivities were the brainchild of NEODA. Never heard of them? Neither had I, but a quick trawl on the internet reveals NEODA to be the National Edible Oil Distributors Association, a trade organisation representing “all the major refiners, key packers and distributors of edible oils.” So now you know…I expect you feel much better for that!

It’s easy to understand why the good folk at NEODA want to promote fish and chips, but frankly they’re pushing against an open door. The British love affair with the dish has been around for at least 150 years, and shows no sign of abating.

We need to talk about chips

Q: When are chips not chips? A: When they’re (French) fries.

To assist North American readers of this post, I need to explain that the food item we Brits call “chips” is referred to on your side of the Pond as “fries,” or maybe “French fries.” The snacks that you describe as “potato chips” are called “potato crisps” over here, because…well, because they’re made from potatoes and are kinda crisp. Confusing, eh? When George Bernard Shaw, the renowned early 20th century Irish playwright, observed that “England and America are two countries separated by a common language,” this was exactly the sort of nonsense he had in mind.

We Brits like to think of chips as quintessentially British. Wrong! Of course it was an Englishman, Sir Walter Raleigh, who first introduced potatoes – originating in South America – to northern Europe in the late 16th century. However it was the French who invented chips, pieces of potato around 1cm square, cut in varying lengths and deep-fried. The clue’s in the appellation French fries, although the Belgians claim it was they – and not their southern neighbours – who made the culinary breakthrough

By the beginning of the 19th century chips had made it across the English Channel and were being cooked and eaten in the UK. First published in 1817, William Kitchiner’s cookbook The Cook’s Oracle, includes the earliest known recipe for something similar to modern chips. However, fish and chips, the double-act that was to wow the nation, had yet to make an appearance

A marriage made in heaven

As an island nation, we Brits have always eaten a lot of fish. However, coating fish in a floury batter and then frying it in oil was unknown until the early 1800s. The practice appears to have been brought to Britain by Jewish immigrants from Spain and Portugal, where fish was traditionally cooked in this fashion. It soon caught on, and is mentioned in Charles Dickens’s 1839 novel Oliver Twist, which references a “fried fish warehouse.”

Frankie’s Fish and Chips, the UK’s most northerly chippy, sells fish ‘n” chips to eat in or take away. We ate in, and had an excellent meal!

The marriage between the feisty fish and the humble chip was consummated around 20 years after Oliver Twist was first published. Who should get the credit is hotly disputed, just another chapter in the interminable tussle for cultural supremacy between “the south” (aka London and its environs) and “the north” (aka anywhere up-country of Watford.)

Proponents of southern supremacy claim the first combined fish and chip shop was opened by a Jewish immigrant, Joseph Malin, in east London around 1860. However, northerners have their own hero, one John Lees, who is believed to have been selling fish and chips out of a wooden hut at Mossley market, near Manchester in industrial Lancashire, in 1863.

Regardless of who thought of it first, fish ‘n’ chips soon became a staple food item, particularly amongst the working class poor, for whom the meal constituted a welcome addition to normally bland diets. Shops selling fish and chips for customers to take away and eat elsewhere, often wrapped in old newspaper for extra convenience and cheapness, became known as chippies. They quickly spread across the length and breadth of the country, serving urban populations that grew rapidly as the Industrial Revolution took hold.

But the passion for fish ‘n’ chips was not confined to densely populated industrial settings. The craze spread to small country towns, and isolated rural settings too. Last year we had the pleasure of visiting Frankie’s, the UK’s most northerly chippy. Situated in the village of Brae on the main island of Shetland, which lies almost around 200 miles off the north-east coast of Scotland, Frankie’s maintains a reputation for high quality fish ‘n’ chips despite its very remote location.

The red spot (top right of inset map) shows location of Frankie’s!

By 1930 there were more than 35,000 chippies across the UK. Today, there are still 10,500, serving an estimated 382 million meals of fish ‘n’ chips every year. This is equivalent to six servings annually for every British man, woman and child. Almost a quarter of the UK population is believed to visit a chippy at least once a week.

