The amazing history of fish and chips
The first Friday in June is National Fish and Chip day, but how much do you know about this traditional British dish?
Fish Friday, a chippy tea, fish 'n' chips. An important part in the fabric of British life, and this Friday, 5 June 2020, it is National Fish and Chip Day. It rolls around on the first Friday of June, every year, but where does this dish come from? And how did it become such an iconic part of English cuisine?
Are you sitting comfortably?
Arguably like a great many British dishes, Fish and Chips can trace its roots back to foreign lands, and typically alien traditions. Around the early 16th Century, Jewish migrants crossed over from Holland. These Western Sephardic Jews likely originated from Spain and Portugal and brought with them a novel method of cooking fish; Pescado Frito, the art of covering fish in flour and frying it in oil. It was a typical dish served for Friday Night Dinner, Shabbat, and would often be eaten cold the next day as well.
In Oliver Twist, published in 1838, the author Charles Dickens mentions the "fried fish warehouses". A little later in 1845, cook and writer Alexis Soyer in his first edition of A Shilling Cookery for the People, gave us the recipe "Fried fish, Jewish fashion", which is fish that is dipped in a batter of flour and water and then fried. That covers the fish bit, but what about the second half of this dish?
Chip chop, we've got a lot of history to cover
Chips have just as interesting a back story and a well-debated one at that. Oh, and before we get cracking, a short note to any American readers; what I'm on about here are what you'd call "fries". Nonetheless, chunked potato that has been cooked in oil originates from either northern France or Belgium. And this is where the arguments begin. I personally side on them being a Flemish dish, but we'll get to that shortly.
A manuscript from 1781, written in the Meuse Valley mentions the poor in the area frying fish in oil (nothing new), but when the rivers would freeze over in the winter they would turn to cutting potatoes into the shape of fish and frying them in a like manner. The Meuse Valley at that time was in an area described as "The Spanish Netherlands", better known today as Belgium. So that's probably our earliest mention of chips, and I stand by the Belgians as it being their invention.
If we go back to our friend Charles Dickens and yet another of his rambling tomes, we find a reference to chips in A Tale of Two Cities; "husky chips of potato, fried with some reluctant drops of oil" (Dickens, C. 1859). Which means that chips as we know them existed in Britain for quite sometime before the Great War kicked off and muddied up the origins of this foodstuff.
Then war came along and rather ruined things, as it tends to. And from it stems the argument between chips being either French or Belgian. This comes from the fact that the Belgians did most of the catering during World War One. Belgian forces were trying to cater to the British forces' love for potatoes and were serving out copious portions of batons of potato fried in oil. Or, chips basically.
The confusion of this dish being French likely stems from French being the operating language of the Belgian Army, aided by confusion as to where in northern Europe a soldier could be at any one point in time. Especially given that by the latter stages of the war it was just one muddy quagmire. Military history aside, a lot of Belgian cuisine was engulfed by French cooking, or to use this brilliant phrase: French gastronomic hegemony. Confused by language, geography and the American forces being unwilling to stand corrected having immediately started calling them "French Fries" in a brilliant simplification of a situation only the Americans can achieve, the origin of the chip was soon as muddy as the sod the potatoes they are formed from grow in.
Add to this the Olde-English verb "to french" which means "to cut lengthwise" which serves only to confuse things further. Anyhow...
A chippy tea at home with a cold beer and some peas.
When two become one
So now we have fish being fried, and batons of potato being fried in a similar way. But when were the two put together in a cookery combination of celebrity? The furthering development of the railways throughout the industrial revolution in the 1800s and beyond saw quicker means of transporting fish across the country and bringing it to the masses of middle England. Trains paired with increased trawling meant that fish was becoming more and more common. And the pairing of the two likely arose around the late 1800s. And again we need to take a peep at war's impact on this dish. According to Professor John Walton, author of Fish and Chips and the British Working Class, the British government made safeguarding supplies of fish and chips during World War I a priority. To quote: "The cabinet knew it was vital to keep families on the home front in good heart, unlike the German regime that failed to keep its people well-fed."
