Chase reporter ANTONY CLAY considers a popular delicacy that has remained a national favourite for over a century
IF anyone had to suggest a national dish for the UK it might very well be that perennial favourite fish and chips.
People have loved eating either cod or haddock in batter alongside chips for many years.
Whether at the seaside or for Saturday lunch at home, the dish is adored by young and old alike.
In fact it holds such an important place in our national psyche that there is an even a National Fish and Chip Day.
Whether you eat your fish and chips wrapped in paper or in a plastic container on the street, sat at home around the table or even in a restaurant, there really is nothing batter (pardon the pun!).
While other foods have gone in and out of favour, people have remained loyal to fish and chips since the first chippy opened way back in 1860 – that’s a staggering 160 years ago.
People fondly remember going to the chip shop, perhaps for Saturday dinner, maybe asking for a few ‘scraps’ to be included.
You could smell the batter on the air, hear the fizzle and sizzle as the fish was fried, then carry your wrapped up goodies away.
And the great thing is that the experience hasn’t really changed.
Years ago the fish and chips were often wrapped in old newspaper. Indeed there was one tale in West Yorkshire of an enterprising paper boy selling his entire stock of free papers that he was supposed to deliver each week to a local fish and chip shop.
The use of newspaper has declined, mainly for hygiene reasons, but the meal is still wrapped in paper and so has the same tactile experience which is so important.
There is some debate about where fish and chips began. Was it the north or the south?
Whilst a fried fish warehouse is mentioned in Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist, the people of both Lancashire and London had been enjoying fried fish for many years.
But putting fried fish together with chips happened as far back as the 1860s.
The first fish and chip shop in the north of England is believed to have started life in Mossley, which is near Oldham in Lancashire, in 1863.
But London claims that there was a fish and chip shop on Cleveland Street in the capital in 1860.
The first fish and chip shops were small family businesses, many actually run from the front rooms of houses.
The trade expanded as the population of the country grew and fish and chips became ever more popular, particularly in industrial areas.
The development of the steam trawler meant that fish could be caught from further afield and in greater quantities and the consumption of fish and chips rocketed.
Indeed, it is said that one fish and chip shop in Bradford was so popular that is had to employ a doorman to keep the queues in check.
According to the National Federation of Fish Friers, the British consumed nearly 300 million servings of fish and chips in 1999 – that is six servings for every man, woman and child in the country.
It is estimated that ten per cent of the potato crop of the UK goes to fish and chip shops.
It is said that during the D-Day landings, British soldiers managed to identify each other by calling out “fish”, to which the correct response was “chips”.
During the war, the Government made sure that fish and chips were never rationed because they provided a cheap and nutritious food source for a hungry population.
There was also probably an element of trying to keep alive some sense of traditional British life – and what could be more traditional than fish and chips?
Ofcourse, many fishermen had been called up and there were transport restrictions so fish and chips may not have been available as widely as in peace time.
Back in the day fish and chip shops were pretty much the only fast food outlets around. Nowadays they have to compete with burger joints, fried chicken providers and much more, but interestingly they are still holding their own.
Figures show that amongst the older members of the population, fish and chip remains a regular ritual although the young are less loyal.
While the fact that what the fish and chips are fried in may well have moved from an animal source to a vegetable one, the essentials are still the same.
There are some variations, such as fishcakes which vary in their nature around the country, and ofcourse the opportunity to add mushy peas to the mix.
Salt and vinegar are also pretty much essential extras to add to the fish and chips.
There are go-getting fish and chip shops these days that offer curry or even gravy though these are probably an acquired taste.
Many of us like to rough it and eat our fish and chips ‘open’, perhaps sat on a park bench, with our mates on a street corner, or sharing a bag with a loved one in a fishy-smelling romantic moment.
But if you are at the seaside enjoying a bag of fish and chips, be warned. Pushy seagulls have learnt that our fast food is also fast food for them. They can divebomb and grab the grub before you know what has literally hit you.
Cod and haddock are the most popular fish to be used by fish and chip shops, though cod shortages in recent years have been a problem.
Other fish used include whiting, plaice, sea bass, hake, pollack, coley and lemon sole. Other options such as skate have turned up on occasion.
Chefs have done their best to fancy up most of our dishes with new ingredients and swashes of colourful sauces splurged on the side, but fish and chips have resisted most of the attempts at culinary modernity. And that is exactly what the consumers like: a bit of the old world in the modern.
So next time you munch on your fish and chips remember that you are keeping alive a grand tradition dating back many, many years.
Victorian folk enjoyed their bag of fish and chips just as much as you do now.