With the arrival of chippies in towns and cities across the UK, the lives – and diets – of working people would never be quite the same again. These days, of course, they face stiff competition from other fast-food outlets, including those selling burgers, fried chicken, and Indian and Chinese takeaways. All have their place, and some may even outsell their older rival, but none is so deeply embedded in British culinary culture as good ol’ fish ‘n’ chips!

Choose your fish

The most popular fish sold in chippies is cod (around 62%), followed by haddock (around 25%). Others, seen less frequently, include hake, skate, plaice, sole and pollock. Several years ago George’s, our local chippy, briefly offered hoki, a fish found in the waters around New Zealand. They don’t sell hoki any more, which is probably no bad thing considering the monstrous carbon footprint each portion entailed.

Growing up in London in the 1960s, my fish of choice was rock salmon. Sounds grand, doesn’t it? But the name is marketing bullshit, an attempt by canny fishmongers to glamorise the patently unglamorous dogfish, or huss. I now live in the English midlands, and up here they don’t sell rock salmon. I don’t know whether to be impressed that the locals have seen through the promotional smokescreen, or appalled that they are denying me a much-loved childhood treat.

Condiments and accompaniments

Originally a meal of fish ‘n’ chips was served with no condiment or accompaniment other than a sprinkling of salt, but today just about anything goes. While the standard condiment remains salt and vinegar, popular alternatives include curry sauce and gravy. Tomato ketchup is also well liked by some, and was favoured by none other than John Lennon. In Edinburgh, however, a tangy brown sauce is preferred.

Moving on to accompaniments or side dishes, pickles of various types, including onions, gherkins and eggs, all have their fans. And then, of course, there are mushy peas.

What in god’s name, I hear you ask, are mushy peas? Well, put it this way. Imagine dissolving Shrek, the Incredible Hulk, Kermit the Frog and a sack full of oversized, bullet-hard marrowfat peas in a seething vat of acid, and mixing the resultant pulp with a bucket-load of fermented goose droppings. Got the picture? Well, mushy peas are worse than that. They are the devil’s work.

Mushy peas

PHOTO CREDIT: “Mushy peas” by Simon Lieschke is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Found mostly in more northerly parts of the country, mushy peas are an acquired taste that this Londoner-by-birth could never be bothered to acquire. It seems to me that anyone liking them must be just a little bit odd…on which point I should add that Michael Jackson is reputed to have adored mushy peas. I rest my case.

And while we’re exploring the darkest recesses of culinary good taste, perhaps I should mention the Deep Fried Mars Bar. In the UK Mars is a divinely decadent chocolate bar consisting of nougat and caramel covered in milk chocolate (the US version is rather different). “Naughty but nice” sums it up perfectly. In 1995 a Scottish chippy, encouraged by a pair of customers who were clearly chancing their luck, experimented with coating a Mars Bar in batter and then deep frying it.

The trial was pronounced a success (nobody died!) and pretty soon Deep Fried Mars Bars were on sale in chippies throughout Scotland, although whether anyone actually eats them alongside fish ‘n’ chips is unclear. I confess I’ve never tried one myself: life’s too short, and mine would probably be a damned sight shorter if I indulged in stuff like that.

Celebrating National Fish and Chips Day

It would have been churlish of us not to celebrate National Fish and Chips Day, so Mrs P did the decent thing and went online early Friday morning to place an order. I drove into town at lunchtime to collect the heavenly treat, and minutes later we were tucking into a feast of cod and chips, delicately seasoned with a sprinkling of salt and a splash of vinegar.

And not a mushy pea or deep fried Mars Bar in sight!

Why can’t every day be Pancake Day?

Yesterday was Pancake Day. Mrs P and I share the cooking duties at Platypus Towers, but when it comes to pancakes I know my place: I’m a scoffer, not a tosser. Unsurprisingly Mrs P’s pancakes were faultless, and we made short work of them. But now the party’s over it will be months – and quite possibly a whole year – before we have pancakes again. And that’s the problem, isn’t it, with designating just one day per year as Pancake Day? It implies that on the following 364 days (or 365 in 2020, and other leap years) pancakes should be regarded as strictly off-limits.