"I'm headin' down the chippy"
But what of the humble chippy? The Chip Shop? The fish and chip shop. A fishery. Once again, dates relating to the birth of these establishments are thin on the ground and early shops were noted as being rudimentary vats of oil, heated over coals. The first chip shop stood on the present site of Oldham's Tommyfield Market, but details are hazy. A Jewish immigrant, Joseph Malin, opened the first recorded combined fish-and-chip shop in London in 1860. The trade spread to the north of the country when a Mr Lees pioneered the concept in Mossley, in 1863. And then comes probably the best-known chain of chip-shops.
1928 saw Ramsden open the first of his chip shops, located in Guiseley, West Yorkshire. In George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier, effectively Orwell's autobiography, he documents his experience of working-class life in the north of England and considers fish and chips to be top among the 'home comforts' of the working classes. A unifying bridge among the communities of that class, regardless of profession or location. Back at Ramsden's on a single day in 1952, the shop served 10,000 portions of fish and chips, earning itself a place in the Guinness Book of Records. But it was still a takeaway establishment. Seating and a restaurant atmosphere were not to be found in chip shops until much later.
And naturally, in our story, we must remark again on war and its impact on fish and chips, or rather, in this case, the lack of impact. While the Great War was a crucial building block for the prowess of the humble chip, by the time the world was squaring up for a rematch, fish and chips were an established part of the English diet and heavily interwoven into the fabric of life here on this funny island. In fact, fish and chips were so crucial to our existence it wasn't rationed, and Winston Churchill referred to them as "the good companions".
This is the plaice!
But what about restaurants? A sit down chippy? When did they crop up? Well for those we have a chap called Samuel Isaacs to thank. His first restaurant opened in London in 1896 serving fish and chips, bread and butter, and tea for ninepence, and its popularity ensured a rapid expansion of the chain. All that for ninepence is actually very good value. Translated to modern money that's £5.02 which for a full slap-up meal is a brilliant price. The restaurants were carpeted, had table service, tablecloths, flowers, china and cutlery, and made the trappings of upmarket dining affordable to the working classes for the first time.
They were located in London, Clacton, Brighton, Ramsgate, Margate and various other seaside resorts in the south of England. Menus were expanded in the early 20th century to include meat dishes and other variations as their popularity grew to a total of thirty restaurants. Sam Isaacs' trademark was the phrase "This is the Plaice", combined with a picture of the punned-upon fish in question.
Yeah, I just went through the pictures on my phone to find ones of fish and chips for this. And there's scraps in the back of shot!
More options than you can shake a chip at
Hopefully, now we're all up to speed we can have a look at what makes up this dish. Which sounds obvious, battered fish, and some chips. But it isn't that simple. What batter? What do you fry it in? What fish? Scraps? What sauce? What toppings? So many choices!
We'll start with the batter. A typical batter is one made of flour, water, a pinch of bicarbonate of soda and a bit of vinegar. The acetic acid in the vinegar reacts with the bicarb to give bubbles to the batter and thus makes it lighter and airier, as well as crisper, giving you a less stodgy dish. Beer batter is also common with the gassy beer offering much the same result, and giving a brighter golden orange colour. Generally, a beer to flour batter is 3:2 by volume. Although beer choice can also vary, and gives different results.
The frying medium of choice also varies. Traditionally it was done in lard or dripping, and some places still use lard for the flavour that it imparts to the dish. A shout out here to the Black Country Living Museum who still use lard when cooking theirs. More common these days is a vegetable, palm or rapeseed oil, favoured for their accessibility to those with dietary requirements or religious diets. It also has a lower smoke point so is easier to work with.
The fish choice is yet another variable and often argued over. I prefer haddock for its meatier, fishier taste. Many others prefer cod as it's lighter. But a whole host of other white fish like pollock, hake, coley, rock salmon, skate are used too.
Then there's the debacle of toppings and dressings. Salt, vinegar, or if you're from Scotland: 'sauce' (brown sauce basically). And speaking of sauce, there's curry sauce, tomato sauce or tartar sauce. You can't forget mushy peas, or even baked beans in some places. And then scraps. Or bits if you're from the south of England, and scrumps if you are in south Wales. Then do you get a pickled egg, a gherkin (wally), or a pickled onion?
Which pretty much covers Fish and Chips. Why not take our polls below and let us know in the comments where the best fish and chips you've ever had was.