When my wife Jo and her partner Sally were running their knitwear business from a shop in Clapham in the 1980s, next door was a fish and chip shop run by Fanos Theofanos, or Frank the Fish. His parents had emigrated to England in the sixties. They spoke no English, and lived in a self-imposed ghetto. Frank, on the other hand, despite flaunting his Greekness, was an honorary Brit. His assimilation encompassed even the cooking of our national dish. He was an excellent neighbour, able to offer a range of services, from a plate of chips to the harassment of one’s enemies, a kind, thoughtful and essentially decent version of Reggie Kray. Every day a battered saveloy (a battered saveloy! Heck!) was posted through the letterbox. Jo and Sally would peel off the batter and serve the saveloy to their dogs. An indelible greasy mark appeared on the carpet, which was a worry when posh clients – even occasionally royalty – visited to buy the upmarket knitwear.
Since that time, fish ‘n’ chips, that quintessentially English dish, has just about survived the onslaught of a thousand competing foods – hamburgers, pizza, fried chicken, curry, chow mien, pho, Cornish pasties, falafels, sushi… It has even survived its own miniaturization into poncey canapés.
It’s a difficult dish to get right – the freshness of the fish, the composition of the batter, the nature of the fat, the temperature of the fat, the age of the fat, the kind of potato, the size of the chips, the cooking of the chips. Personally I’m almost always disappointed – the idea is better than the reality; except in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, where having queued for several weeks you can eat your meal on the sea wall, and in Padstow, Cornwall, where you queue for several weeks just to get into the town. Since the town on the opposite side of the river is called Rock, surely Padstow should be renamed Rick, or perhaps St Rick (more Cornish).
Fish and chips a quintessentially English dish? Maybe not, actually. It testifies to the British ability to absorb an enormous range of foreign influences (Kevin Pietersen, the cappuccino, bhangra) while ferociously spitting out stuff that we’re suspicious of (Abu Qatada, Lithuanians). Peter Gabriel versus Nigel Farage. At the moment Nigel Farage seems to be winning the battle.
Fried fish is a Jewish dish, possible Sephardic, possibly Ashkenasi, brought to Britain by Portuguese immigrants in the early 19th century. The obvious similarity to Japanese tempura is surely a coincidence, since Japan was severely isolationist at that time. Chips are from Belgium. Tomato ketchup? It might appear to be 100% American, but it was one of a myriad of catsups that were an important part of the British middle classes in the 19th century. They were a means of preserving perishable ingredients – mushrooms, tomatoes, lemons, walnuts, oysters, anchovies – while concentrating the taste by prolonged cooking in sugar, vinegar and spices. HP Sauce and Lea and Perrins are part of this lineage. The sweet-sour method and the spices surely suggest origins in the Far East, a result of the British mercantile adventure of the 17th and 18th centuries. Tartare Sauce? French, of course. Mushy peas, pickled onions? Our own invention.
Cooking proper fish and chips at home seems out of the question; you really don’t want to be futzing around with a deep fat fryer. St Heston gives a recipe which probably tastes marvelous but takes about 12 hours of ferociously hard work, as well as an investment in several hundred pounds worth of kitchen equipment (usual problem). Cheaper to take the train to Padstow. So in our household we follow St Hugh with his pesky domestic version:
Make roast potatoes, cutting them as small and parboiling them as long as you dare, roasting them in what seems to be an unnecessarily large pan. Ten minutes from the end, make space in the pan and put in a few bay leaves (an excellent addition) and some fish fillets – sea bream works well here.
This is accompanied by a pea puree: cook the peas in boiling salted water, drain them, and then whizz them up with mint leaves, pepper, and as much butter as you can absorb without artery breakdown; and tartare sauce: for four people, make a mayonnaise with 2 egg yolks, a teaspoonful of Dijon mustard, a tablespoonful of white wine vinegar and 300ml oil – a mixture of groundnut and olive oil works well. Add a scant tablespoonful of chopped tarragon, and a tablespoonful each of chopped parsley, chopped capers and finely chopped gherkins.
Serve this wrapped in yesterday’s Daily Mail, so that you can eat while reading HATE PREACHER LEAVES TAXPAYER FUNDED LIFE IN BRITAIN. WE SAY GOOD RIDDANCE etc.