Pancakes With Strawberry, Blueberries, and Maple Syrup

PHOTO CREDIT: Sidney Troxell via Pexels

For the uninitiated, in England a pancake is a thin, flat cake, made from batter and fried in a frying pan. When one side is cooked the pancake is tossed with a deft flick of the wrist. If the cook is lucky it will land back in the pan, uncooked side down; however if fortune is not smiling, the pancake will end up on the floor, or stuck to the ceiling. A traditional English pancake is very thin and is served coated with lemon or orange juice and caster sugar, or maybe golden syrup.

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The origin of Pancake Day is religious. The day in question is Shrove Tuesday, immediately preceding the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday. In the Christian calendar Lent is a 40 day period of abstinence, when believers are required to give up some of life’s pleasures. Eggs, butter and fat were all on the hit list, and turning them into mouth-watering pancakes on the day before Lent began ensured they did not go to waste.

There is also said to be religious significance in the key ingredients of pancakes. The white milk that loosens the pancake’s batter is seen by some to symbolise purity, while the eggs represent creation and salt stands for wholesomeness. According to this reading the flour symbolises the staff of life, the dietary staple upon which we all rely.

In the USA, France and Germany the day before the start of Lent is known as Mardi Gras. This translates as “Fat Tuesday”, an allusion to the excesses and festivities that are enjoyed on this particular day, before the deprivations of Lent take hold.

tray of hotcakes

PHOTO CREDIT: Mae Mu via Unsplash

Today the connection between Christianity and Pancake Day is rarely acknowledged, and the practice of giving things up for Lent has largely disappeared. However the advance of secularism has done nothing to undermine the habit of bingeing on pancakes one Tuesday in either February or March, exactly 47 days before Easter Sunday.

In a few places in the UK, Pancake Day is celebrated by the holding of a pancake race, which involves herds of eccentrics dashing frantically through the streets, each of them clutching a frying pan in which they toss a cooked pancake. The tradition is said to date from 1445, and results in the lanes of some English villages briefly becoming clogged with more than the usual number of lycra-clad tossers. However the disruption is tolerated with good humour as everyone knows that afterwards pancakes will be off the menu for around 12 months.

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In the USA, however, they do it differently. Pancakes are a big deal in the Big Apple, and everywhere else too. Every day is Pancake Day in the good old US of A.

In the same way that American and Brits are no more than distant cousins these days, their pancakes are also very different. The version from the other side of The Pond is fluffy rather than flat, using self-raising flour or baking power to get a rise from the batter. In the USA pancakes are traditionally served in a stack, accompanied by a little jug of maple syrup and, if it takes your fancy, with a few rashers of crispy bacon on the side.

And, joy of joys, Americans have pancakes for breakfast.

I remember vividly our first encounter with a “short stack” of American pancakes. The previous evening we’d flown into Rapid City via Minneapolis, and had spent the night in a grotty motel that numbered cockroaches amongst its other guests. The next morning we staggered into the adjacent diner, with expectations at an all time low.

pancakes on palte

PHOTO CREDIT: Luke Pennystan via Unsplash

It was a modest diner, as befitting its location on the outskirts of a memorably unmemorable city. And yet, to our amazement, they were serving pancakes. Now at the time I was just an innocent English guy, a first time visitor to the States, and the prospect of eating something so deliciously, decadently sweet that early in the day had me transfixed. America is amazing, I thought to myself. Americans are amazing. They play by different rules here. I love this country.

The menu sported a fabulous photo of a stack of pancakes, topped off with summer fruits and wallowing in an ocean of maple syrup. They looked irresistible, so I did the honourable thing and resolutely refused to resist them.

And thus began my love affair with pancakes for breakfast. In the years that followed I’ve visited the USA more than 20 times, and have rarely been tempted to try anything else. OK, I will confess that once or twice I’ve fallen under the spell of the sultry southern temptress that is biscuits and gravy, but pancakes are my first love, my only true love in the crazy world of American breakfasts.

So here’s my question, the big one, the puzzle that’s got me beat. If the USA can do it, why the hell can’t we? Here, in England, why can’t every day be Pancake Day?

An English tradition: the joy of Afternoon Tea

“Well,” demands Mrs P testily, “am I getting flowers on Valentines Day or not?” Discomfited, I hastily review my options. Do I try schmoozing her, something like my darling, there aren’t enough flowers in the world to convey the depth of my love for you? Or should I try appealing to her environmental conscience, pointing out the horrendous carbon footprint that inevitably results from the sale of masses of fresh cut flowers in England in the middle of February? Or do I simply tell it as it is, that while I love her more than anything and am quite fond of roses too, the grossly inflated prices around Valentine’s Day are an affront to common decency and my sense of fair play?

I’m weighing up which response will give me the best chance of still being alive at Easter when my wonderful wife lets me off the hook. “If you are,” she says, “then don’t bother. I suggest we go out for Afternoon Tea instead. I’ve spotted a patisserie on King Street that looks promising.”

So there we have it: I get to live another day and to fill my face with delicious cakes. I’d like to put it on record here that Mrs P is a very special person.

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Afternoon Tea is also very special. We Brits have invented all kinds of brilliant stuff over the years: the steam locomotive, television, stiff upper lips, penicillin and orderly queuing in line to name just a few. To this list I’m proud to add the quintessentially English tradition of Afternoon Tea, a plate stand of dainty sandwiches, pastries, scones with lashings of jam (preserves) and clotted cream, and assorted cakes, all served in the mid to late afternoon with a steaming pot of Indian or Sri Lankan tea.

All traditions have to begin at some point, and Afternoon Tea can be dated to around 1840. Wealthy English folk had been drinking tea since the 1660s when the habit was popularised by King Charles II, who probably needed regular caffeine hits to help him keep up with his numerous comely mistresses. However it wasn’t until early in Queen Victoria’s reign that the idea of Afternoon Tea reared its head.

Unsurprisingly the practice can be traced back to members of the aristocracy, who had plenty of time on their hands, money to burn and servants to do all the hard graft.

Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, lived in a household where the evening meal was traditionally served at 8pm. Finding herself feeling inconveniently peckish during the late afternoon our Anna instructed her staff to prepare a tray of tea, bread and butter, and cake, at around 4pm every day. The good Duchess was well pleased with her initiative, and invited her friends round so she could show off her new domestic routine.

Pretty soon Afternoon Tea was all the rage amongst the upper classes. Amazingly, in the days before Facebook, people networked by physically spending time in one another’s company (strange but true!), and what could be better than to combine meeting with eating?

Ordinary people, in other words the very men and women whose hard graft made, heated and maintained the scented bubble baths in which the likes of the Duchess and her cronies wallowed, were untouched by the new fad. In Victorian England everyone knew their place, and the common folk knew that Afternoon Tea wasn’t for the likes of them.

Fortunately times have changed, and the once sturdy walls of the British class system have begun to crumble. It therefore feels like poetic justice that while the Duke of Bedford finds it necessary to open up his stately mansion to tours by the Great Unwashed, anyone in England can now enjoy a fabulous Afternoon Tea regardless of their ancestry or social standing.

Indeed in recent years there’s been a noticeable revival in this quaint tradition. All manner of catering establishments and hostelries now offer Afternoon Tea to anyone with a few pounds and an hour or two to spare.

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Of course the content of Afternoon Tea has evolved over time, but a reincarnated Duchess Anna would doubtless recognise and hopefully approve of most modern re-workings of her early Victorian innovation. Beaurepaire Patisserie has certainly taken the concept to the next level, and we opted for the full works, starting with a plate stand of savouries which comprised a tiny glass of delicious soup, a filled baby Yorkshire pud and some quiche as well as the inevitable sandwiches.

When the savouries had been demolished it was on to the sweetmeats, a plate stand groaning under the weight of cakes, scones and pastries. There was also a glass of Eton Mess, a glorious confection of strawberries, meringue, and whipped Chantilly cream. We were in heaven, but also in danger of exploding. So, stuffed to the gunnels and awash with countless cups of tea, we called for a box to take home the remainder of our fare, to be consumed later in the day once space became available.

Afternoon Tea proved to be a terrific way to celebrate Valentines Day. It may not last as long as flowers, but who needs daffodils and dahlias when you can instead spend a couple of hours being divinely decadent?

So, wherever you are now, step forward and take a bow Anna, seventh Duchess of Bedford. We, and other lovers of Afternoon Tea from up and down this sceptered isle, are forever in your debt.